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Helping your ADHD child be successful

Bleeding Heart photo with Color Splash
Bleeding Heart photo with Color Splash
Vicki Davey

By Vicki S. Davey, M.A., M.Ed.

Kids with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are probably the most misunderstood children of all. We know and understand our own children who are ADHD and so, are patient with them; the problem is that the rest of the world does not understand, or stop to recognize the gifts and talents these children have. All the world sees is a kid who has trouble sitting still, focusing, listening, and staying out of trouble. This population of children is among my favorite to work with, because I “get” them – and you can get them too.

These kids cannot help what they are doing, and they do not know how to stop it. They often feel stupid because they cannot pay attention long enough to understand what we are trying to teach them. They continually get in trouble for doing things they think are funny – but you do not. These children and adolescents often end up being diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or labeled with Anger Management issues because they become so frustrated from being misunderstood and always being in trouble that they need to let off steam somehow, and their choices are almost never acceptable to the adults around them. Adults in their world become frustrated with them and rather than looking at them with a positive lens, they become disgruntled with the child and fall into bad habits of negativity instead. These kids do not understand why no one “gets” them, and even though they are trying their hardest to "be good" -- we often cannot see (because of our own frustration) that our approval is their goal.

When we can see the humor in the less serious behaviors these children and adolescents exhibit (as in “choosing our battles”), we will gain their trust and cooperation. Through showing patience, trying to understand their humor, and demonstrating kindness and respect toward them, they will be more likely to respect us and try to comply when they know we mean business.

How do we do that? Here are some suggestions that work in the classroom, on outings, at events or functions, and even at home:

1. Catch them being good, and give them praise for those desired behaviors you observe. Sometimes we have to ignore some of the less offensive behaviors in order to give positive feedback. This strategy will gain you big points with them, and may take you far.

They will know it when you like them, and they will like you in return. When they like you, they will try hard to do their best for you. When they know you’re on their side, they will be on your side. Appeal to their intelligence, their gifts, and their talents, and they will learn to trust you. Be genuine in what you say because if you’re faking it, they will know in an instant.

2. When you are annoyed with an ADHD child (whether or not they are your own), try hard to find something that you can praise them for -- even if it is very small. You will be surprised at the change in their demeanor and attitude when they realize you are praising them instead of constantly redirecting or nagging them.

3. Encourage your children and adolescents by telling them they are smart, talented, or good at something you see them working at. Help them realize that they are good kids – making sure you mean what you say. Watch your words and actions because these kids are highly intelligent and they will know when you are sincere, and when you are pulling their chain.

4. Practice seeing the good in them rather than being annoyed by the pet peeves they have learned will push your buttons – because they will try to push every button you have. Small rewards of positive attention (instead of constant nagging) will get them on your side, and before you know it they will be trying their hardest to earn more of your positive attention and praise (even if what you are seeing is not your definition of best efforts). Keep things in perspective for each child, because they each have different needs and are unique individuals.

5. Find the humor in what they are doing, even if you don’t get it at first. ADHD kids usually have a great sense of humor and can be very funny. Because they are so often publicly disciplined, classmates may distance themselves from these kids. Being the class clown is often their only way of gaining approval with their peers, and it is okay for us to laugh with them once in a while to help them save face.

As a teacher I often observed adults who would become angry and oppositional with their ADHD students rather than trying to see the funny side of what was going on. Some adults become exasperated and (often without meaning to) nag, punish, berate, demean, and publicly embarrass these kids on a continual basis. Believe it or not, your nagging is a form of attention – albeit negative attention – and attention is what they crave from you. Positive attention or negative attention does not matter to them. Because ADHD kids often feel so inferior to all the “smart” kids, any attention they can get will suffice.

If someone gets off track and “misbehaves” make sure you speak to them quietly and privately so they do not lose face in front of their peers. They will feel that you are respecting them, and will respect you in turn.

