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Top five incentives for children with ADHD

Managing a child’s ADHD and promoting positive behaviours is a huge challenge for parents and teachers. One strategy that is often overlooked is the use of ‘incentives’. Some parents tell me that they’re uncomfortable with the idea of incentives, as they see it as a form of bribery. It’s important to note that incentives, when implemented properly, are not bribery but rather a tool to motivate and reinforce desired behaviours. This is particularly so when it comes to children with ADHD. By understanding why children with ADHD respond well to incentives, we can effectively harness their motivation and improve their behaviour from day to day.

Why are incentives so effective?

Immediate Rewards: Children with ADHD often struggle with delayed gratification due to difficulties with impulse control and regulating their emotions. Incentives provide an immediate reward, creating a direct connection between their efforts and the desired outcome. This instant feedback helps reinforce positive behaviours, making it more likely for them to be repeated in the future.

Boosting Dopamine Levels: Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation and reward processing, which plays a crucial role for ADHDers. Children with ADHD typically have lower levels of dopamine, which can affect their ability to sustain attention and remain focussed. Incentives act as an external source of motivation, triggering a release of dopamine and helping to bridge the gap caused by lower natural levels. This dopamine boost can enhance a child's focus, engagement, and overall performance of a given task.

Goal-Oriented Focus: Incentives can also provide children with ADHD a clear goal to strive for, allowing them to direct their attention and efforts to specific tasks. The presence of an incentive helps establish a sense of purpose and direction, reducing distractions and increasing their commitment to completing the task at hand. This goal-oriented focus not only promotes productivity but also instills a sense of accomplishment, boosting their self-esteem and confidence.

Structure and Predictability: Children with ADHD often struggle with transitions, unpredictability, and maintaining routines. Incentive systems offer a structured framework that helps create predictability and consistency. By establishing clear expectations and rules, incentives provide a sense of stability and make tasks more manageable. This structured approach is more likely to reduce anxiety and uncertainty, allowing children with ADHD to better navigate their daily responsibilities.

Which incentives are most effective for ADHD?

Below is a list of possible incentives you can consider for your child with ADHD. Bear in mind that the effectiveness of these may vary depending on the age and interests of the child.

  1. Implement a token economy system where children earn tokens or stars for completing tasks or demonstrating desired behaviours. These tokens can be exchanged for privileges, small rewards, or special activities. There’s a really helpful app called Stellkey that can facilitate this.

  2. Offer incentives related to your child’s specific interests or hobbies. This is because ADHDers have an interest-based nervous system. Some possible examples include: extra time for computer games, art supplies, a trip to the zoo, horse riding, or even a delicious treat! One child I used to work with received a can of Coke Zero for each day he completed his morning to-do list.

  3. Grant privileges or additional responsibilities as incentives. By offering your child opportunities to take on added responsibilities, parents can tap into their sense of autonomy and self-worth, while fostering a greater sense of accountability. This could include choosing a family activity, having a later bedtime, helping out in the garden, looking after a pet, or even preparing dinner for the family.

  4. For younger children, you can identify and reward positive social interactions, such as sharing, turn taking, or being polite to others. Possible social rewards can include allowing your child to host a sleepover or perhaps taking some of your child’s friends out to a restaurant.

  5. Use screens to your advantage (computer games or a favourite TV show) as an incentive for completing homework or chores on a given evening. Set clear guidelines to ensure the child understands what's on offer. Some parents offer more time on weekends, however, an incentive like screen time is more effective as an immediate reward. A child is going to be less motivated if they have to wait a few days for the fruit of their labours.

Incentives are highly effective for motivating and engaging ADHDers. By providing immediate rewards, dopamine and added predictability, incentives can help address the unique challenges faced by so many parents. When implemented effectively and with consistency, incentives can make a huge difference to both you and your child’s life.

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