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Categories: 2012, April
by Richard Lougy, LMFT, and David Rosenthal,
ALL CHILDREN AT TIMES FIND SCHOOLWORK BORING
and not a high priority in their lives, but staying motivated to keep up
with schoolwork seems especially difficult for children with ADHD.
However, most children understand and learn that keeping up their grades
can benefit them, whether with parental praise, monetary rewards, or the
personal satisfaction from knowing they do well at something.
Why doesn’t the knowledge that good grades can bring personal
rewards seem to motivate a child with ADHD? It’s nearly impossible
to fully answer this question without giving careful consideration to
the child’s diagnosis.
Many affected children report that they often are aware of tasks they
need to do, want, and intend to do, but often have great difficulty
getting started or completing a school task. Unfortunately, many
affected children often feel unable to make themselves initiate the
actions needed to get their homework done, study for a test, or remember
to bring home needed material for homework. This difficulty in getting
started, and remembering to remember, often leads to poor grades and
discouragement by the child, frustration from the parent, and sometimes
name calling, “lazy,” “unmotivated” by teachers
and other caretakers.
Over time a child can develop feelings of “learned
helplessness,” a feeling that no matter what he or she does,
nothing seems to work. The child can be heard saying “I
can’t do it,” “I don’t feel like doing
it,” and when totally frustrated or discouraged, “I
won’t do it.”
We have never met a child who wanted to be unsuccessful. We suggest that
children with ADHD want to be successful like their peers; however,
because of symptoms stemming from their ADHD, they are greatly
challenged by school tasks. What to teachers and caretakers seems like
low motivation generally is a “neurochemistry of
motivation,” in the words of psychologist Thomas Brown. Much of
their low performance stems from a chronic problem in getting started,
organizing and planning their schoolwork, and sustaining attention long
enough to complete a school task.
In this article we suggest possible reasons why an affected
child’s poor performance in school is not simply the result of
“low motivation” around schoolwork, but rather is the result
of their chronic inability to activate and manage their actions in the
right way at the right time (Brown, 2005)—an important
self-regulatory task for success in school and life.
Many factors can contribute to children’s motivation around
schoolwork, but there is little debate that the following reasons are
important, but not exclusive contributors explaining why children with
ADHD can struggle in school.
Reason 1: Executive Functions
Important contributors to success in school include one’s
ability to delay gratification, organize thoughts on paper, remember to
turn in homework, bring home important school materials for studying,
and maintain focused and sustained attention in class and when working
These important tasks are conducted by a neuropsychological process
called executive function. A snapshot look at the primary executive
function processes includes:
selecting relevant task goals
planning and organizing
information and ideas
prioritizing and focusing on
relevant themes rather than irrelevant details.
initiating and sustaining
holding information to working
memory (Holding information in mind while performing complex tasks.
Drawing upon past learning or experiences to apply to a current
situation or problem-solve strategies into the future)
inhibiting competing actions
and self-regulating behavior.
Research suggests that the prefrontal cortex, the least understood and
most complicated part of the brain, not only affects functions related
to paying attention, planning, and execution of thoughtful behavior, but
also motivation—all cognitive processes related to the executive
functions. These cognitive processes cluster together like a
“basket encompassing related cognitive functions that depend on
and interact continuously with the others, in ever-shifting ways,”
as Brown describes them. Together they make up the management system of
the brain—it is an “umbrella term,” as suggested by
Lynn Meltzer, “that incorporates a collection of interrelated
processes responsible for goal-directed and purposeful behavior.”
An affected child will often have developmental delays in executive
There is considerable evidence that when executive functions of the
brain are impaired in those with ADHD, two particular neurotransmitter
chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine, are primarily responsible. The
medications used to treat ADHD symptoms work by increasing dopamine and
norepinephrine levels between nerve cells in the brain. Stimulant
medication is the most effective intervention in addressing ADHD core
symptoms and works for seventy to eighty percent of ADHD patients.
Consequently, contrary to sometimes unfavorable articles or comments
from relatives or skeptical friends and teachers, it’s very
important that a child with ADHD is evaluated for the appropriateness of
medication as part of his or her treatment. Given the often dramatic
alleviation of ADHD symptoms, it is very unfair or difficult to sustain
the notion that ADHD impairments are a matter of lack of willpower.
What is most confusing and frustrating to parents and teachers is that
an affected child can quickly lose interest in routine tasks, such as
schoolwork, but they can become highly motivated when involved in
high-interest activities, which seem to elevate attention and focus.
