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Motivation for Kids

August 20, 2009

Laura’s Blog Entry

It’s back to school season! The time of year when I send my darling off to be educated while simultaneously gaining a few hours of solitude. Yipee!

The start of the school year is generally the toughest season of our year. Mari has always struggled with transitions. When it is something like this, where she has to give up her precious free time, it can be a big adjustment.

Well this year seems to be moving along better than usual. There are a couple reasons for that. First of all, she has matured so much this summer. Things that used to cause tantrums and outburst are now often accepted quite easily. The best part is she just beams when we tell her how proud we are.

Due to her ADHD, Mari has always been a bit behind her peers in maturity. I remember comforting her in kindergarten when some kids started calling her a crybaby because she just got very emotional over things. They had all outgrown those emotional outbursts, but she hadn’t gotten there yet.

Well, we are miles from there now. It’s been hard, but we’ve always tried to stay right with her, whatever her level might be. And then slowly challenge and encourage and give her opportunities to grow.

Generally, that means in the summer time we ratchet up the expectations. We choose one or two things we think she is capable of mastering and work on that.

We had two goals this year. One was for her to start making her own breakfast. I know – she was turning eleven and we were still making her morning meal. Well no longer. She is now responsible for that, and it is so nice!

Secondly, because we were taking the summer off from dance lessons, she needed some sort of routine to keep up her ballet pointe skills. I challenged her to work up to 30 reps of her special exercises, three times a week. She nailed that one, too.

Now the reason these goals were met was not because she is self-motivated or that we nagged her into doing it. What works for us is setting specific goals with a clearly defined reward at the end.

People with ADHD are often lacking in the ability to self-motivate if the task is not something they are interested in or that is fun. Most of us can just push on through and get the job done, but Mari can’t do that in more challenging circumstances. A reward system can sometimes make that motivation kick in.

We generally take a trip for ice cream, have movie night, or do something relatively inexpensive for our rewards. The dance exercises this summer gave me a cool idea. Mari has always wanted to win a trophy. She has read books and seens kids on TV win trophies in sports and other activities, and while she has won some ribbons, her extra-curriculars are not the trophy type. So I told her if she would master the exercises I would award her a trophy. She was so excited.

She worked two months and finally got there. We popped over to a nearby trophy and awards shop to see what they had available. We selected a tap dancer and Mari chose what she wanted on the plaque. The total cost was $7.40. Not bad for two months of work. She is still very proud of it and sleeps with it right next to her bed. If you have a child who is struggling to do a huge school project, or is overwhelmed by another daunting task, consider what might motivate them – maybe it’s a trophy with their name engraved on it.

Another tool we use on a day-to-day basis is a token system. It takes preplanning and diligence to start, but once it gets going, it runs itself.

You see, Mari’s favorite thing in all the world is playing on the computer. She would play from sun up to sun down if we let her. Which of course we don’t. So to be able to use the computer she earns tokens for performing certain tasks. Each token is worth 30 minutes of computer time. We use poker chips for this purpose.

For a kid with ADHD, the routine of the token system is helpful in getting them to remember what their responsibilities are. She wants to play, so she thinks to herself, “What can I do to earn tokens?” Works like a charm. Mornings used to be a nightmare. She’d stand in the bathroom and wander about asking, “What am I supposed to do now?” We even had a list posted in the bathroom, but she couldn’t remember to look at it. Once we assigned a token value to everything, she was motivated to remember on her own.

This system has changed our lives. We began it about five or six months ago. Between this system and her maturity, it is so much more pleasant around here.

Another helpful thing is that each homework task is worth a token. She has been doing a summer project due the first day of school and it has NEVER gone this well before. (As well as working for the trophy, she also got 2 token for doing her dance practice. Sometimes a small immediate reward is needed to keep a long-term goal on track.)

The great thing is you can customize this to fit your needs. My favorite thing is to catch her doing something good and awarding her extra tokens, just because. It really builds her confidence to point out good behavior.

I am so enamored of this system that I suggested to Neil that he give himself a reward for mowing the lawn – a task he abhors. He pooh-poohed the idea and said it wouldn’t work, but gosh darn it, that lawn has never been mowed as often as when he started going for a Starbucks after.

It may seem like a lot to manage, but the chaos and frustration we avoid by using the tokens is worth the effort. Here’s to a smooth start to sixth grade. We shall see!

Post Script…

I’ll have you know I finished up this entry and not 30 minutes later we had a major homework meltdown. Sigh. We had too many things going on yesterday and it stressed Mari out. As a result, homework became a big issue. But we’ll just wipe the slate clean and start fresh today. Parenting is fun!

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