If you live with an ADHD child, chances are you feel like you say the same thing… day in and day out… over and over. No matter how many times you tell your child to do something, they just can’t seem to get it done. Whether it’s as simple as brushing their teeth or a complex homework assignment, your kid just can’t start.

Here’s your conundrum… You know your child knows how to do the task (or at least how to start it). So then it follows that if your kid knows how to do but is choosing not to start, he must be lazy, or defiant; spacey or disrespectful. It sure looks like it to the average observer.  It’s hard to convince someone otherwise.

Yet, ADHD experts understand that your child is none of those – your child is not lazy, defiant, spacey or disrespectful.

Your ADHD child is most likely doing the best he knows how. Your job is to help him do better.

Step one in helping your child get started on tasks is to understand that ADHD is not a knowing problem – it is a doing problem. Quite simply, “ADHD is a problem in doing what you already know you’re supposed to do,” explains Dr. Russell Barkley.

Sometimes this “doing problem” looks like your child not starting something – he or she never starts brushing teeth, getting dressed, starting homework, or practicing piano. All those things the two of you fight incessantly over morning and night.

Sometimes, however, this doing problem shows itself in your child’s inability to stop doing something they are already doing. Think to the times you have to tell your child that play-time is over and it’s time to clean up; or to put down the video game to come set the table. Need I say any more? Are flashbacks of meltdowns, tantrums or outright refusal coming to mind?

This latter issue (the one of stopping doing something that they are honed in on) is different than the first. It’s called “perseverating” and we’ll talk about it in a later post.

For today, we’re sticking with the simple stuff: There is a task to do, your child knows that they should do it, they know how to do it, and yet… they don’t. It’s those freaking pull-your-hair-out times when you want to scream “JUST DO IT ALREADY!!!!!”

Defining Task Initiation

The first thing to understanding is that there are four parts to completing every task:

          (1) DECIDING to start the task;

          (2) STARTING the task;

          (3) PERSISTING through the task;

          (4) COMPLETING the task.

{BTW, I learned this from our ADHD coach… I’m sure she got it from somewhere, and I can’t find it on “The Google.” So, if anyone has info on whom to credit this model of task completion to, let me know!}

You know where task initiation actually occurs? Usually between Steps #1 and #2. Your child has DECIDED to start the task — meaning he knows he is supposed to be doing the task and intends to do it. But he doesn’t START.

Why? Well, the answer isn’t simple. Here are just three of the reasons in the mix.

FIRST, your kid probably has a pretty sucky working memory.

Working memory is the ability to perceive (ie., see, hear, feel, think) what is happening in the present moment, link the present moment to stored memories, and then act accordingly. Without working memory “an individual is perpetually locked in the present moment, unable to link what was seen, heard, or thought a moment ago with whatever is happening now,” says Thomas E. Brown in his book, Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults.

A very painful but clear cut example of impaired working memory is someone with Alzheimer’s. They ask a question and you answer. Ten minutes later they ask you the same question, and you answer again. And so on and so forth.  

So with a poor working memory, sometimes your child can’t recall something that was just told to him. Other times he remembers the first step or two but can’t recall what to do after that.

SECOND, your child pays attention to everything.

Your ADHD kiddo pays attention to every stimuli in their environment very differently than non-ADHD kids. Think about your house – on the way up to brush their teeth there are other children to be played with, conversations being had, TVs on in the background, toys to walk around… all fodder for someone who is easily distractible.

In it he talks about how people with ADHD lack the ability to inhibit their brain from paying attention to different stimuli. ADHD kids literally feel compelled to respond to every stimulus they encounter. A conversation is happening? They feel a need to chime in. A toy in the middle of the floor? They have to pick it up. A brother who begs to be messed with? They’ll start messing. A screen that needs watching? They’ll oblige and watch it. It’s like a magnet.

Now pile on that poor working memory we talked about above. No wonder my kiddo can’t make it all the way to the bathroom to brush his teeth without making 12 pit-stops along the way!

THIRD, is your ADHD kid’s really crappy sense of time.