Difficulty maintaining effort is closely aligned with difficulty
maintaining concentration and effort. The attention deficit is often
verbalized by students as, “I’m bored.” The more
focused the child is on the activity, the more successful he is and more
motivated he is to stay with the task or activity. They often seek out
new and exciting experiences to keep their interest—having what
Arthur Robin calls an “attentional bias toward novelty.” In
fact, in high-interest activities, an affected child can become
hyperfocused. Try, for example, to get an affected child’s
attention to get back to work on their homework when they are playing
with their Nintendo or PlayStation, or entertaining themselves on
In fact, no matter how much pleading or demands by parents and teachers,
an affected child seems not to learn from his or her mistakes as
consistently as unaffected children. Parents will be heard pleading with
their child, “If you put the same effort and focus into your
schoolwork as you do on your PlayStation, you would do much better in
school” or “You always seem to be focused during your karate
lessons, why can’t you use this same focus when doing your
homework?” The simple fact, unfortunately, is that there is no
conscious voice that says on a consistent basis, “Just make your
self do it!” or “Hey stupid, don’t daydream again when
Mr. Baker is giving our homework assignment.” Sadly, in
desperation, a parent or teacher will shame or punish the child in an
effort to get him to do consistently what he ought to do.
Recognition that “executive functions generally operate without
conscious awareness” (Brown, 2005) helps us understand why
affected children struggle with self-regulation and self-monitoring,
which are so important for school success. We tell parents that their
child has eight cylinders but when not on their medication, they often
are only running on four or six cylinders.
Reason 2: Lack of Confidence
Children with ADHD are often not motivated to work hard for
good grades because they lack confidence and optimism about doing well
in school. Because some have great difficulty with routines, such as
those required in school, they feel a sense of failure rather than the
positive enthusiasm and confidence needed for success. They don’t
seem to develop the attitude that things will turn out all right in
life, despite setbacks and frustrations. In the words of Daniel Goleman,
“Optimism is an attitude that buffers people against falling into
apathy, hopelessness, or depression in the face of tough going.”
Academic success, he says, “is the combination of reasonable
talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to
success.” Optimism makes people more likely to make the best use
of their talents and to do what it takes to develop them.
Looking at the establishment of confidence from a neurochemical point of
view, research finds that dopamine is an important neurotransmitter
involved in motivation toward pleasure. When someone notices or is
reminded of something that may bring them pleasure, “arousal is
likely to be mediated by rapid release of increased dopamine into
relevant circuits, even without conscious thought.” Conversely,
lacking anticipation or awareness of getting a “payoff,” the
“organism . . . tends quickly to abandon working and to ignore the
task, even when the task may be essential to life.” The mechanism
by which the “brain registers subtle levels of rewards and
punishment is crucial in many aspects of human living” (quotes
from Brown, 2005). Lastly, it’s important to note that dopamine
does not itself produce the pleasure, but it creates the conditions
under which sensations are recognized as pleasurable. Often, an
incentive to work on something or not stems from a person’s life
experiences, which usually occurs as an aspect of perception.
If a child’s perception of schoolwork is peppered with failure,
failure without much benefit—a child understandably will simply
give up, and giving up does not result in good grades.
Reason 3: Inconsistent Work Habits
Inconsistent work habits interfere with academic success.
Affected children will turn in their schoolwork one day, and the next
day walk out of the classroom with little to show for their time at
school. It is not that they cannot be productive, it is that they cannot
maintain that level of productivity the way other children do.
Consistent work habits require the ability to resist momentary thoughts
or distractions, an ability that children with ADHD struggle with. They
are presented daily with chronic difficulties with internal and external
distractions, sustained and focus attention, and attending to teacher
and parent demands or directions. Their difficulty with consistent
performance is generally not a matter of not wanting to get a homework
assignment turned in or choosing not to do the work, but more often this
pattern of inconsistent performance stems from neurodevelopmental delays
in executive function.
Inconsistent work performance contributes to low grades and over time,
low motivation around schoolwork.
Reason 4: Poor Organizational Skills
Because of poor organizational skills, affected children often
spend a great amount of time trying to find lost assignments, spelling
lists, or any number of things that they’re responsible for on a
daily basis. It is very demoralizing for these children to deal with
ongoing parental and teacher comments concerning poor organizational
skills. Motivation to do schoolwork can be destroyed, and a child will
just give up. If he hasn’t given up, his inconsistent performance
often leads parents and teachers to think he has.
In light of the fact that organizational delays stem in part from
executive function, it is important to note that medication generally
does not measurably improve all executive functions. Stimulant
medications seem to help the executive function domains of sustained
attention and verbal learning, but stimulant treatment does not seem to
have an effect on interference control and processing speed. The weakest
effect of stimulant medication was in organization/planning. The authors
of one study suggest that its results may “begin to explain the
apparent dissociation between stimulant-associated improvement in core
symptoms of ADHD and academic performance” (Biederman, Seidman,
et.al, 2008). Consequently, this study would suggest that many affected
children will need both psychoeducational and pharmacological
interventions to find maximum support.
