ADHA and the Keys to Motivation

Motivation! What an abstract concept. Most of us struggle to motivate ourselves through our own daily “to do” list.But when […]

Motivation! What an abstract concept. Most of us struggle to motivate ourselves through our own daily “to do” list.But when the teacher starts telling you, “your child’s so smart-she could get better grades if only she’d try” or “he has a real attitude problem” . . . it seems like our responsibility as parents to “motivate” our kids too.

Unfortunately, our best efforts at motivating others often come out simply as “nagging.” And no one wants a child who is angry, depressed or dissolved in tears with cries of “I’m just too stupid” or “it’s too boring.”

So how do we turn this around and understand the core of motivating kids who are struggling with ADHD, before their self esteem ends up in a nose-dive?

Just this past week I was talking with a Mom who was frustrated with her son’s teachers because none of them seemed to care and they weren’t “motivated” to help him. Here’s the explanation I offered for her consideration:

“I know it feels like the teachers don’t care, but the reality may be that they are in survival mode. When you know you can’t make a situation better, human nature tells you to, “get out of the situation as quickly as possible with as few scars as possible.” For teachers this may translate into withdrawing. Seeing your son every day will hurt if they feel like they are failing him. But if they label your son as a behavior problem or trouble maker who is choosing to fail, then they don’t have to feel like they failed as a teacher.”

Even as I wrote that paragraph I thought, “I bet her son would understand that feeling.” How many kids with ADHD are in survival mode; just trying to make it through the constant struggle of school with as few scars as possible.

Can you hear their thought process?

• If I don’t make eye contact, maybe the teacher won’t call on me.

• If I don’t turn in the assignment, I won’t get back a paper full of big red check marks that make me feel bad.

• If I don’t ask extra questions I may not understand the assignment, but at least the other kids won’t call me “stupid.”

• If I act up and don’t try, then I don’t have to admit (to myself or anyone else) that I tried and failed.

Your child with ADHD wants to succeed just as much as you want him/her too. They just don’t believe it’s possible, and sometimes physically, it’s not- without some help. But there are some keys that can unlock this problem.

Motivation Key #1
Set Up a Success System

Kids with ADHD tend to be experiential learners. So far they have experienced frustration, failure, and defeat. What they have learned is that “trying harder” doesn’t help. It just makes failure more painful. The point? Don’t expect success in an environment built for failure.

You and your child’s teacher have to actively work at creating a classroom where he/she can learn successfully. The two most common motivation problems in the classroom for kids with ADHD tend to be boredom or overwhelm. Look at the situations where your child is withdrawing into sullen silence or active rebellion.

Once you have identified the problem, it’s much easier to solve. Either by reducing environmental distractions or working with your child’s teacher to incorporate more challenging or more interactive learning tasks.

For practical classroom accommodation ideas, check out:

Motivation Key #2
Stand in Their Shoes

If you want your child to behave and respond differently then you need to understand and respect their feelings and INVOLVE them in finding or creating solutions that they aren’t embarrassed to use and that they truly believe will make a difference.

For a little insight into your child’s thinking, I recommend the article, “12 Things High School Students with ADD/ADHD Would Like Their Teachers (and parents) To Know”

To make a long term impact on your child’s classroom motivation, encourage her teacher to spend a few minutes each day just talking to your child about anything but school. Not only will their relationship improve, but your child’s desire to please them should increase and the teacher will gain insights into your child and his interests that will help them interact more successfully and plan lessons more individualized to your child.

Motivation Key #3
Find an Island

No, not for you to run away to; this paradise is for your child to experience.

T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. puts it this way, “One of the most helpful things you can do is to appreciate your child for exactly who he is. If he’s shy, don’t push him to be outgoing. If she’s active, don’t insist that she sit quietly. Reinforce your child for the things she CAN do rather than emphasizing those he can’t. Look for “islands of excellence”, pursuits your child enjoys and is good at and then let her know how proud you are.”

That is your child’s “island of excellence.” What is their passion: Art, Karate, Dance, Computers?

Remember that experiential learner I talked about-your child needs to experience success. A child who recognizes his own unique gifts and has “tasted success” will have the self esteem to work harder at things that are more of a struggle.

Things at school aren’t likely to turn around over night. It will take persistence and some trial and error to get “your system of support” just right. In the meantime, these activities can be the key to offering your child joy, increased self esteem, and the chance to see increased effort result in real success. All of which builds that internal motivation both of you are searching for! n

Lisa Simmons is the director of the Ideal Lives Project, “Connecting Advocates with Answers” at, a Web site that provides information on advocacy and inclusion written specifically for parents. Subscribe to her free E-zine, The Ideal Lives Express, for more great tips like these and empower yourself!

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