Yes, their understanding of the passage of time – even tiny increments of time – is impaired with ADHD. We’re talking about increments of 30, 45, or 60 seconds that your child doesn’t perceive the same way a non-ADHD person does.

Their response of “just a second…” to your request doesn’t mean the same thing to you as it does to them. Because of their impaired executive function, these kids literally have a different sense of time. They may think they’re “going to” comply in “just a second,” but in reality that “second” turns into 10, then 15, then 20 minutes. Your child hasn’t noticed, and you have become irate.

So What Do I DO?!

Alright, so poor working memory, impaired sense of time, and chronic distractibility are all playing against your ADHD child when trying to comply with simple tasks.

So what do you do? Stop asking her to do anything? Nope.

There is a world out there that they need to learn to live in. Bosses who are going to give them work assignments, professors that are going to give them homework, and spouses that are going to ask them to do things. It’s our job as their parents now to get them good and ready for life.

So, here’s my short list of ADHD hacks you can try to get your kiddo to get themselves from deciding to start a task to actually doing it!

  •      Externalize for your child what SHOULD be happening in her brain. That means giving her visual cues at the point of performance. Point of performance is described in detail in this blog postbut quite simply, it’s a reminder exactly when your child needs to perform the task.
  •      Make the request VISUAL through Post-It notes, and use positive reinforcement when completed. When you give your child a task, literally hand him a post-it note with the word or picture of the task on it. The visual reminder in their hand will give them a sensory reminder of what their job is and help them overcome the myriad of reasons they otherwise wouldn’t do it. When they get done with the task, they return the post-it note to you and you immediately reward them with a positive message: a hug, an M&M, a token, whatever floats her little boat. Make it a good experience.
  •      Make the request VISUAL through prominently displayed lists or charts: the morning checklist; the afternoon homework checklist. One rule, though: keep it simple. Start with only a few tasks on the list. No more than three. Early success is critical for your kiddo and if they’ve got 12 things to do every morning success is doomed.

As a side note, if these ideas make you hyperventilate because you don’t know how these lists are going to look amongst your beautifully decorated home, know that you’re not alone. I was there once and every once in awhile my husband still gets a little tired of our new ADHD-centric “décor”. My advice? Get over it. Your house now reflects the fact that you have an ADHD kid living in your midst and you are a badass parent willing to give up your stylish wall art for super ugly lists, charts, reward systems, etc. If you think I’m kidding, I’ll send you a picture of our living room wall. 

  •      PRACTICE routines with your child repeatedly, and ask them to repeat each step back to you. Use clever, clear, consistent phrases like, “Teeth, toilet, time for story” so that your child can repeat it to understand task order and remember the next step.
  •      Be PATIENT. If a task is skipped, poorly done, or overdone (obsessed over) at the beginning. That’s to be expected. Losing patience will only reinforce the negative connotation associated with performing routine tasks. Give positive reinforcement for the good – find the good… even when it’s hard to do.
  •      Be FLEXIBLE. It is very rare that I come up with a new approach that is perfect the first time. Different things work for each child and every family has a tolerance for different systems. Revise tasks or approaches if they seem too difficult or stressful for you or your kiddo. Success is the key.

Over time, your ADHD child will begin to do these things on their own.

A great example of budding independence was an evening my son had a “moon journal” to complete every night before bed. We kept forgetting. I have three kids for goodness sake – by the time the moon comes up the LAST thing I’m thinking about is homework! Momma’s DONE for the night! So, one afternoon I told my son, “Babe – we have GOT to remember to do your moon journal tonight.” His response? “Alright. How am I going to remember that tonight? I know!! A post-it note reminder on my pillow.”

Up he went to write his own point of performance reminder, and my confidence in his ability to overcome these obstacles inherent in ADHD shot through the roof. Yeah team!

Over time, this will happen for you too.

Do you have tips and tricks for getting your ADHD children to start tasks? Any struggles in particular? Leave a comment below!

Together, we’ve got this!


Honestly Erin

P.S. If you’re looking for more information, expert advise and support to help your child with ADHD be successful, check out my Transformational Parenting Program!