6. Allow short movement breaks. Be creative and give them “jobs” to do that will expel some of their excess energy – send them on an errand, even if it’s a fake one that will get them up and moving with a purpose. These children cannot be expected to sit for 90 minute periods in the classroom and be silent, pay attention, and complete assignments. They just cannot. They need to move. They need to stretch. They need a way to let off some steam so they can refocus themselves and be productive. When they are productive, they gain confidence and pride – and in turn, they want to feel more of those good feelings. You can help them do that.

Make deals such as, “If you can work for 15 minutes without getting off track, I will give you a five minute play break” (this applies to activities at home, in school, or anywhere they need to attend to completing a task). You may have to adjust your expectations and begin with shorter amounts of time as you begin “training” them to stay on-task, perhaps only 10-15 minutes at first and over time build up to 20 minutes (or even 30-45 minutes for more mature adolescents). By building in the reward of a short break your child or student will expel their excess energy, appreciate you for recognizing their effort and rewarding them for it, and then return to their work refreshed and refocused for another work period.

Sometimes when there is the expectation of a longer work period, such as 90-120 minutes for high-schoolers, you might give them a longer reward of game time at the end of the period (along with the short movement breaks). The longer they have to sit, the more you will see them fidget. It is important that you pay attention to their body language and observe their stage of physical agitation so you can catch them being good before they lose their focus. Sometimes you may need to adjust the amount of work-time expectancy so they can be successful in short spurts. Success is the key. Help them be successful!

Remember that any amount of waiting time can seem like an eternity to a kid with ADHD. To help them be successful with their tasks and keep them going toward their reward, be sure give time reminders and encouragement. Count it down for them: “You have 10 more minutes until our break. Keep up the good work!” or, “You guys are doing great-- only ten minutes until your break.” “Only five more minutes!” “Two more minutes!”

**Note: Because these children and adolescents tend to tune-out voices of authority, one strategy is to change the timber of your voice or even sing-out the time when you make these announcements. You can even make a game of it with an expected response from them so you will know they hear you.

7. When kids are excited they get loud, especially kids with ADHD! To get the attention of a group: ring a bell; sing a phrase from a song that they can finish or respond to; clap your hands in a short catchy rhythm that they can repeat back; or even shout out something like "FREEZE!" Then use a quiet voice for your next directive. When they yell -- you whisper. De-escalate whatever is going on in a positive way so as to capture their energy and redirect it for continued productivity.

8. Match expectations with rewards, and match both with the age group you’re working with. Be proactive and remind the children or adolescents that if they become too loud or rowdy, they will have to stop early. Allow them to earn special rewards (such as a popcorn party – making sure there are no food allergies) by having a marble jar and allowing the child you "caught being good” to go up and add a marble to the jar. When they reach the marked level/goal, they earn their reward. If they are having a particularly hard day, they may also lose marbles with the reminder that they can earn them back. If they lose too many marbles, they may become frustrated and no longer “care” about the reward (at least in front of their peers).

Rewards I have used as a teacher included having a small basketball hoop hanging on the back of my door. When the expected work period was over (starting small and gradually increasing), I would pull out a small soft basketball and allow them to take turns making shots – sometimes keeping score. I kept a store of hackey-sack balls in my desk and would allow the students to form a circle and play for ten minutes. I had a stash of waded up paper balls (that had been bound for recycling) in one of my desk drawers and occasionally (at the end of a work period) I might secretly start a “war” of paper balls. That surprised and delighted the students every single time… especially when they did not know who started it – well, not at first anyway. When you do fun things that are a surprise for these amazing children, they see that you have a sense of humor, and that you like to play. Playing with them will always be a winning point for you -- their teacher, their parent, or their care-giver.

During reward time, it is very important to use your count-down strategy here too! If you suddenly say that reward time is over, you will have a mutiny on your hands. Stay involved with the kids, encourage them, and give reminders of how much time is left – even if those reminders happen every two minutes. You can also say something like “everyone has two more turns.” This is important because when they are playing, awareness of time might not make sense to them.

