Recently, my dentist insisted that if my kid just flossed for 21 days straight, they’d form a new habit. She’s wrong. I have ADHD and forming habits is much harder than that!

The ADHD Brain and Habits

Those with ADHD will attest, we can do something for far more days than just the 21 recommended, and still forget to do it. This is because our brains don’t create patterns easily.

The ADHD brain is dynamic and constantly seeking new patterns and new ideas. As a result, it resists forming habits. This desire to constantly look for new information means that they never assume the patterns they have seen before are what they are seeing now. This is a great feature when you want someone to solve a difficult problem. Our culture even refers to it as a good thing when it is called “out-of-the-box thinking.”

But sometimes, we want to build healthy habits. We see the benefit of, for example, brushing our teeth every day. How do we accomplish those things if they aren’t going to become a habit? Visual cues.

Leave Yourself Clues

For those with ADHD, out of sight is often out of mind. This means that we need to see things to remember they even exist, much less remember we are supposed to use them. Putting things where you will see them, and where you should use them, is helpful. This is what I mean by visual cues.

Visual cues are things we see that remind us to do a thing. It can be that actual thing, like leaving your toothbrush out in a cup where you will see it on the bathroom sink. Do you keep the brush on the sink and see it to use it, but the dental floss is in the cabinet so you never use it? If you put it out where it can be seen, it is more likely to be used.

Finding Ways to Remind Your Self Of Any Little Thing

Other good visual cues include keeping your child’s retainer in a case beside their bed where they will see it to put it in at bedtime. And hanging your child’s coat beside the front door so they can see it to grab it when it is cold. Yes, some kids will not only forget to wear a coat but forget they own one. It happens.

Making to-do lists can also help. It can be a visual cue for all kinds of things. However, your to-do list needs to live in a place you will see it! If the to-do list hangs on the wall where you will walk past it and check it often, it can help. However, if it lives in your phone on an app you have to remember to open each morning, that list may be forgotten as though it never existed. Needing to find where you put the list makes it even more useless.

So, to recap, if you or your child has ADHD, don’t assume you can create a habit.  You need to make visual cues that remind the person what they are supposed to do. Those cues can involve putting the items where you use them, or having a list or both. What you need to do, will depend on what habit you want to create.

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.

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