Kids with ADHD often appear defiant. They break rules you know they understand… over and over!

Many people insist their child not only has ADHD but also Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). I’ve heard others call their kids spoiled rotten brats. Before you decide any such thing, let’s take a look at how ADHD works, and why it manifests itself in these incredibly frustrating behaviors and how something called a “point of performance reminder” can change your world for the better.

First, let’s set the scene: A group of boys are joyfully playing kickball in the field of a playground that is embraced in a wonderfully secure fence. The only way out of the fence is through a gate at the back of the field. The kids all have been told the rule about the gate – no child can TOUCH it, much less exit it without an adult. They’ve all been told this rule UMPTeen times since they’ve started school. Every child knows the rule.

Let me make this clear: There is no doubt your child has HEARD the rule or that your child UNDERSTANDS what the rule means. I swear, no matter what happens next in this little vignette, those two things are true.

Alright, so back to this story… your ADHD kiddo is in the outfield and the other team is up to “kick.” Sure enough, the kid at the plate hits the ball straight on and it sails over your child’s head and… OVER the fence. And there your child goes, right? Straight for the gate.

You think to yourself, “Surely, she’ll stop before she goes out that gate! She KNOWS the rule!” But nope, she keeps running, she unlatches the gate, runs out, grabs the ball, and comes back in – a big grin on her freckled the face the entire time. Maybe as she walks in, she realizes…. “Oops… I think I just did something I shouldn’t have.” But then again, maybe not. And you’re left thinking, “WHAT IN THE WORLD?! Why would she defy the rule like that? How am I going to discipline her so that she’ll remember the next time?” Sound familiar?

If so, I’m about to turn your world upside down and give you one tool that will change your life FOREVER.

FIRST, Let’s Talk Impulse Control.

{For more information on all of the Executive Functions often impacted by ADHD, check out this post.}

Something you need to know before we go any further — impulse control and emotional regulation are closely aligned, and often the impulses a child is dealing with stem from BIG, FAT, OUT-OF-CONTROL emotions. This happens when, for example, they have a full-on meltdown in the frozen food aisle, or they toss over a game board in rage after they lose. This post is not going to address these types of big-emotion episodes. Rather, this post is focused on how impulse control relates to your child’s perceived defiance — that is, the ability (or inability) to follow rules and directions. Seem simple enough? Ha! Here are a few examples of when impulse control might impact your child’s ability to follow rules and directions and act defiantly:

  • Grabbing toys/items from other people
  • Blurting (i.e.,
  • Saying inappropriate things and/or saying them at inappropriate times)
  • Interrupting
  • Defying basic home or school rules
  • Ignoring safety rules
  • Forgetting to close the door when they go outside
  • Forgetting to turn in homework
  • Touching everything in sight at department stores
  • Misbehaving on the bus
  • Guessing before thinking about an answer (in school)
  • Budging in line

Most of us are haunted daily by these tiny-human rule-breakers. If you’re anything like me, you wonder…

“Is this something he is even in control of?”

“Is he doing this on purpose to spite me?”

“Am I being hard enough on him?”

“Am I being too hard on him?”

“Why isn’t anything I do working to help him follow the rules?”

 “What am I doing wrong?!?! Do I just SUCK at parenting?!

Who gave me this this kid without an instruction manual?!?!”

Once you understand what may be happening in your kiddo’s brain, it’s easier to understand why she keeps breaking rules, and it becomes a little more straight-forward to deal with it. Impulse control is associated with self-regulation.

According to Russell Barkley, self-regulation is broken down into a specific process. Essentially, children with strong self-regulation abilities can actively inhibit a poor behavioral choice in order to avoid negative consequences or receive a benefit.

Let’s illustrate this with the following example: You are crossing a busy street and are afraid your child is going to run across without holding your hand. As you approach the curb you say to your child, “Hold my hand. If you decide to run across the street without holding my hand, we will not stop at the ice cream shop on our way home.” A child with strong self-regulation skills will stop, turn around and hold your hand. They want ice cream, and their brains have a little “management” function in it that says, “Listen up little person! Go back there and hold hands with Mom because I know you want ice cream, and I also know you’re going to be SUPER mad if you don’t get it!

For a child with poor impulse control, it’s not quite so easy.

Imagine you give the same directive – “Hold my hand while we cross the street or we won’t be able to stop for ice cream.” You reach out your hand, approach the curb and then all of a sudden… there they go! Running across the street without holding your hand! You yell, “STOP!” They keep running. You say, “Remember the ice cream!?” They run even faster. They run all the way to the other side and then they turn around… smile on their face. Ugh. You’re left completely perplexed.

