Conditioning Kids With ADHD to Behave (7 Strategies That Work!)

Besides dyslexia, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (or ADHD), along with other externalising disorders, is the next most common learning difficulty among children and youths in Singapore, affecting nearly 5% (Singapore Med J, 2007) of our primary school students. On average, that’s about 2 students in every class. This means that larger class sizes are harder for schoolteachers to manage, as all it takes is one cheeky, impulsive student to disrupt the flow of the lesson. How can specialist caregivers, parents and guardians help to make the child less impulsive and more compliant?

DID YOU KNOW: students with ADHD can be conditioned

Over the past 5 years, I’ve had many students with ADHD (over 20% of them). ADHD wasn’t the only problem they had. Some were on the autism spectrum, some had non-verbal learning difficulties, and all of them had dyslexia.

The really interesting part about all of this?

Besides the fact that half of this group are doing exceptionally well in school (better than their peers without learning difficulties), all of them had gotten their ADHD under control to some degree, without being reliant on medication.

Let me repeat that again: without being reliant on medication.

How did they manage to achieve this?

What students with ADHD need

There are a lot of research theories that try to explain why students with ADHD are constantly fidgeting or losing attention. The Davis Dyslexia method explains it with  disorientations and perceptual distortions, while general research rationalises it with neurological patterns (e.g. dopamine levels) and genes.

Regardless of what you believe in, many youths with ADHD share common symptoms. They can be impulsive, inattentive, drift off easily, and/or experience emotional dysregulation. In some extreme cases, they can be rude and exhibit deviant behaviour. These are symptoms that often get in the way of the child’s learning. However, the child can be conditioned so that he/she can: a) recognise inappropriate behaviour before it surfaces, and b) adapt to situations that are made difficult by ADHD.

Below are seven helpful strategies that I use to condition my students with ADHD.

1. Make your child personally invested in what you are saying

Students with ADHD often have a hard time listening to instructions that do not catch their attention immediately. This is because they do not have a vested interest in what is taking place. Compare these two sentences:

#1: “I want you to do your homework now!”

vs

#2: “You’ve been doing a great job with your homework. I appreciate it. Can we take that one up and complete the essay too? We can spend some quality time together after that.”

What is the main difference between #1 and #2?

I’ll let you think about it for a minute.

Done?

You might have noticed #1 being direct and clear. However, it discourages the child from being personally invested in the task itself. It is a demand.

On the other hand, #2 is direct, clear, and encourages the child to take responsibility for his own learning process. They know that they’re being recognised for good work. More importantly, when you ask a question with “can”, you’re grabbing the child’s attention; when you use the pronoun “we’, you’re putting yourself on the same level as the child, which is something they’ll appreciate in the long run.

2. Appeal to the child

Appeal to your child and rationalise about their behaviour with him/her. In time, they will learn to condition themselves to adopt the appropriate behaviour.

People don’t like to be embarrassed in front of their peers. In fact, in Singapore, we often say that we don’t want to ‘lose face’, or ‘lao kui’ (in Hokkien).

Children and teenagers with ADHD feel the same way too.

Use this to your advantage. When dealing with youths who are acting up (e.g. prancing all over the place), take them aside and tell them why it’s “not cool”. Explain how they’re being perceived when they engage in deviant behaviour. If their deviant behaviour is triggered by a problem (e.g. teasing from peers), give them a variety of solutions in which they can resolve this without acting up.

In fact, I had a student with ADHD, for whom this solution had worked beautifully. He used to mingle with bad company and get into trouble outside of school, but over time, under my tutelage, he developed this ‘mental muscle’ and realised he could look even more suave by just shrugging his shoulders, smiling, and walking away.

Appeal to your child and rationalise their behaviour with them. In time, they will learn to condition themselves to adopt the appropriate behaviour.

3. Acknowledge and praise good deeds

Praising a child

I have a really interesting story involving a boy with ADHD and ODD. This took place a few years back. He wasn’t my student, but he was well-known for all the wrong reasons: he would smile gleefully when faced with punishment, and would misbehave on a near-weekly basis. I would have jumped at the opportunity to take him under my wing, were it not for the fact that I already had a class at that time slot.

One day, he stood by the door to the learning centre, waiting for his guardian to pick him up. A pre-schooler was heading out towards the door, in his direction. He stepped aside to let the pre-schooler through, but the pre-schooler couldn’t open it. He didn’t have the strength.

So what do you think the boy did?

That’s right, he actually opened the door for the pre-schooler and held it there for him. I looked at the boy and said, “T, that’s a really awesome thing you did there! Thank you for helping to open the door.”

He actually blushed.

BLUSHED!

Here was the boy who people thought was a troublemaker, feeling prideful in that little moment. Although he didn’t express it in words, his body language said it all: he was happy that someone had recognised his good deed.

