If you are asking a student with ADHD to do a task which is harder than a three out of ten on a ten-point scale (where one is “super easy” and ten is “the most difficult thing in the world”), you might be asking too much. Many times, our frustrations with students or family with executive challenges are related directly to our expectations that they complete a task which is simply harder than a three on a ten-point scale.

Don't Expect Me To Do What's Typical If I'm Not "Typical"

If you are “neurotypical,” I can reasonably expect you to do what anybody else at your developmental stage is doing. On the other hand, if you have been identified with a brain-based difference -- and this includes autistic spectrum disorder and learning disorder, as well as ADHD -- then my expectations that you will perform exactly like others at your grade level will only meet with frustration and disappointment.

As a rule, we might knock two or three years off the student’s chronological age and then ask the question “What would we expect of someone who is developmentally two or three years younger than this student?” Many times, parents in my office will spontaneously note that their 10-year-old son with ADHD is “a lot like his 8-year-old brother.” Exactly. Because the child with ADHD is not “neurotypical,” he is wired a bit differently, and our expectations will need to be a bit different.

Off the Hook?

None of this, of course, means that he or she is “off the hook” when it comes to mastering developmentally appropriate tasks. It is simply to say that if it is harder than a three out of ten, we want to find a way to make it a bit easier, and more manageable, for that student.

Reward Small Units of Effort

One strategy for making it easier than a "three out of ten” is to break the task down into tiny parts, and rewarding him for achieving each of these baby steps. Perhaps in your classroom everyone gets access to the computer or tablet for 15 minutes a day. But the opportunity exists to earn an extra ten minutes. The teacher might print out an image of a tablet, laminate the image, and snip it with scissors into six pieces, like a puzzle. Over the course of the day, if the teacher notes that the student is attending, or persisting with difficult or boring tasks, he or she places onto the student’s desk one of these puzzle pieces. Twenty minutes later, if the student is again observed to be on task the teacher again slips another puzzle piece onto the student’s desk. When the student has all six pieces, he has earned his ten extra minutes of tablet time.

Do Part of It For Her

Another way to make a task “easier than a three out of ten” is to do part of the task for her. Let’s say you are the parent of a 15-year-old who struggles with keeping her room clean. In consultation with your spouse or co-parent, you decided that, really, a 15-year-old should be able to clean her room; that really seems developmentally manageable. In this case, you might decide that failure is not an option. But if it is harder than a three out of ten -- and obviously, it is, or the room would already be clean -- you might set the task up in such a way that she simply cannot fail. “Krystal, go make yourself a sandwich and I’m going to get started on your room organization. I will call you when I’m ready for you to help.” At this point, the parent does some, most, or almost all of the task in advance.

In fact, a parent might start by cleaning the room entirely except for the one last item: the belt still on the bed. “Krystal, come back to your room, and you will see that I have almost finished cleaning your room. But it’s still not done. There is still one thing left: the belt on the bed. When you hang the belt up, the task will be done and we will have completed cleaning your room. Can you do that? Will you hang the belt up now?” And as Krystal moves towards the bed, you realize that success is within reach. As she touches the belt, picks it up, and then moves towards the closet, both of you thrill to the realization that the project will soon be done. She hangs the belt in the closet, shuts the closet door and both of you celebrate! We did it! The room is clean!

Next time the room needs cleaning, her parent might leave two bits for Krystal still to do. The belt on the bed, and the socks on the floor. If she is able to mange those two bits, then several weeks later when the room needs a cleaning, her parent might leave three bits for Krystal still to do. The parent would do all of the room organization project except the belt, the stocks, and the stack of magazines. If she is able to manage that, the parent will continue to back her, step by step, scaffold by scaffold, and only stop supporting her when she is able to demonstrate mastery.

Setting Ourselves Up For Success

You know what’s harder than a three out of ten for me? Getting to the gym after a full day at the office. In the past, I would tell myself that “I’ll swing by the house after work and pick up my gym bag.” Good idea? Terrible idea. Nobody in the history of humankind has ever “swung by the house” after work to pick up their gym bag, and then ever actually left the house. That’s harder than a three out of ten. You are simply setting yourself up for failure if you think you will “swing by the house.” If you really want to support yourself in getting to the gym, you will put the gym bag, fully prepared, MP3 player charged, favorite water bottle in the bag, fresh towel for the shower afterwards, and place the bag in the front seat of your car.

What are you expecting your child or student with ADHD to do, right now, that’s harder than a “three out of ten?” And what strategies can you generate, right now, to make it less difficult for him or her, to increase the likelihood that he or she will demonstrate mastery?

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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