ADHD and Motivation

Why rewards and consequences don’t work, and what does

How is that positive reinforcement plan working out for your ADHD student? The incredible color printed laminated one you found on TPT or Pinterest. How long did it work for your students with ADHD? 

We all know that an engaged class is a well-behaved class. Learning can not happen without engagement. Many teachers spend significant time and effort creating elaborate engagement and motivation strategies to set their learners up for success. Unfortunately, most teachers are unaware of why these commonly successful strategies are not working for kids with ADHD. 

Without understanding, teachers and parents become frustrated and assume that the child” doesn’t care, doesn’t want to learn and needs to try harder.” 

Rewards, incentives, punishment, and “natural” consequences are not as effective to the ADHD brain as they are to children without ADHD. Students with ADHD are usually fully aware of the importance, the implications, and the rewards for “good” behavior dangling just in front of them. Yet, they continue to be disengaged, distracted, and off task, making those motivating “carrots” eternally out of reach. Teachers and caregivers of children with ADHD need to understand the “brain” they are working with to motivate it. 

A neurotypical child is successfully motivated by rewards and consequences because they have an “importance-based nervous system.” They usually become alert and engaged by the future notion of completing a task to gain a reward, avoid a consequence or achieve something deemed important by them or someone they respect. In the typical” importance-based” nervous system, neurons that release dopamine activate when we expect to receive a reward. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, communicates with brain cells and encourages them to act in a certain way, influencing our attention, motivation, and movement. 

People with ADHD have an “interest-based nervous system, “a term coined by Dr. William Dodson, a psychiatrist specializing in ADHD. Unlike the importance/priority-based nervous system, Dodson explains that dopamine is released only when the brain senses one of the following four criteria. 

  • Novelty 
  • Interest
  • Challenge
  • Extreme Urgency 

Due to dopamine regulation problems within the nervous system, the reward center behaves differently. When the ADHD brain perceives a task/event/requirement as “NICE” ( novel, interesting, challenging, or highly urgent), the brain will release dopamine in par with the neurotypical brain allowing the person to engage with less difficulty. 

” N.I.C.E.” Engagement

Novelty: New, shiny, and different will spark curiosity. That curiosity grabs at the part of the nervous system that is constantly monitoring the environment for change. The human brain learns quickly when faced with change or unexpected stimulus. Too much routine lowers the brain’s interest and engagement while it searches for something of interest elsewhere.

The use of novelty does not require extraordinary acts of differentiation on the teacher’s part. Instead, small changes in parts of a more routine task can be the spark they need. Reframing how you present the assignment can do the trick.

For example:

” Let’s practice our spelling words” can be presented as…..

” Let’s use these smelly markers to practice our spelling “

or even better…

“Get ready for smelly spelling!”.

Add small bits of novelty to the instructional content, process, or product by: 

  • Adding humor or irony 
  • Providing a hook to each lesson in the form of a story, game, or question gets students excited to figure out a problem
  • Wearing a strange hat or accessory that sparks curiosity
  • ​Use music​ to catch the interest and prepare the minds of learners
  • Add movement to stimulate focus and interest.
  • Change seating ( sit under a desk, on the desk, straddling a chair, sit on the floor)
  • Adding a visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic element to a lesson 
  • Using catchphrases that learners find clever can set the brain in motion 

Interest: Let’s face it, most students are not inherently interested in the curriculum. Even your best student did not wake up today excited to learn the difference between a verb and an adjective. However, knowing and using the special interests of your ADHD kids can be a game changer. Adding elements of personal interest to a topic, task, or project is intellectually stimulating and intriguing enough to trigger genuine curiosity or a desire to learn more or solve a problem. 

Adding elements of interest to the content can look like this: 

  • Adding a provocative question or mystery to the onset of the lesson 
  • Providing a hook to each task in the form of a story, game, or question gets students excited to figure out a problem
  • Using technology 
  • Adding a popular character to a worksheet 
  • Using writing prompt around personal interests 
  • Changing the tools used for an assignment 

Challenge: Presenting a lesson as a challenge or competition can increase dopamine production for the student as long as it is a” just right” challenge. If the work is too easy, it is understimulating. On the other hand, work that is perceived as too hard] is overstimulating and defeating, and they will give up. 

Presenting a task to a child who is under-engaged as” oh, this one is a challenge” alerts them or a slightly provocative …. “You can’t do that?” will often be the motivator some need to dive into a task and prove the other person wrong

To increase the “just right challenge,” try:

  • Gamifying lessons with technology 
  • Race the clock, level up, and “beat your best record” are very motivating and engaging strategies. 
  • Use quick quizzes to create excitement and active involvement
  • Timing tasks that could be rote and boring

Extreme Urgency: Students with ADHD typically have delayed development of time awareness and being able to envision the future. They have difficulty judging and processing the passing of time. ADHD brains operate in two different time zones “Now and not now.” These kids need deadlines, accurate and imminent deadlines, and they need them NOW. Students with ADHD need the actual flood of EXTREME urgency to get the dopamine flowing and engage. Rewards systems often fail because the reward is too far off in the “Not Now” Zone. 

Without time-bound check-ins, we frequently see 30 minutes of a child struggling to get started, getting in trouble for distracting their peers, and then rushing through it in the last 5 minutes or worse, the first 5 minutes of recess. This cycle perpetuates the stigma that” they can do it if they want to” for both the teacher and child. We can proactively give them that sense of urgency without destroying their self-image by building urgency into the assignment. 

Building Urgency looks like this: 

  • Breaking apart long-term projects with multiple due dates and deadlines. 
  • Breaking apart small classroom tasks with time-bound check-ins and urgent deadlines
  • Adding a visual timer to a task so the student can see the passing of time 

All the students in the class will be motivated by a lesson or activity that is” NICE” ( novel, interesting, challenging, or extremely urgent), but your ADHD kiddos depend on it. Knowing exactly how the brain we are working with operates removes the negative intent bias towards these students. Disengagement is not willful disobedience.
Using motivation and engagement strategies that we know work for the interest-based nervous system will increase learning, improve classroom behavior, improve classroom management and help to prevent lifelong academic underachievement for children with ADHD.
When we understand why something doesn’t work, we can save our teachers time and energy and help them to create an intervention that will work.