Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may fidget at the dinner table, may seem to ignore directions to clean their rooms, or can be inattentive at homework time. Even kids without ADHD may act this way sometimes. Whether your child has ADHD or not, it can sometimes be challenging to get your kids to sit still, pay attention, and behave appropriately. A few simple strategies can go a long way towards helping create an environment that promotes better behavior at home.
Catch your child being good. Anytime children display behavior you want to see more frequently, “catching them” at it by emphasizing and praising it will make them more likely to repeat it. But don’t wait for exceptional behavior—a praiseworthy behavior can be as simple as sitting quietly or playing nicely with a sibling. Be specific in your praise. For instance, “Great job finishing your math homework!” is better than “Great job!” and “Thanks for sharing that toy with your brother” is better than “Thanks.”
Establish a routine and stick to it. Creating a structured routine at home and applying it consistently is a powerful driver of better behavior. Parents sometimes think that after a day at school keeping it together and following routines, children are better off with free rein at home before turning to homework or other duties. However, it is often harder for kids—especially those with ADHD—to shift back and forth between structured and unstructured time.
A sample after-school routine might look like this: Snacks from 3:30 to 4pm, homework from 4 to 5pm, an hour of playtime, 30 minutes of TV time, dinner from 6:30 to 7:30pm, and then getting ready for bed from 7:30 to 8pm. Use visual reminders to reinforce the schedule, such as a calendar that can be checked off or marked with stickers. And be consistent! When you make an exception, such as allowing more than the allotted 30 minutes of TV time for a child who has pushed hard for it, he or she may push as hard or harder in the future because it worked on a previous occasion.
Change the environment. This can be especially helpful in setting up kids for success during homework time. Creating a specific, uncluttered homework space free of the distractions of TV, siblings, and the family dog can be surprisingly effective. Sometimes something as simple as sitting in a chair that faces a wall instead of out where the action is can help a child stay on task.
Give a “heads up” for transitions. None of us like to be in the middle of something we enjoy and told to stop immediately. Help children mentally prepare for an impending shift in schedule by giving them advance warning. This will help them understand, for example, that “OK, in five more minutes I have to stop playing on the iPad and go put my pajamas on.” Keep a timer or digital clock on hand to help kids track the time themselves, and praise them for making a successful transition.
Give clear, positive commands. Set clear expectations by being specific when giving instructions. For example, you might say, “Put your Legos away,” instead of the more ambiguous, “Let’s clean up now.” Stating instructions as commands rather than questions is more effective, too, so, “Please hand me that pencil,” instead of, “Can you hand me that pencil?” will be more effective. Try giving positive, rather than negative, instructions. For instance, “Please use an indoor voice” is better than, “Stop shouting!”. This will focus attention on the behaviors you like and want to see more often, rather than on what your child is doing “wrong.”
Kaitlin P. Gallo, PhD, and Briannon O’Connor, PhD, are clinical instructors in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Gallo, who specializes in the assessment and treatment of disruptive behavior and anxiety disorders, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Mental Health Implementation and Dissemination Science (IDEAS), as well as in the Institute for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders at NYU’s Child Study Center. Dr. O’Connor, also a postdoctoral fellow at the IDEAS Center, focuses on improving the quality of care for children and adolescents with various mental health disorders, including ADHD and depression.
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