Behavioral therapy can help your child learn tips and tricks to manage their ADHD every day.

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Have you ever had to build something from just a picture — without written instructions? For kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that’s how school can feel for them.

Children with ADHD often understand what their parents’ and teachers’ expectations of them are, but they don’t naturally have the “instructions“ for how to behave that way.

For example, kids with ADHD may struggle to stay focused on their schoolwork or participate in quiet activities. And when they hear “don’t do that anymore” or “go finish your homework,” they may not always know what they’re supposed to do.

That’s why treatment for ADHD often involves behavioral therapy: therapy that can help your child — and you as their parent — learn techniques to help with school, home life, and more.

In short, behavioral therapy is therapy that can help children with ADHD learn how to better navigate their daily tasks.

“[Behavioral therapy] helps individuals decrease unwanted behaviors and increases more appropriate behaviors,” explains Laurie Singer, licensed psychotherapist and head of Laurie Singer Behavioral Services, Inc. in Camarillo, California. “Behavior therapy for a child will teach the individual that they can be successful.”

How it works

Behavioral therapy works in two ways: It changes your child’s environment and teaches them “replacement behaviors.“

For example, when a child has ADHD, they may find it hard to sit still or focus in their current environment. There may be distractions — like the sound of the TV in another room, the view of the backyard where they like to play, or their favorite box of toys just out of reach. These things might prevent them from being able to concentrate on their work.

But these distractions can be minimized, by removing the box of toys, turning off the TV in the other room, or turning the child’s desk away from the window.

Behavioral therapy can help kids learn what distracts them and adjust their behavior and their environment in order to help them succeed. This often involves you, your kid, and their therapist figuring out effective plans for behaviors and routines that are:

  • well-structured
  • repeatable
  • clearly defined

ADHD can be characterized as both attention deficit and hyperactivity. When left unaddressed, ADHD can interfere with your child’s:

  • daily tasks
  • self-esteem
  • academics

For example, if your child can’t focus on their homework and doesn’t turn it in on time, they may get lower grades. Over time, those lower grades can make your child feel like they’re “failing,” no matter how hard they try. This might also make them feel like they can’t do any better.

Without intervention, this can become a problem well into adulthood, affecting their:

  • self-image
  • career
  • relationships

However, behavioral therapy can teach kids with ADHD about techniques to manage their behaviors so they can:

  • feel successful
  • accomplish more
  • have better relationships with parents, teachers, and friends

“Helping the individual learn how to stay on task and be successful in school has a positive effect on their overall mental health,” says Singer. “Behavior modification techniques can be life-changing for the parent and child.”

Even though your child is the focus of behavioral intervention training, you may have just as much to learn as your child. Daily structure reinforcement relies on you until your child learns new behaviors.

Some parents may even choose to participate in behavioral parent training (BPT) to teach them how to:

  • build a behavioral intervention plan
  • reinforce appropriate behaviors
  • learn what they can expect

In fact, a 2016 study shows that parents who attend BPT may be able to more effectively manage their child’s behaviors, as well as adapt to and understand what their child is experiencing.

Establishing an effective plan can be challenging for parents, and you may want to consider meeting with a therapist who specializes in ADHD treatments for children.

The benefits of a therapist’s involvement can include:

  • teaching parents how to effectively talk with their child about ADHD and lay out expectations
  • offering research-based suggestions and plans to manage their child’s behaviors and reactions to the training
  • objectively monitoring a parent’s progress and advising them on next steps
  • evaluating your child’s progress

Behavioral interventions can make a “life changing“ impact for kids with ADHD, according to Singer.

Behavioral strategies can help set your child up for success by:

  • shaping home and school environments
  • guiding parents on effective communication and boundary setting
  • teaching children skills for managing distractions

1. Use clear language and establish specific rules

Try to focus on communicating your expectations as clearly as possible. To help your child stop a negative behavior, you can:

  1. Make it clear to your child what the negative behavior is.
  2. Explain what positive behavior looks like.
  3. Help them figure out ways that they might control or prevent the negative behavior in the future.

“Let your child know what your expectations are,” says Singer, “and what the consequences are for specific behaviors.”

Simply telling your child to “sit still and do your homework” may not be as helpful as explaining why leaving their desk when they become distracted often leads to trouble completing homework.

Try describing the positive behavior, such as sitting still until their task — in this case, homework — is finished.

Finally, talk with your child about ways you can help them succeed. For example, if they say they hear the dog and want to go play, consider keeping the dog in another area of the house while they do their homework.

2. Celebrate your child’s successes

With all the focus on your expectations for your child, it might be easy to overlook their successes, even the small ones.

Praise for completing a task or displaying positive behavior can be incredibly important for any child. But for kids with ADHD, immediate praise is often the most effective form of positive reinforcement.

This can be powerful for helping children learn correct behaviors in the moment. The more time that passes, the harder it may be for a child to make a connection between their actions and your praise.

“Remember to praise the behavior you want to see more of, and be specific,” says Singer. “When you praise a specific behavior, you’re letting your child know what it is you liked that they did… Initially, you should use positive reinforcement, often giving lots of attention to the behavior we want to see.“

3. Create a reward system

Creating a reward system can help reinforce positive behaviors through a tangible system that your child can interact with and track for themselves.

This system can look different for every family, depending on your child’s needs.

Some children have found success with poster board in the house that lists their expected behaviors and a collection of stickers for each time they follow the rules. Other children have benefited from a token system, like poker chips, that they can hold and count in their hands for positive behaviors.

It may be helpful to sit down with your child and build a reward system where they can trade in their chips or earn special rewards after collecting enough stickers.

Establishing rewards that you can realistically give them in the moment or that day, like staying up a little later to watch a movie or going to the market to pick up snacks, often works best. Try to avoid rewards that they may have to wait a long time for, like big vacation trips or ordering a toy online.

4. Schedule mental and physical breaks

A key characteristic of ADHD is attention deficit, and as a result, expecting your child to sit and stay focused for any long periods of time typically isn‘t successful — no matter how great the reward.

Try to set expectations around your child’s needs by scheduling short breaks during difficult tasks or in-between difficult tasks. Breaks can be whatever your child needs in order to get back to work. For some children with high energy or hyperactivity, this could be a break to run in the backyard or have a dance party.

You can even schedule breaks at certain times to help reinforce a daily routine. “Using a timer will help the child transition from one activity to the next,” says Singer. “Praise the child for a smooth transition.”

Establishing an ADHD behavioral intervention plan with your child may take some time, and it might take a few tries to get it right.

Unlearning negative behaviors and pushing through distractions toward a goal can be stressful for a child, especially if behavioral therapy is new to them.

Try to be open and flexible as your child works through the plan. If something doesn’t work or they seem to always come up short of the goal, consider moving the goalposts for them. Challenging your child can be beneficial, but try to avoid setting goals that are too far out of reach.

It takes time to learn a new routine, and it’s perfectly OK to reach out to a therapist if you think you need additional help. Check out Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental healthcare as a first step.

There will be challenges ahead, but helping your child manage the symptoms of ADHD can potentially set them up for success for the rest of their lives.