ADHD Behavior Management: When Rewards and Punishments Don't Work

Community Member

One of the core principles of behavior management is that we all respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. When our behavior is "reinforced" or rewarded, we tend to keep engaging in that particular behavior. And when we are "punished" (as in not getting a reward or having something we like taken away) for a particular behavior, it can be expected that we will then avoid this behavior.

When I went to school to learn to be a special education teacher, I learned many of the behavior management techniques using this core principle. For example, I learned how to set up a token economy system where the child would earn tokens for good behavior that he or she could trade in later for some sort of reward. For many children with and without special needs, such strategies can help to improve behavior. But what happens when the traditional behavior management methods fail?

Some reasons why such methods may be ineffective for some children include:

  • The behavior you are dealing with may be an obsession, ritual, or stereotypic behavior which usually cannot be altered with rewards or consequences.

  • It is always a guess at what things motivate a child and many times our guess is wrong about what is actually perceived as a reward for a child. In fact, a punishment for a particular behavior may be more motivating and reinforcing to the child than what we deem as positive and rewarding. Negative attention, for example, may be a prime motivator for some children to keep engaging in inappropriate behaviors.

  • When your child is in a group setting, particularly a classroom, you may be competing with the attention and reinforcement given by the other children for disruptive or acting behavior. If the other kids give attention or cheer on acting-out behavior, then any system you have for decreasing that behavior may not be effective.

  • Some children will be undeterred by losing rewards or privileges. Once they fail at obtaining the reward you have set up then what is their motivation for good behavior? Or in some cases after getting a reward, some children will act out because they have gotten what they want so they may feel it is then safe to act up again.

  • It is easy to get into a power struggle with your child of lording privileges and rewards over their head to gain compliance. The child can win this power struggle each and every time by simply not caring about what you are threatening to take away.

  • There are some people who say that the reliance on external rewards does not translate to developing an intrinsic motivation to do well. There is a book by author Alfie Kohn entitled Punished by Rewards, where he describes a reading program of a small town where children were given points for each book they checked out of the local library during summer vacation. These points could then be redeemed for a free pizza. The program was effective during the points redeeming time allotment, as the children who got the pizzas did read more than other children. But once the program was over and pizza was no longer a reward, these same children read far fewer books than the other kids who had never been involved in the points program. Once that extrinsic reward went away so did the reading behavior.

I also have my own personal example to share of how rewards and consequences don't always work for some children. My youngest son, who has autism and symptoms of ADHD, has had some challenging behaviors over the years. Recently he has had difficulties during times of transition or down times. The worst time for him seemed to be either in the car or the time right before dinner when we were busy trying to prepare a meal. It would be during these times that he would engage in silly behaviors which would sometimes escalate if we didn't give him attention.

Over the years I have developed many behavior programs for my son in conjunction with teachers and therapists.   Some would work for a time but then most would end up failing as my son seemed to not care a hoot about stars, prizes or the consequence of taking things away. The problem with many behavior programs is that the focus is upon reacting to a behavior instead of preventing it.

If you have a child who has behavioral problems then it is easy for both teachers and parents to fall into a trap of reacting when the child acts out and becoming unresponsive when they are behaving. You tend to be relieved when things are going well and you go about your business of everything else you have to do in a day. In some cases the child learns that the primary way to get attention is to act out.

I am here to tell you that a bit of prevention is worth the weight of ten star charts or the most elaborate token economy system. Try to figure out what is sustaining the child's behavior. In a lot of cases acting out or silly behavior is for the purpose of getting attention. If the child is craving attention, be proactive, and give them that attention before they act out in order to get it.

One of the things we began to do was that as soon as my husband came home from work, he allotted a half an hour to 45 minutes of one-on-one time with our son. This is sometimes hard to implement, but it has worked extremely well in preventing the pre-dinner time chaos. In the car we used to put on the radio or zone out. Now we talk, talk, talk to our son and include him in our conversation any way we can. We bring things in the car for him to do such as a magnadoodle or fidget toys such as a squishy ball or slinky. The other thing we do is to give natural praise for when our son is behaving as in: "I am having so much fun with you. I love talking to you when you are calm and happy." These preventive strategies have absolutely worked for us and my son is, for the most part, no longer engaging in the attention getting behaviors during transitions.

We have learned not to wait until behavior problems develop. When you are reacting all the time, you tend to get burned out. It is essential to catch your child when they are being good and be responsive then to prevent your child from acting out to gain your attention. Most people focus on the rewards and consequences element to behavior management when perhaps the most effective behavior management strategy is prevention.

I hope that this post helps the parent or teacher out there who may be struggling with how to deal with challenging behaviors in the home or classroom. If you have found a behavior strategy which works please do share your suggestion here. You know we are always eager to hear from you.