Among the most frequent questions asked by students with ADHD and their parents is, “Why is it so hard for me (them) to get to the important things that have to be done?” They often know they are in trouble but do not know why. We hear many derogatory declarations regarding laziness, not seeming to care, hard to get started, hard to finish, and most frequently, working far below potential!
The following is important information for parents, students, teachers and others about the issue of motivation and productivity. These difficulties look motivational but in fact they are neurological, and can be much better addressed with strategies once the challenge and difficulties are better understood.
The most important "treatment" for those with ADHD is understanding why motivation is hard and what to do about it.
People with ADHD actually do not have difficulty with motivation. Look at how they behave, think and organize things that are of high interest to them. Some are up early on Saturday mornings and have difficulty stopping playing a videogame and learning everything they can about it. We often observe over-focus, indicating that those with ADHD may stay with high-interest tasks longer than those without ADHD. Sometimes this confuses people as to why kids that are diagnosed with ADHD are diagnosed that way, considering how over-attentive they tend to be with high-interest tasks.
Therefore, what is the issue about motivation with low-interest tasks such as homework, chores, responsibilities, etc.? Why do kids with attention deficit appear so unmotivated and require so much external motivation, such as yelling, conflict, and behaviors that neither parent nor child want but seemingly can't avoid? I’ve spoken with parents who say, "I'm just not the person that I feel like I am when I'm so mad and disappointed that my child won't move unless I'm yelling at them for things they need to get done around the house."
The understanding is rather simple and the solutions are simple too, although maintaining consistency is crucial and can be difficult for both parent and child.
All humans “get” the things that they are interested in more readily than things that they are not interested in. There is one major difference with a person with ADHD. People with ADHD cannot feel the consequences of their decisions IN THE MOMENT. They usually know the consequences. Just ask, “What is going to happen if you do not do your homework, or your chores, or your room?” So why don't people move and be motivated with that knowledge? Because they do not feel the consequences like those without ADHD. People without ADHD feel the consequences in the moment. They don’t just know them but also feel the anxiety, apprehension, etc., of what will happen if they are not performed in a timely fashion. Therefore, without those of us without ADHD actually initiate, persist and produce to reduce anxiety or the feelings of the consequences. For those of us with ADHD, we do not feel the consequences even though we know them. So the most common response to multiple requests to move is generally, "I have plenty of time, I can do it later, why are you yelling at me?” The responses do not necessarily indicate that they do not want to get things done. They indicate that they do not feel the consequences, so they do not feel the pressure, so they do not move like those of us who do feel the consequences. Therefore, we parents remind and remind because we know that if our kids don’t get started there will be problems.
So once you understand that this apparent motivational problem is not intentional, willful or careless, you can begin to appreciate how difficult it is for your child to get started, continue and complete tasks that are of low interest. Interestingly enough, it is just as hard for people with ADHD to stop doing something of high interest as it is to get started on things of low interest.
What can we do to help bring the consequences into the moment when movement is necessary?
1. Make less interesting tasks more interesting. Setting up rewards does exactly that. Pair high-interest (rewards) with low-interest (starting tasks) to create a "system of rewards." You can see on our website an example of how to set one up. This is referred to as the old grandmother or grandfather principal. If you do this, you’ll get that. Work before rewards (low-interest before high-interest).
2. Set up a competing challenge with him/her using a bit of a David and Goliath model (we refer to this as Cognitive Discrepancy Therapy, which will be discussed more thoroughly in an upcoming blog). For example, you have a youngster give the “ADHD Adversary” a name. It could be Goliath, Darth Vader, Spinach, or anything they view as a challenge for them. This can be fun between parent and child. The child attributes their self-statements to that character or object. So it’s Darth Vader who’s saying, “In a minute, I got plenty of time, one more thing, etc.” The parent’s response is “The best way to fight Darth is to do it now! Don’t let Darth get to you, see if you can prevail. It may be tough but every time you win you develop mental muscle.” In this example, nothing is stated about the consequences because these kids do not get those in the same way that we do. However, giving them a challenge in the moment can be very helpful to them in understanding how Darth can try to prevent them from starting something uninteresting or from breaking away from something very interesting. The competitive way of saying, “Don’t let Darth beat you!”
3. Proximity, consistency, familiarity. If you understand that your child is not moving because they don’t feel the consequences, then one way to destress conflict is to come closer in proximity to your child, still using same volume of voice, but without the anger or frustration that numerous requests often come to. In other words, you are acting loud without being upset. Then both you and the student can laugh about it afterwards because it was a strategy that you know was needed to help them get started.
These approaches come from understanding that the child is not intentionally having trouble moving or being motivated, but it is the nature of their difficulty and they need your help to move. The more consistent you are with these methods, the more mental muscle is developed in the child, lessening conflict, and in the end the child is able to act more motivated.
Remember that having ADHD is a REGULATION deficit not an ATTENTION deficit. With high-interest there is over-attention and with low-interest there is under-attention. People do not have a lot of control over that. Therefore, by definition they need control help from the outside, which can create conflict. By understanding ADHD and implementing helpful strategies, conflict and stress can be reduced, motivation to get moving can be increased, and the home or classroom is a happier place and so is the child, who really does not want to have these difficulties.
It's also good to remember that following their school years there are infinite choices, if their self-esteem remains intact, to be as productive if not more productive than those without ADHD.