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Behaviour Management Strategies for ADHD

Children with ADHD often respond well to behaviour management techniques. There are two basic types of behaviour management strategies:

  • Antecedent-focused behaviour support strategies. These focus on "setting your child up for success." They include things like setting up routines and schedules, teaching rules, and giving positive, specific feedback about things the child does right.
  • Consequence-oriented behaviour management strategies. These involve rewarding specific behaviour. They are best used in combination with behaviour support strategies.

Antecedent-focused behaviour support strategies: Setting your child up for success

Children with ADHD do best in a structured environment with many reminders to help keep them on track. Organization, consistency, and clear communication are very important. Note that for children who spend a lot of time in two households -- for instance, if parents are divorced or separated -- it's very important that the rules in both households are consistent.

Creating a supportive physical environment

To create a supportive physical environment for your child, try these strategies:

  • setting aside a quiet place to study after school
  • creating an area where your child can prepare everything she needs for the next day at school, such as snacks, sports equipment, homework, and permission slips
  • keeping visual reminders of things your child needs to do, including checklists, to-do lists, a notebook for homework assignments, and a calendar
  • making a brightly coloured folder for homework that can live in your child's knapsack
  • keeping toys, art supplies, and school supplies in consistent places
  • labelling or colour-coding belongings and storage containers

Using rules, routines, and prompts

To help your child remember what she needs to do, try these strategies:

  • Set positive expectations for your child, and praise her when she meets them. Reminders and prompts are more encouraging for your child than a list of "don'ts."
  • Give positive reminders and cues about appropriate behaviour and/or your expectations for a given situation, rather than giving negative feedback after the misbehaviour has occurred. For example, remind your child when it is her turn to set the dinner table.
  • Set reasonable, consistent rules. Make sure that your child knows the rules, and give reminders when needed. Make the consequences for breaking the rules the same every time.
  • As far as possible, create consistent schedules and routines for getting ready in the morning, homework, dinner time, getting ready for bed, chores, and other regular events. If your child knows what to expect, it is easier for her to remember what she is supposed to be doing. Younger children may need frequent reminders and picture guidelines. Older children may find checklists helpful.

Encouraging your child

Support and encouragement from you are just as important. To help support your child:

  • Stay positive and upbeat. Be generous with encouragement and praise when your child does something right. 
  • Try to find something to praise, even if your child has not done everything perfectly: "I'm so proud of you for remembering to put all your homework in your bag! Remember to take your lunch too -- it's in the fridge."
  • Children with ADHD need frequent, specific feedback. Try to give your child prompt feedback, rather than addressing good behaviour or problem behaviour after the fact.
  • Give your child more positive feedback than negative feedback.
    Identify and, if possible, eliminate triggers for bad behaviour.
  • Model appropriate behaviour for your child: for example, when you are listening you look at your child, you are quiet, and you are not doing something else at the same time.
  • Involve your child in solving problems and finding ways to remember what she is supposed to do.

Consequence-oriented behaviour management strategies: rewarding specific behaviour

Examples of specific behaviour management strategies include:

  • behavioural contracts, in which you and your child agree on specific goals and rewards
  • token economies, in which children can earn "tokens" (such as check marks on a chart, gold stars, or poker chips) by demonstrating a specific behaviour; a certain number of tokens can then be exchanged for rewards
  • response cost procedures, which are similar to token economies except that tokens can also be taken away for specific misbehaviour
  • logical consequences, for example, if your child does not do his laundry, he will have to wear dirty clothes to school

It is important to remember that these techniques do not teach more appropriate skills or behaviours. Rather, they either positively or negatively reinforce existing actions and behaviours. They will work best when combined with teaching skills and strategies in a supportive environment.

When and how often you give your child feedback and reinforcement are very important. Children with ADHD often need more immediate feedback more often than children without ADHD. For example, a child without ADHD may do well with a weekly or monthly reinforcement schedule (for example, earning points for an activity reward at the end of the week), whereas a child with ADHD will respond better with daily reinforcement.

To encourage specific behaviour:

  • With your child, decide on the target goal or goals. Work on just one or a few behaviours at a time. The goals should be specific, observable, and stated positively. For example, “I’ll put away my toys when I am finished playing with them,” instead of “I won’t leave my toys out when I am finished playing with them.”
  • At the same time, decide on the rewards for meeting the target goals. Make sure that you and your child both understand and agree on how she can earn rewards.
  • Rewards do not need to be big. They could include going for a walk together, baking cookies, playing a game, reading a story, or having a certain amount of free time on the computer.
  • Each day, the child should try to reach a specified target. Start with something small and easy that you know your child can achieve. Do not expect perfection right away. Emphasize and reward improvement.
  • Give the reward either right away, or at the end of the day.
  • Your child can chart her progress using a graph. This will give her a visual reminder of the progress she is making.
  • The target is then increased steadily as the child is able to accomplish more difficult goals.
  • As the desired behaviour becomes automatic, your child can start working toward new goals.

To discourage unwanted behaviour:

  • If the behaviour is minor, you may want to simply ignore it rather than draw attention to it.
  • Feedback should be in proportion to the misbehaviour.
    Negative feedback could include a time-out or withdrawing rewards or privileges.

Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych

Peter Chaban, MA, MEd

Rosemary Tannock, PhD