ADHD kids are known for their impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inability to sit still and focus. These symptoms get them into trouble all the time, but is there more to the story? A study recently published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has found that we might also need to add to this list of common ADHD signs and symptoms, “an acute difficulty in adapting to changing situations.”¹ Or to put it simply, the “inability to change direction.”¹
You might be saying, “Inability to change direction! My kids are bouncing off the walls. What do you mean they can’t change direction?”
Good point. Let me explain. What this article is actually trying to say is that the “changing of situation” or the “changing of direction” is really a “changing of rewards.” In other words, just because it’s a changing situation doesn’t mean that the ADHD / FastBraiin brain is bad at reacting. In fact, as you know, FastBraiiners often excel in rapidly changing environments when the reward stays the same.
For instance, imagine an ADHD point guard flying up the basketball court. At the last second a defender cuts in front of him. The passing lane is now taken up (new situation). The guard immediately recalibrates and flips the ball behind his back to a trailing teammate for a slam dunk (reward). In this example, the situation changed, but the reward stayed the same (scoring the basket). The ADHD brain has no trouble shifting gears when the reward stays the same.
But when the reward changes, that’s when the problems show up.
How might this play out for an ADHD kid during a typical school day?
Gail Tripp, director of the Human Development Neurobiology Unit of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, illustrates that “an example for children in school might be that in the playground they might be rewarded for running fast, or for entertaining their friends with stories and jokes (i.e. their friends laugh, praise them, encourage them for these behaviors), but in the classroom these are not the behaviors that are praised or rewarded.”¹
What he is saying is that for an ADHD child, transitioning between reward systems is very difficult, and significantly more so than for the non-ADHD brain. Transitioning from the playground (where there is a reward for telling jokes) to the classroom (where there is a reward for listening to the teacher) is going to be extremely challenging. What does the ADHD child’s brain want to do while the teacher is speaking to the class? He wants to tell jokes. Why? Because that pathway of reward is still alive in the neural circuit of his brain. It’s still activated. He didn’t turn it off.
The non-diagnosed child, on the other hand, hears the teacher’s commands and adjusts his or her expectations and location of reward. This child has rightly “switched gears” and has placed the reward where it now appropriately belongs, with listening to the teacher.
According to this research, the ADHD brain is significantly more likely to continue in the previous reward system than kids who are not ADHD.
There are a few application points to consider in response to the new findings of symptoms of ADHD.
1. Seek to understand your child
- Have a talk with your child. Ask them about how their ADHD manifests itself. Are there times that are better for focusing than others? What are they passionate about?
- Share with your child this research. Talk with them. Ask them if they can relate to the research.
2. Have grace for your child
- One researcher in response even said to know in these situations “that children with ADHD are not deliberately misbehaving.”¹ I am not going to go so far to say that there is no misbehaving (we can’t blame our brains–that’s making excuses and avoiding responsibility), but the ADHD brain is particularly weak here, particularly suited to be tempted. It’s like us coffee addicts trying to walk through a Starbucks without buying anything. We need to not make excuses for our kids, but we in understanding the degree of their trial, we can be ready to offer more grace and patience.
3. Make clear to your child that the situation is changing (Remember, situation defined by “changing of rewards.”)
- Prep the child that the activity (and change of rewards) is coming. Tell the child the rewards are changing. Remind the child that the rewards have changed.
- Explain both rewards and consequences. Generally we encourage you to motivate by rewards, this will produce the most lasting fruit (i.e. “Do well in school and you can become a Dr. and help all kinds of people.” Vs. “If you do not go to school you will not be able to get a job.”) However, both rewards and warnings are important and help your child arrive at the proper understanding of the situation.
I was just hearing a story from one of the patients that Dr. Jim ran into outside the office. The boy tells his dad, “I like Dr. Jim, he knows what I’m thinking.” In this kid’s own way, he was expressing that Dr. Jim was someone who understood and therefore loved him.
That’s what we want to try to cultivate. As we pursue understanding our children, we hope that it will encourage our relationship. Our kids will know they are not alone, and that they have our support. They will know they have hope because someone has cared enough to get to know them.