How to increase compliance in ADHD

By Donna Mac

Praise for partially correct behavior

Children with ADHD struggle to follow directions as a result of the chemical and structural make-up of their brains. They become distracted, impulsive and have deficits in short-term and working memory and can use many undesirable behaviors throughout the day. Yelling at a child may work momentarily, but many times will not even work at all because this further agitates a child’s brain, and now the brain needs even more time to stabilize. It’s well documented that yelling at a child as a way of behavior modification never works long-term.

Instead of yelling, a way to increase compliance is praising for partially correct behavior. If you told the child to brush her teeth before going to the park, she may have gone into the bathroom and started rummaging through the bathroom cabinet, finding fun headbands and lotion. This is when you praise for partially correct behavior. “Kaitlin, I like that you followed directions to get into the bathroom, and the quicker you brush your teeth, the quicker you can go to the park.” If in 30 seconds she has not reached for the toothbrush, you may consider handing it to her as a prompt.

When it’s time to leave the park, you may say, “It’s time to go home for lunch.” If she runs up to the top of the slide instead of coming to you, say, “I love that you like to be outside and exercise, but I also love when you follow directions.” She now looks at you from the top of the slide. “It looks like you are looking at me now, and I appreciate the respect.” When it’s presented in this manner, there is a better chance the child will come down the slide and follow directions to leave with you, rather than if there is nagging, yelling or shaming her for not following directions right away. When you acknowledge that the child wasn’t intentionally being bad, she will be more receptive to following the upcoming directions.

The reality is, when a child with ADHD does not follow directions right away, it probably has nothing to do with attempting to defy you on purpose out of vindictiveness. The child may legitimately love the outdoors and also struggle with the ADHD chemistry of the brain. When you look at it from that perspective, it can help you to remain calmer and parent more effectively. If you yell, the child may feel more of a need to actually defy you, escalating negative behavior choices (and this also teaches the child that yelling is the way to handle frustration).


Many parents jump to time-outs as their fix-it source for all negative behaviors, such as not following directions or whining. However, when issuing time-outs to children with ADHD, it’s best to start working on eliminating one behavior at a time, rather than all of them at once. Otherwise, it’s overwhelming to the child, in addition to the fact that a child with ADHD could be in time-out much of the day, which lowers their self-worth and subsequently actually ends up decreasing future compliance. Therefore, unsafe behaviors should be addressed first, before everything else. Because of the nature of this type of time-out, I call these “safety-breaks” instead. These safety-breaks could be for darting into the parking lot before looking both ways, aggressively taking a toy out of another child’s hand or jumping off the kitchen table.

It’s important to realize that safety-breaks/time-outs do not teach skills for future improvement; they only necessarily remove a child from an unsafe situation. If the child is not taught skills, the child will continue to end up in safety-breaks, rather than making actual progress.

To find out more about how to effectively handle these types of situations, check out Donna Mac’s new book, Toddlers & ADHD. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and BalboaPress online bookstores. She has worked professionally with ADHD for 15 years. In addition, she has identical twin daughters who were diagnosed with ADHD at 3 years old.

From the July 2-8, 2014, issue

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