Some reminders of what NOT to do:

a. Never say “okay?” at the end of your sentence because when you do that, you are giving the child the option of saying “No.” What happens then? You are frustrated, angry, argumentative, or perhaps even begin bargaining – with a child. You are the adult. You set the expectations and the boundaries. Simply say “Please go do ____.” Use short, concise directives, requests, or demands that leave no room for argument or negotiation.

b. Do not give too many directives at one time – only one, or maybe two tasks at a time work best. Some children are able to follow directions such as “Go upstairs and wash your face, brush your hair, get dressed, and make your bed – then we will have breakfast.” Not these kids. They get upstairs look into the bathroom mirror and get distracted because their is hair sticking up, so they start making funny faces in the mirror; or, they may see a toy on the floor and sit down to play with it. Give them one thing to do at a time, and after a few minutes call out “How are you doing up there?” or “Is your face clean yet?” or "How does your bed look now?" This way you are trusting them to follow your directions, giving them prompts for success, and teaching them independence. When they have finished with the one or two tasks you have given, offer praise and then give them their next task.

c. Do not make idle threats that you have no intention of enforcing, because that will put you in a ditch faster than anything. If you say you are going to give a time-out, be sure to follow through. If you say you are going to turn off the TV, do it! If you tell your child that you are going to take away electronics for a week, you had better follow through or you will never be taken seriously and will have a tornado on your hands when your kids hit pre-pubescence and adolescence.

Once we have enforced something such as grounding, or taking away electronics, we know our kids are going to complain and be angry. One strategy to offset this might be to offer chores as a way to earn things back – but put a limit on what you offer. For instance: “If you can go for two days and keep a good attitude toward me without complaining or griping as you keep up with your homework and chores, I will take one day off of your grounding. Then you will be at six days instead of seven." Once they make it there, you can offer the same deal again, and your kid may begin to feel as if you are working as a team to lower the punishment. However, if they continue griping at you, one thing I have done that has been very successful is to offer them a choice such as: “Well, you are grounded without electronics for one week and your punishment matches your offense" (i.e. lying about homework, getting bad grades, or staying out too late -- but do not say this last part out loud). Then, go on to say, "You can keep that one week punishment; or, if you want to keep griping at me we can always add a another week onto that. It’s your choice. Should I add another week?” Well, need I say more? Of course they will never choose to add another week! But you offered them a choice, so you gave them some power – even if the choices were not appealing. If they complain more or become disrespectful or belligerent (which is normal for teenagers), simply say "Shall we make it three weeks? I can keep going if you want me to. It is all up to you and your attitude toward me." NOTE: Do not allow them to suck you into an argument or debate. You are the adult and parent. You make the rules, period.

There will be trial and error with any kid, but especially with those who have ADHD because every one is different. Experiment. Build a toolbox of strategies to try with them, and when one thing does not work, tweak it and try something else. Back off, take a breath, and come at it from a different angle, with a new perspective. Your response and delivery will make all the difference in how these children and adolescents respond back to you. These kids are looking for reactions. If you respond to them as a person rather than reacting to their behaviors, you will win every time – even if it takes a few tries. When these kids are acting out, remind them that you like them, but you do not like the behaviors you are seeing at that moment.

Be proactive and you will find success. ADHD children and adolescents are talented, artistic, and are often far more intelligent than most of us give them credit for. Tell them when they are doing well, encourage them, show them that you care about them and that you believe they can be successful. They only want your approval – even when it does not seem like it.

One last thought is for all of you parents to remember that you are not alone. You sometimes feel overwhelmed, at your wits end, and exhausted with all you do and deal with day-in and day-out. Check with your local schools, churches, or community centers and find a support group where you can connect with other parents who are experiencing the same challenges as you are. In order to take good care of someone else, you need the opportunity to be rested and refreshed, so remember to take quality time for yourselves, and make time to be with your significant other or good friends. Your health and peace of mind are important, and you need (and deserve) loving-care too.