Taking action and following through on something that has to be done is often difficult for those with ADHD or Executive Functioning challenges. In most cases, students and adults understand the importance of completing something but find it difficult to actually “move themselves” to action. What is happening in the brain, in my understanding, is that the level of dopamine is not sufficient to reliably carry messages/signals from one side of the brain to the other or to provide enough motivation for action. That makes this difficulty neurobiological and not motivational. There is a big difference there as often we have seen things get completed before and feel that if it can be done once why not every time? Such is life with ADHD and/or Executive Dysfunction. Inconsistent ability to take action doesn’t occur alone, it often involves other executive functions like, organization, planning, working memory, task initiation, self-regulation, focus and time management. So rather than it being one simple cause, it is often a combination of things that is getting in the way. Also not learning from previous experiences plays into why this same thing continues to happen over and over again. If possible try to break it down to see what is really getting in the way and work on one piece of the puzzle at a time.
Here’s what it may look like in students:
Inconsistent ability to complete homework regularly (or long hours spent doing it)
Last minute approach to long term projects
Being late or last minute
May look like a lack of motivation, not caring, or teen age “attitude”
Failing tests due to inability to study enough (or up past midnight studying)
Often late (but only by a little bit) or last minute on meeting important deadlines
Procrastination and/or lack of follow through
High energy and always appear to be very busy without actually accomplishing a lot.
“Paralyzed” when they don’t know how to do something or don’t want to do it
Inability to prioritize
Here’s what can help:
- Make a “must do” list that only includes the top two or three things you must get to
- Start with the most interesting task first
- Set false deadlines for yourself or be accountable to someone else for completion
- Break it down into manageable size actionable steps and use verbs for each step
- Set goals and behavior contracts weekly with students (too far in advance is worthless)
- Act as a body double for your student by being close by during homework time and doing your “homework”
- Teach your child to “talk to themselves” and ask questions to keep themselves on track
- Support them or provide supports for them but don’t do it for them
- Keep the end in mind – what will the homework look like when completed and what will I do after it is?
- “Suffer” through five minutes – it may motivate enough to keep going
- Exercise or do something active to increase the dopamine in the brain before beginning (snacks and water help too)
- Remind yourself and/or your student of past successes
- Change the environment, change the task or change the expectations
- Use timers and allow five minute breaks for every 30 minutes of work (minimize distractions)
- Use plenty of positive reinforcement that mentions specific actions you see your child doing
Motivating someone else or even yourself to take action often depends on how important the task seems (that adrenaline rush is actually raising the dopamine levels too). If someone else (usually your kids or spouse) is waiting on you to do something you may be more likely to do it. In school, students can often “force” themselves to get something done for a favorite teacher or subject but may feel it is torturous for their least favorite. Start small and put checklists, timers, notes to self (especially where you leave off on a project) and use the steps above that help. Having something to look forward to can often provide an extra push so be sure to reward yourself and/or your child. Now, get going!