What happened?

Well, in an ADHD kiddo, their brains lack that little manager and/or it is developing at a snails’ pace. There is no little voice telling your child that it would be good to not sprint across the street. Impulses are largely unchecked. When they want to run, they run. When a thought comes to mind, it blurts out.

Think back to our original kick-ball story… When the ball goes over the fence, they go get it. So even though your child understands that it was against your rule to cross the street without holding your hand, they may not have had the impulse control to follow through in the moment. Just as importantly, you must know that once a child has made a poor choice, their ability to alter behavior mid-stream in order to change an outcome is also impaired. The part of her brain that should be saying, “This is a bad idea, you should probably stop now,” is extremely weak.

{Here is an amazing explanation of all of this by Dr. Russell Barkley. Dr. Barkely also recommends reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow for a great illustration of the science of impulse control.}

How to Strengthen Impulse Control Before Defiant Behavior Occurs: POPR

There are a number of ways to help your child strengthen her impulse control function and reduce defiance. In this article I am focusing on the MOST IMPACTFUL strategy we have ever found. It is what professionals call POINT OF PERFORMANCE REMINDERS (PoPRs), and it changed our lives. (And no, I’m not exaggerating. Life changing stuff coming right up!)

{If you’d like a longer list of tools to use to help with impulse control, here’s a great starter article. My favorite resource on this topic is found in Chapter 2 of Russell Barkely’s book, Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete Authoritative Guide for Parents.}

PoPRs externalize what should be happening internally for your kiddo at the very point in time they need it most – at the point of decision. They are usually visual reminders that are given at precisely the point in time that your child is supposed to do (or not do) something he struggles with. Why visual and not auditory? Because for some reason they seem to work better. (How many times have your yelled at your kid, only to have them do exactly what you told them not to??)

So, here is how it works: You are going to create visual prompts and cues (Performance Reminders) that help them tame their impulsivity before it happens. You strategically place the reminders directly in your child’s path of impulsivity. The most common way our family creates these external prompts come in the form of:

  • Post-It Notes
  • Signs
  • Charts
  • Lists

Let’s revisit the kickball game scenario. Remember, your child knows and understands the rule about not touching the fence gate but she is having fun – she isn’t thinking about boring rules. She watches the ball sail over her head and right over the fence. She runs for the gate… This time, however, imagine that the school had preemptively placed a big bold sign on the fence – it has a picture on it, it’s in the shape of a stop-sign and it says, “STOP! Do NOT Touch This Gate Without A Teacher!”

ADHD Impulse Control Tools

Example of a Point of Performance Reminder

You hold your breath…. As your child approaches the gate their attention shifts from the ball to the sign. Instead of charging through the gate, they turn around and yell, “Hey! Get a teacher!!!” It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?! Here are some examples of other situations in which we use PoPRs:

  • In the doorways of rooms when they forget to complete their morning routine: “STOP! Have you brushed, made your bed, and picked up your floor this morning?!”
  • On the door they use to leave the house in the morning: “Have you had your meds today?!”
  • On the on/off switch of our treadmill: “STOP! Don’t turn this on without mom or dad!”
  • On their school binder: “Turn in your homework!”
  • In the car: “Don’t leave this car without cleaning up your seat!”

While creating effective PoPRs I’ve learned some best practices:

  • Keep the written words simple, large, and minimal
  • Make the color and shape meaningful (stop signs work great)
  • Have your child create them with you when appropriate
  • Place them at the point of decision – not too long before the decision needs to be made, and certainly not after the critical point has passed.

At first this process may feel like a crutch, and you may wonder if it’s actually helping your child develop their own skills or if it’s just training them to be more reliant on you. Be patient. It may be slow going, but one day you’re going to start to witness your child using these tools for themselves.

For example, just last week my son had an assignment to journal the activity of the moon. The moon doesn’t come out until he’s about ready for bed, and we’ve got three kids – no one is remembering the moon journal. So one day after school we finished all his homework and I said, “We CANNOT forget to do the moon journal tonight!” and he responded, unprompted, “Oh YEAH! How am I going to remember that? What if I put a post-it note on my pillow so I can’t go to sleep without remembering to do it?” And with that, he grabbed the trusty post-it notes and a marker and made himself a PoPR. And that, my friends, is success!

Leave your comments below! What is your experience with PoPRs? Share your own PoPR examples for others to learn from! Share this with other parents who need a boost of parenting confidence!

Together, we’ve got this! xoxo, Honestly Erin P.S.

Looking for more parenting strategies that work? Want someone to help you troubleshoot your particular concerns / child? Check out the Honestly ADHD parent coaching page!