When Reward Doesn't Work - and When It Does
For a behavior program to be effective, a child first needs
to listen, to remember, plan ahead, think before he acts, and
be motivated by rewards. That is the weakness of ADD
children. These children don't listen, and if they do, they
hear half the instructions and forget the rest. They don't
see the consequences of their actions and often `leap before
they look'. We have spoken of the weakness of frontal lobe
function in ADD which causes poor control of unwise behavior.
For a child with ADHD, an idea hits the front of the brain
and he acts, without thinking of the consequences.
Lack of impulse control destroys discipline in these
children, and the situation is made worse by their poor
response to reward and punishment. The average child will
tidy the toys, be rewarded with a piece of chocolate, and
will do it again the next time. The ADD child will get the
chocolate, complain that it isn't the kind he prefers, and
then ask for another piece, as this wasn't big enough. He may
ask again and again... These problems of being unable to `let
go' and of responding poorly to reward partly explain why
these children are so difficult to discipline.
The best results come with clear communication, simple
instructions, a small number of important rules and regular
and repeated rewards. Once a parent realizes that with this
particular child they have to `back off' and not take notice
of every trivial irritation, they are on the way to winning
the battle. Someone once said, "In boxing, the victor is the
one who uses the most force. In parenting, the winner is the
one whose children still love them at the age of eighteen."
Naturally, for us, the statement should read: "The winner is
the one whose children go in the true derech haTorah
and also still love them at the age of eighteen."
Structure and Instructions
Human beings are happier when life is predictable, when they
have a routine, when they know where they stand. This need
for structure is even more important for children with ADD.
To get them to start their structured day happily, obtain
their attention, and then give one instruction at a time. Use
the child's name, look him in the eye, and tell him to wash
his hands, get dressed, put his pyjamas under the pillow. But
do not make the mistake of putting this into one blanket
instruction of "Hurry up and get ready." Mumbling, nagging,
shouting will get you nowhere. The child won't even hear you
(but the others will). The secret of successful communication
is eye contact, simple words, enthusiasm and step-by-step
instruction. And if you can bear it at that time of day, a
small reward. We realize that it is much easier to give
advice than to follow it, especially if there are numerous
other children waiting to be seen to, and Mother has been up
most of the night with a teething baby. But if you want peace
with an ADHD child, keep to routine.
If he spills his cereal and then steps on it, does it really
matter? Of course, it matters to you, but you will have to
clean it up anyway once he has gone to school. Avoid
confrontation if you possibly can. Keep that for major
battles. Take a step back and ignore `minor' infringements if
you possibly can. Keep that for major battles. The siblings
may complain, you will have to explain, perhaps when he is
not around! Any change in the child's routine, late nights,
visitors or long journeys amongst other things, may trigger
off an explosion. The changes cannot always be avoided, but
anticipating trouble often makes it easier to handle.
There are parents who are uncompromising and tough
(especially if it is their first child). They may have
oppositional defiant children. There are other parents who
are easy going, permissive and peace loving, who, although
they usually remain close to their children, may have little
monsters. There is no clear cut answer. Unfortunately, if one
of the parents is easy going and the other is a stickler for
discipline, it is a no-win situation. All children are quick
to pick up differences in the parents' attitudes and will
play one parent against the other. The child with ADD might
modify his behavior in the presence of the parent who insists
on it, but the other parent will carry the full rebound. It
is a truism to say that parents would do well to agree to
disagree, but then not to argue about it. As I rough guide, I
would suggest 85% nurture, 15% firmness.
Avoid a No-Win Situation
Avoid arguments with a child with ADD. Don't start a debate;
it is pointless. He has many words and no logic. State the
rules and stand your ground but don't argue, as you will
never win. Children need rules. These need to be stated at a
time of calm, and not in the heat of battle. They need to be
simple, fair and clearly understood. When a rule is
challenged, it must be clearly restated and then enforced. We
should not be inflexible but no amount of nagging or protest
can change these few simple rules. The child is reminded and
action follows. Try to stay calm, and repeat the rule in a
flat voice like a broken record.
What action? My mother used the following tactics on me and I
have used them many times successfully on many generations of
children. When confronted, most ADD children refuse on
principle. We tell them, "Do it NOW" and they just gaze at
us. My mother asked politely and then began to count till
three. This old well tried technique gives a little bit of
space needed to avoid reflex refusal. You state the rule:
e.g. "Everyone has to have a drink before leaving the house,"
and say "One". Wait five seconds: "Two". Wait five seconds:
"Three." Then act. In this case, he will almost invariably
take his drink. Thomas Phelan describes the technique in his
book, "One Two Three Magic."
There are rules and counting techniques but there comes a
point when things seem to be quite out of control. Once
behavior gets past a certain point, there is no place for
reason. The child needs time out. Time out allows a
deteriorating situation to be salvaged by removing the child
from an audience, and from all attention. For this to work,
the child has to be put in place without debate or anger.
This works from a very young age and one can reckon about one
minute for every year of life. In our family, we had a chair.
If the child gets up before time, the period of time out
starts again. Do not respond to calling out, in fact, do not
respond at all. Ignore the child. He may not be repentant
after time out, but you will have defused the situation. This
only works well up to age ten or so. Some parents put
themselves in time out, if the child is too big to be
physically removed. If a mother locks herself in her bedroom
for ten minutes and it works, fine.
But what if a child refuses point blank? The first cardinal
rule is not to argue, and to stay calm. Use a monotonous
voice and say, "I want you to go to your room. If you go to
your room now, you can ride your bike later. But if you
choose not to go, you will go to bed after supper." A choice
lessens the risk of reflex refusal and allows some room for
We are talking about ADHD behaviors. Remember that even the
worst behaved child is good some of the time. Catch him being
good and reward him. Reinforce his positive side.