Can the behavior of kids with ADHD be turned around with praise and positive reinforcement? New research says, “Yes!”
A new study conducted in Germany found that boys ranging in age from 6 to 12 who were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were highly motivated to perform tasks successfully when they received ample doses of social reinforcement — i.e., smiles from the researchers. In other words, social reinforcement improved their attention, concentration and impulse control (some of the primary symptoms of ADHD). Other studies have indicated that positive social reinforcement also improves memory ability for these kids.
What was interesting is that monetary reward also improved performance for the ADHD subjects the same as for the non-ADHD control group, but the social reinforcement worked significantly better for the ADHD boys than for their non-ADHD peers. This coincides with neuropsychological findings showing that kids with ADHD exhibit what is called a “dysregulation of reward-seeking behavior”. While much research has demonstrated the benefit of tangible rewards (money, tokens, toys), this shows that social reinforcement (in this case, a smile for good performance) may work as well or better for this group.
Parents and teachers should take note of this. ADHD kids more often are recipients of negative social reinforcement (frowns, negative comments) than positive. Another symptom of ADHD is emotional dysregulation, which causes them to over-react to negative stimuli. One take-away from this research is for adults to consider ignoring inappropriate responses and immediately praise appropriate responses, both verbal and non-verbal.
In my own personal experience during the many years I’ve worked with these kids, I’ve been amazed how quickly they turn around with a little praise and how quickly they are turned off — and go into a tail spin — from one dirty look or negative comment. Parents and teachers should be aware of the over-sensitivity of ADHD kids to reactions to their behavior, and focus on giving positive praise for appropriate behavior and task completion — while avoiding giving negative responses to inappropriate behavior and poor task performance.
I want to make clear that I am not suggesting ignoring dangerous or highly disruptive behavior, or deliberate attempts to produce poor work. Rather, use this positive-reinforcement approach for mildly inappropriate behavior and mistakes on assignments. This works best when these children are told in advance what behaviors are expected, as well as what behaviors are to be avoided. Tell them that you will be looking for the appropriate behavior and will let them know when they are on the right track.
I also advocate using a home – school contract that uses happy faces on a chart to let kids know at the end of each period of instruction how well they did a meeting some simple criteria for appropriate behavior. Your child’s teacher should avoid putting in a frowning face or writing down the problem behavior. On the home front, I coach parents to work on “catching your child being good” and when possible, ignoring bothersome behavior.
As Bing Crosby once crooned, “you’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” — and that’s exactly how you should approach your child with ADHD.
About Dr. Robert Myers, PhD
Dr Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities and is the creator of the Total Focus Program®. Dr Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, 4parenting.com, which reaches 3 million parents each year. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.