Lower levels of dopamine in the pleasure and reward systems of ADHD brains make it difficult and even painful for kids and teens to muster energy for tasks they find boring, overwhelming, or unachievable. Especially when students feel no immediate satisfaction from completion, the urgency and pressure of deadlines (along with the accompanying stress hormone cortisol) are needed to kickstart doing homework, studying for a test, or writing a long essay.
When kids with ADHD are unmotivated, it’s often because they expect failure. They’ve given up on themselves because they’ve received and internalized so many negative messages. Ultimately, having self-motivation means you believe that you can do a task because you’ve got the necessary resources.
Use these strategies to collaborate with your child or student on tools that will inspire their participation and buy-in.
1. Choose Meaningful Incentives
Instead of threats or punishments, use earned privileges that link effort to satisfying accomplishment. For example, finishing half of the reading assignment earns a student a short snack break. Completing the full assignment earns them the privilege of chatting quietly with a friend, drawing, or shooting hoops.
2. Measure Capacity for Focus
Focus is the spotlight of attention. Many kids with ADHD are aware when they return from drifting off, but not when focus begins to fade.
3. Improve Initiation
It’s tough to get started on a task that seems impossible or insurmountable, so begin by meeting your student where they are — noticing and rewarding effort as much as outcome.
4. Confront Procrastination
Procrastination is the sometimes debilitating byproduct of anxiety and negative thinking. Many kids with ADHD give up before they start trying. Procrastination is an attempt to limit mistakes and reduce future shame.
5. Teach Prioritization
When students become overwhelmed and immobilized by the length of their to-do lists, help them organize their brain dump based on urgency and importance.
Motivation for Learning with ADHD: Next Steps
Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions
Access more resources from ADDitude’s Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions series exploring common learning challenges and strategies to sharpen core EFs at school.
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