Reason 5: Poor Self-Managers
Affected children are often poor self-managers. Being successful in
school requires doing well on tests and finishing long-term projects. To
achieve that, children
must pay attention and manage themselves so they do not get too far
behind. The affected child may be working on a test or project when
something else catches his attention, and his mind quickly jumps to the
new distraction without considering the consequences of not finishing
what he has started. He may be playing with an eraser when he should be
working on a test, and before he knows it, class time has run out, and
he can’t finish the test. He may spend most of his homework time
checking his iPhone rather than focusing on a reading or writing
Reason 6: World’s Greatest Procrastinators
Time management is a constant struggle for affected children.
They often will underestimate or overestimate how much time an
assignment will take to complete. Consequently, they will leave
everything to the last moment. Why do it today when there is always
Children with ADHD have a distorted sense of time, according to Thom
Hartmann. They can have an “exaggerated sense of urgency when
they’re on a task and an exaggerated sense of boredom when they
feel that they have nothing to do.” The child’s sense of
time speeding by when he is working on a project can lead to chronic
impatience. This elastic sense of time can lead to emotional ups and
downs, which often make it more difficult to complete assignments.
Reason 7# Associated Disorders
Children with ADHD often can have associated disorders that can
impact on their school performance. Common disorders often seen with
anxiety disorders (34%)
depression and dysthymia (15% to
conduct disorder (11%)
bipolar disorder (2%)
sleep disorders (25%-50% of
executive function dysfunction
The importance of addressing an associated disorder is that often
children experiencing one or more of these disorders will often not show
motivation toward school. Medication can address some of the disorders,
such as depression and anxiety, but children with learning disabilities
require academic accommodations and interventions. As reported earlier,
medication can address the core symptoms of ADHD, but not all executive
If a child is on medication but still struggling in his studies,
it’s important to have the child evaluated for other contributing
Lastly, home stressors have an impact on a child’s school
performance, but if addressed, the child will generally go back to being
motivated to get good grades.
Perception versus problem
Children with ADHD are often perceived as poorly motivated,
when in fact the basic problem is inconsistent performance and poor
grades, which can lead to personal discouragement and, over time, low
motivation toward schoolwork.
If your child’s grades are not
satisfactory, make sure the material is not too hard for him or her.
Monitor your child’s
progress on a regular basis for accuracy, completion, and
Alternate subjects. Remember,
affected children get bored quickly. They will stay motivated longer if
they can alternate back and forth among subject areas (fifteen minutes
on math, fifteen minutes on social studies, and so forth).
Praise your child when you find
him or her keeping up on their studies. We all like to be complimented
when we do well at something.
Add interest to the schoolwork by
taking your child to places or events that bring his schoolwork alive,
such as a trip to the fire station, weekend trip to a historical site,
or a day trip to a college for high school students.
Ask for academic accommodations
under Section 504 or an IEP if your child is struggling significantly.
Often, it only requires small academic accommodations to help an
affected child find more success.
Often, for older children when
homework becomes more challenging, a proper medication regimen can be
helpful. The affected child may need the support of medication when he
does his homework after school or in the evening.
If your child seems to struggle
even when properly medicated, it is recommended that you have your child
evaluated for other possible contributors to his low motivation around
Remind yourself that any child
will go through periods when they are less motivated about schoolwork
than at other times. Middle-school children often show a drop in
academic performance as peer relationships become more important. The
affected child’s lack of maturity makes balancing social life with
academic performance difficult. Maturation often is a great healer for
high-school problems, from keeping and making friends to getting good
Barkley, Russell A. ADHD and the Nature of Self-Control. New
York: Guilford Press, 1997.
Biederman, J., Seidman, L.J., et. al. (2008). “Effects of
stimulant medication on neuropsychological functioning in young adults
with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Journal of
Clinical Psychiatry 69, no. 7 (2008): 1150-1156.
Brown, Thomas E., (2005). Attention Deficit Disorder: The
Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults. New Haven: Yale University
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More
than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
Hartmann, Thom. Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different
Perception. Grass Valley: Underwood Books, 1993.
Meltzer, Lynn, ed. Executive Function in Education: From Theory
to Practice. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.
Lougy, Richard and David Rosenthal. ADHD: A Survival Guide for
Parents and Teachers. Duarte, CA: Hope Press, 2002.
Robin, Arthur L. ADHD in Adolescents: Diagnosis and Treatment.
New York: Guilford Press, 1998.
Anthony Rostain, MD, MA, on the years of transition to adulthood
interview by Susan Buningh, MRE
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