When to Challenge or Calm Your ADHD Child


Your ADHD child is resisting getting started on homework, as usual. You’ve learned that yelling and nagging won’t work. So what should you do? This blog post suggests a starting point: determining whether your student is overstressed or bored.

The graphic above — which we have taken from a nice article by BEabove Leadership — illustrates an interesting aspect of ADHD.  Your child’s ADHD-typical behaviors, such as poor impulse control, procrastination, inability to follow directions, lack of organization, can result from both stress and boredom.

These behaviors are managed in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, and this part of the brain functions best when it has the optimum level of neurotransmitters.  If your child is bored or un-stimulated, the pre-frontal cortex will not have enough dopamine or norepinephrine to kick-start homework.  If your child is stressed, too much dopamine or norepinephrine will have the same effect.  Lack of focus, inability to get started. That’s why the BEabove authors joke that the pre-frontal cortex is like Goldilocks.  It needs its neurochemicals to be just right.

So that’s the theory. How does that help you as a parent?  Our suggestion: find out which side of the curve best fits your child right now and from that determine the best strategy to get them going on their homework.

When your child is stressed:

You can usually tell when your child is stressed. Anger toward you or a sibling is one sign. Did something happen at school?  Talk to your child, see if they can identify what they are feeling. Simply naming their feelings can begin the process of reducing stress and lowering adrenaline levels.

Create a relaxing homework environment

Remove distractions including pets and have your child sit at the homework table or desk. Background music is effective with a lot of children.

Try breathing exercises

If your child still seems agitated, see if you can get them to take deep breaths for a few minutes.  Here are some ideas to make the breathing exercise fun. Keep a pinwheel on hand, for example, and see how long your student can keep it spinning by breathing out slowly.

Help them get started on the first assignment

Many ADHD children struggle with “initiation” which is not quite the same as procrastination.  Often you will find that if you help them start their homework, for example, complete the first math problem or write the first sentence, they will keep going without you.

When your child is under-stimulated:

Turning to the left hand side of the curve, you no doubt know when your child is simply bored and is therefore resisting what seems like the torture of doing homework. Your goal is to find a way to increase the flow of dopamine to the front cortex and that is usually all about rewards.

Set short-term goals with a reward at the end

ADHD children do not respond well to far off goals (“get good grades so you can get into a good college”). They do better with a short-term incentive that will help them focus. If they have a daunting worksheet of 20 problems, break it up into 5 problems at a time with a reward of a cookie or two-minutes to check text messages.

Find ways to challenge your child

An ADHD child really struggles to focus on a topic that holds no interest or challenge.  See if you can work on that somehow.  Can you talk through the history assignment and find ways to make it interesting? Can you make a game out of a repetitive assignment, timing how long each homework section takes, and seeing if you child can beat the clock?  Challenges and sparking curiosity have both been shown to stimulate dopamine production.

We hope you find these ideas useful. If you wonder whether you have the time or energy to put these ideas into practice every school night, you might consider hiring a homework coach who can help your child complete homework while strengthening their executive function skills.

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