Adults are often quick to jump on bad behaviour, but fail to acknowledge when the child does a good deed. It’s a very unfortunate thing that reinforces bad behaviour, because kids will soon realise that acting up is the only way to get the adult’s attention.

Instead, praise your child more often when you see him/her doing something good. According to researchers from UB, this heightens the child’s motivation and drives him/her to do better. Keep up with positive reinforcement, and in the long run, you will reap its fruits.

Adults are often quick to jump on bad behaviour, but fail to acknowledge when the child does a good deed. It’s a very unfortunate thing that reinforces bad behaviour, because kids will soon realise that acting up is the only way to get the adult’s attention.

4. Identify your child’s non-verbal cues

Children have different ways of showing their emotions, and those with ADHD are no different. Some will not look you in the eyes while you praise them (initially), while others will actually fidget even more while you discipline them. Often, we make the wrong assumptions about their body language, and this may worsen the problem.

Here’s a trick I use to help myself gauge my student’s body language. Rather than analysing their non-verbal cues in that moment, do a comparison with the ‘before‘ and ‘after‘, and ask yourself why there’s this change. For example, let’s say a minute ago, your child was making eye contact with you. A minute later, you say something to discipline him, he frowns and his eyes break away from yours.

Now ask yourself: why did he do that? Was it defiance? Or perhaps it was guilt? Should you then continue to discipline him? Or should you quickly change the tone of your voice? This technique has helped me to perfectly manage my classroom, ADHD or no. I suppose that’s why my students often feel that I’m more like a big brother to them than a teacher. Heh 🙂

5. Engage your child in a meaningful hobby

Children playing board games
Source: Kansas State University Research and Extension

Finding a meaningful hobby for your child is a good way to get him/her to develop positive traits. This doesn’t have to be sports—I have a few clients who initially assumed that children with ADHD automatically gravitated towards sports. Instead, it can be anything that sparks your child’s interest, from painting to chess to reading.

(Yes, I have students with ADHD who love reading.)

Having them be engaged in a meaningful hobby helps in a few ways. Firstly, it keeps them occupied, and helps burn off that excess energy. It also brings out the child’s magical ability to be hyperfocused. Secondly, it is a productive use of the child’s time. Kids learn a lot from their hobbies. Soccer and basketball, for example, teach teamwork and coordination. Tabletop games like chess teach planning and organisation. Art teaches fine motor skills like hand-eye coordination.

There’s a lot for a child to benefit from having a go-to meaningful hobby. Find one for them. Better yet, explore and dive into the options together. It’s the perfect opportunity for family bonding.

6. Alternate your volume when speaking

The last thing you want to do is be in a shouting match with your child. Instead, I’ve found it better to speak with a softer tone at times. This works too even when you’re disciplining your child.

First of all, by lowering your volume, you’re forcing your child to strain his/her ears. This actually forces them to pay more attention to the details of what you’re saying. Secondly, you’re conveying that you don’t have to raise your volume to make yourself heard. This is a good practice to model, as children are a reflection of the adults around them.

7. Make life fun

Dad doing household chore and making it fun

Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes. It helps to make things interesting, especially for kids with ADHD. On a long, monotonous car journey? Do a carpool karaoke session! Having trouble getting your child to do boring household chores? Put up some music and turn it into a game of “Freeze!” when the music stops.

By making typically mundane activities fun, you will create positive mental associations for the child. This helps them to develop a positive attitude, which in turn makes it easier for you to set up a routine that they can stick to.

Of course, it requires the supervising adult to be proactive, and that can be draining for some. However, in my experience, once the child is accustomed to a routine, they will be able to find a way to make it fun for themselves, or at least tolerable.

Conditioning ADHD so that we can embrace its qualities

adhd no medication
Source: Clker

ADHD medication (e.g. Concerta, Ritalin) has its time and place, especially during school hours. However,  it also interferes with their natural neurotransmitters, and (from experience) the child may suffer from side effects such as headaches and lethargy. As my therapy sessions begin after school hours, students who had taken ADHD medication in the morning would have had the effects worn off. Despite the fact that the classes are conducted when these students are not on a second dose of medication, I’ve never had a problem with their behaviours.

THAT is because after a period of conditioning, they are able to self-regulate.

What else can caregivers and parents do?

Manage expectations, be consistent with consequences, and be patient. The journey is not going to be easy, but the end result will be worth it. In doing so, the qualities of ADHD, like hyperfocusing on important matters, will begin to shine. It will also help your child to naturally integrate better into society when they join the workforce in future.

Swords & Stationery uses these techniques (and more) to help our learners overcome various learning challenges. Contact us today if you’d like to know more about ADHD, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date on more exciting tips, solutions and strategies, to help children with learning difficulties like ADHD, dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Conduct Disorder.

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun

...is a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.
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