All parents struggle with getting their kids to do chores or homework, but with kids with ADHD, it’s a different battle. Children with ADHD are neurologically wired and have difficulty starting and completing tasks. They often struggle with executive functioning, a family of mental skills that includes the ability to plan, conceptualize, and implement goals. All of this means that doing everyday tasks like homework and chores, and even getting up for school, can become major challenges for some children, and major points of conflict between them and their parents.
This does not mean walking the path alone. For kids (and adults) with ADHD, sometimes getting things done can be as easy as reframing the process by using management and motivational styles that fit their needs and are more suited to their way of thinking. While the same strategies won’t work for everyone, these seven tips are a great place to start to figure out the right setting for your child’s ADHD.
1. A little understanding goes a long way
Meet your child where they are and really listen to what they have to say. Try to figure out what’s getting in the way when a child becomes disinterested or unable to initiate an activity or task. ADHD and anxiety often go hand in hand, and if they’re long and difficult, assignments can seem overwhelming or cause some discomfort (like those dreaded teacher assignments). Once you know what obstacles your child is facing, you will be better prepared to find ways to overcome them. Yes, boredom is one of those obstacles.
2. Break down big goals
Staying focused and motivated for long periods of time can be difficult for kids with ADHD—it’s like trying to remember your place in a book, so they won’t stop turning the pages. Many projects can be broken down into discrete parts, and writing them down on paper or the board frees up brain space and encourages your child to focus on one step at a time, says Cary Heller, Psych.D. , a psychologist in Maryland who specializes in childhood and adolescent ADHD. Try to find a way to help your child relax between each step.
3. Encourage daily life
“Structure is really important,” says Heller. Small routines, such as a meal before homework followed by a homework reminder after school, can help create a familiar flow of activity that eliminates the need to expend mental energy planning difficult tasks.
Knowing when the activity changes is a huge boon for the ADHD brain, which can easily become fixated and difficult to redirect. “For example, if a child is reading for fun or playing some kind of game, suddenly parents wonder, ‘It’s time to do homework.’‘ “They may yell or react a little more violently, not because they really don’t want to, but because they’re having trouble paying attention,” says Heller. If the rule is that playtime stops at 5:00 p.m., it’s probably less of a fight to skip that event every day.
4. Set reminders
When it comes to ADHD, organization is key. Fortunately, there is no shortage of tools for parents and children to achieve this. For older kids with smartphones, using reminders and calendar apps to break down tasks into to-dos and deadlines is just a matter of habit-building. For parents of young children, or those who don’t want their children to rely on a screen to manage their schedules, smart home devices can act as silent virtual assistants for even the smallest of children. Heller says she uses her Amazon Echo so much to set reminders that her son started listing his tasks on the device when he was 4. For a tech-free option, paper planners can be a great help for older kids – some are even made specifically for people with ADHD. The best warning system for your child, Heller says, is whichever one they use.
5. Add rewards
It’s a job well done that we all want—something to look forward to. There is good evidence that the dopamine reward pathway—the part of the brain that makes you feel good about achieving something—is disrupted in people with ADHD, leading to a lack of intrinsic motivation. Fortunately, for children under 12, there is evidence that an external reward or something to look forward to improves task performance.
For larger projects, Heller recommends sprinkling rewards along the way. Which reward will vary from child to child, but options like a favorite meal or quality time with a parent will be a hit in his office.
Of course, your child should be quiet at school. But you don’t need to be so strict at home. Heller swears by the “get angry to improve focus” strategy. Turn your child’s desk into the most fun home office in the house, with an under-desk elliptical, balance board, or even a simple standing desk setup—find out what clicks for them. Even something as simple as pacing the room while reading can help engage some children with ADHD.
7. Remember: You are there to lead
Helping your child manage ADHD is all about “parenting for independence,” says Heller. She encourages parents to develop strategies that their children and teens can use themselves as adults, rather than strategies that require constant parental involvement. Modeling certain routines and behaviors for young children can be a big push in the right direction.