Reward systems are an incredibly effective way to help kids and teens with ADHD change their behaviors. Because of the unique wiring of ADHD brains, rewards are especially motivating.
Because ADHD brains are under-stimulated, they need excitement and rewards to get them to engage. In other words, if something is not exciting or doesn’t involve something pleasurable, your child’s ADHD brain is just not going to be very interested.
However, there is a simple way to get their brains to show interest. Effective reward systems give their brains something they want or something exciting.
It is vitally important to understand that our kids with ADHD are not purposely being difficult by not wanting to do boring things. It is how the ADHD brain is wired. Understanding this will help you be open to working with your kid’s brain rather than against it.
Reward system basics: Identify what motivates your child
Before putting a reward system in place, take some time to think about the things that motivate and excite your child.
It doesn’t really matter what it is, but you can tell what they are because your kid will never give you any grief about them.
- More time playing video games
- Going to bed later
- Not having to do chores
- Extra screen time
- Extra money to buy clothes or toys
- Choosing which restaurant to eat at on a weekend
- Having friends over for a sleepover
- Choosing a theme park day out
- Picking ice cream flavors or other treats
Reward system basics: Identify areas that need change
Identify areas where you want your child’s behavior to change. This should be pretty easy! This is anything you have trouble getting your child to do.
From schoolwork to brushing their teeth to tidying their room.
Choose one area to focus on at a time.
Important parts of effective reward systems
- The reward system needs to be consistent. Don’t make the reward something that isn’t easily given regularly. So for example, vacations or trips to Disneyland may not want to be on the list of rewards or save them for a long-term reward. More on this below.
- Everybody involved needs to understand the reward system. Anybody who is involved in keeping the system needs to understand what the expectations are and what the rewards are. This includes parents, grandparents, and any other person who may be responsible for enforcing the system.
- There should be short-term goals and long-term goals. Kids with ADHD will be bored if there’s no reward within a week.
- There needs to be an extra reward for long-term success. Kids will get bored if they do something for 7 days straight and there’s no reward for maintaining that long.
- The expectations and rewards of the system need to be presented visually. Remember that kids with ADHD aren’t able to hold these kinds of information in their heads. They will need to be able to see the expectations and rewards on some sort of visual display all the time.
- Any reward system needs to be collaborative. That means we need to work together with our kids to come up with a system that is motivating for them.
- The reward needs to be changed or upgraded on a regular basis. As soon as the ADHD brain finds something routine they’re going to get bored. When you see the system being less effective, change the reward.
How to get started with your reward system.
Start by introducing the idea of a reward system to your ADHD kid. It’s better to suggest it as an idea than to present it as a plan. Help them to feel like they have some say in it and some control over what it looks like.
Explain in a positive way that you want to reward them when they do things well and that you would like their help with putting a system in place. If you present the idea this way they are going to be way more receptive.
Use care when introducing areas that you want them to change. Talk about how they struggle to do certain things and that while you understand that this is the case, you want to make it easier for them. Attempt to keep things as positive as possible. Don’t use this time to correct poor behavior.
You’re ready to start with your reward system once your kid is on board and you have agreed collaboratively on what the rewards system will look like.
Examples of reward systems
Here are a few examples of reward systems we have used with success:
Outbursts of anger
A quick and simple reward system I have used with one of my kids who was starting to have outbursts of anger was to notice him using self-control and immediately rewarding him with an extra 10 minutes of screen time. I was amazed at how quickly he responded to this!
One of my kids resisted doing basic hygiene; brushing teeth, showering, etc. If he took a shower every other day, he would get $1 per day. If he was consistent for a week, he would get an extra $10 on Saturday. This was especially motivating because he was in the midst of collecting a series of toys and needed money to purchase his next piece. Looking forward to earning enough money to buy one and go shopping on the weekend completely motivated him.
One of my kids had developed a bad habit of complaining about schoolwork. For every subject he was able to complete without complaining, he earned a token/ticket. At the end of the week, he could cash the tickets in for cash or other rewards. I could have chosen to take a ticket every time he did complain but since research shows that rewards are more effective than punishments/consequences, I chose not to.
Hopefully, these tips and examples will help you to see that your kids with ADHD need extra support as well as learn ways to help them to choose the hard thing.