Turn Around Your Child’s Behavior: The Power of Positive Praise for Children with ADHD

Posted May 15, 2009 by

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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.


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.

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  1. lunalite Report

    I agree with the comment about teachers focusing on the negative aspects of adhd kids. My son’s teacher did not give him an end of the year metal for earning the honor roll all year. I knew it was because of his bad behavior throughout the school year. I wrote the teacher a note and told her that we should be rewarding him for the positive accomplishments he’s achieved. It is obvious that his behavior didn’t impact his ability to make good grades. He looked quite confused when other students recieved their honor roll awards and he did not. I couldn’t help but become upset about her decision.

  2. Cali Mom Report

    Thank you so much for the advice. I see that frequent and gentle reminders are a suggestion to help keep him on task. He says that I am nagging him and should just leave him alone to do things when,how and if he wants to. Plus, I really hate to have to monitor him constantly. However,if I don’t, he never finishes anything. I know there must be a fine line here, but somehow, I am not finding it. We had him with an organizational Coach for 3 months at the end of the year and she told us to just let him be and not to keep reminding him.Which way do I go?
    Another question that comes up also is this-If rewards and consequences should be immediate, but I am being told to take some time and fit the consequence to the action(because if I don’t, I usually overreact), then again, which is the better approach? I do feel like I have to throw out any and all parenting we have done with our older daughter and start from scratch. If I am confused, I bet he is too! 🙂

  3. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor Report

    Dear Cali Mom:

    Adolescence is challenging enough for parents and teens. A 17 year old just diagnosed with ADHD can present new learning challenges for parenting and I would imagine that your son will also feel challenged to understand what this disorder means to him. Your teen is faced with a lot of opportunities for interacting with peers, but yet could find that he has not achieved some of the developmental tasks of kids his age who do not have ADHD. Your son may be less ready to assume independence but probably still wishes it as much as other kids his age. This can create feelings of failure, or of low-self esteem, perhaps. As Dr. Bob states, kids with ADHD are likely to misbehave and miss the mark much more frequently then kids without ADHD and therefore have received a lot of negative feedback over the years. This is why Dr. Bob talks about the importance of positive, encouraging statements and the importance of understanding ADHD to help set realistic expectations of what and how your child can achieve his goals.

    Adolescents with ADHD do things for a variety of reasons, but most of the time these reasons are not designed to ignore or disrespect their parents.
    Impulsiveness in a teen with ADHD creates a low tolerance for frustrations which contributes to an inability to consider consequences before acting on these impulses. To keep your child working toward acheiving behavioral goals, it’s best to use a democratic approach of talking out solutions together for house rules, goals, rewards or consequences (except for rules that are non-negotiable). But these talks can be challenging because ADHD teens can be so impulsive and distractible so try short discussions and talking about one issue at a time. Whatever is decided, do have clear cut consequences or rewards for behaviors.

    As your child is working on the task but stops, frequently and gently encourage him to do those things that will help him get back on task after a distraction. Feedback and any rewards or consequences for kids with ADHD should be immediate—in the moment–to be effective. To reduce your son’s suspicions about your positive remarks, be sure to make specific comments on what you ‘see’ that he is achieving, instead of simply making a general statement, such as “Good job.”

    Try to take some ‘vacation’ time yourself for this challenging parenting work–be it a walk, a bubble bath, or a good book. Stay in touch with us and we’ll do our best to help you in your work with your child.

  4. Tina Wakefield Report

    Cali Mom,

    It won’t be necessary to use stars, happy faces, or chart rewards to motivate your son to work on the behaviors you want him to. As you’ve recognized that form of reinforcement isn’t age-appropriate and that ultimately results in the focus being about how ridiculous your son thinks your efforts are instead of viewing it as incentive to try harder. Some age-appropriate ways to reward your son for taking responsibility for tasks and practicing new skills would be: having car privileges, participating in activities with friends, dating privileges, or getting to stay up late. When you choose privileges that have meaning and ‘currency’ for your son that will help him to focus on what he needs to accomplish. Try not to personalize his behavior and don’t focus on how he perceives your willingness to reward performance.

  5. Cali Mom Report

    I understand how this helps younger children,but I have a 16, almost 17 year old son who was just diagnosed with ADHD. We can’t do the stars, happy face,or chart rewards with him. He gets so offended that we are treating him like a child. He thinks we are being superficial. How can we do postive things for him with out him being so suspicious of everything we try?

  6. Dale Sadler Report

    I have observed some teachers pigeon-holing students because of an ADHD diagnosis. Some are so preoccupied with testing and other such criteria that they forget their chance to teach a child positive behavior skills. So what if he can diagram a sentence? What does that matter if he can’t get along with his peers for five minutes. Teachers need more training in handling such children who struggle with these attention issues. Some, just don’t want to bother and this is what is most unfortunate.



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