One of the challenges of having ADHD or executive function issues is that your brain doesn’t register that it should do something until it is a crisis. For everyone involved, including the person with ADHD, this can be an incredibly difficult thing to work with. But there are ways to work with this lack of urgency, and to create urgency so that things can get done in a timely way.
On or Off
First of all, it is important to recognize that your ADHD child’s brain tends to have 2 speeds. On or off. Those with ADHD do not do well at working “slowly and steadily” on a project. Either they are ignoring it completely or working on it like it is on fire. There is no in-between. This is why ADHD folks do great in a pinch. Their brains are designed to kick into high gear and get it done. But that only happens when things need to be done.
As a loving, caring parent, you might not be able to easily create any sense of urgency in your child. Just because you want their school work to be completed and their chores to be done on a timeline that makes sense to you, that doesn’t mean your child’s brain will. Regularly scheduled chores and school work generally lack urgency. Some kids will work for rewards, such as screen time or money. Some kids will work to avoid a consequence, like doing the dishes so that the family can cook dinner in the kitchen (and not have their siblings mad at them that their lack of chore work resulted in a delayed dinner). However, there are people for whom neither rewards nor consequences are motivating.
Finding The Right Motivator
If you have a child whom nothing seems to motivate, it is important to recognize that this could be a developmental phase. Sometimes the allure of money or other motivating factors will present itself when your child is older and actually wants things they don’t have. So, please don’t assume they will never be motivated to hold down a job. They just may not be motivated right now.
For some kids creating Kanban boards or other types of chore charts can help them be motivated. We have tried putting schoolwork on charts and found that sometimes, it helps. We also pay an allowance based on the number of tasks completed each week.
However, I have found a great way to create more urgency in my kids is to involve other adults in their lives. Needing to finish something so “Dad can see it” creates more urgency than working on it to show it to me. This can also apply to a grandparent, family friend, or therapist. Telling your child that you really want them to finish their report so that they can show it off, can be more motivational than just doing it for you. Will this work for all schoolwork? No, but for those bigger projects, it can really help.
Deadlines that mean something
I also create false urgency by making deadlines to go do things. For example, when my teen was studying for their learner’s permit, I told them “We are going to the DMV Wednesday and you are going to take the test. If you study, you should be able to pass. If you don’t pass, you can always take it again. But we are going on Wednesday!” Then you follow through. Sometimes, it might be worth giving the begging child an extra day to study, if they really want to wait an extra day, it depends on your child. In general, the “it is an emergency” part of the brain will kick on and let the kid study on Tuesday. For those with ADHD, having extra days to study often doesn’t actually help them. So, one good study session on Tuesday may very well be enough to allow them to pass that test.
This method can work on tasks that require leaving the house. If you normally have a lot to do, it is easy enough to tell your child the day of the week you have to do the thing. This means that there is a real deadline, and not just one they know isn’t real. I mean, it doesn’t really matter if their math work is done by 3 pm or if I put it off until 9 pm. Parents might prefer that it be done more quickly, but it doesn’t matter to the math or the student what time it is completed. However, the DMV is only open during certain hours. That applies to other classes and field trips too.
Mixing it up with Chores
For the child that doesn’t do well with chores because of this challenge in executive functioning, you can also create urgency around their chores. One idea is to invite people over, and use that as motivation to clean the house or their room. The guests have a specific time to arrive, and working up to that deadline can help your child do more.
You can also increase the chances that they will complete a chore by mixing up what chores they are assigned. This keeps their interest high and breaks a sense of repetition or rhythm that erodes urgency. While some kids thrive on doing the same chores each day, ADHD kids get bored. Consider assigning your child to do new and different chores each week. This means they can learn about all the ways to clean the house, and still participate in the household. Chores like changing the air filter, cleaning the windows, or the ceiling fans seem more fun and exciting to kids than doing the dishes. If you have trouble finding ideas to keep chores random, look for a program that lists all the things you should do quarterly or annually. It may have ideas for cleaning things you typically wouldn’t ask your child to do. I like the Motivated Mom’s chore charts for this kind of thing. The fact that the chore is unusual is what will help their brain want to engage with it.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.