Motivation and Attention

Why can children who are diagnosed with the baloney disorder ADHD pay attention when playing Legos or video games? It’s one of the many conundrums surrounding the diagnosis that eventually convinced me that the diagnosis is invalid; it also led me to believe that the vast majority of children diagnosed with ADHD* are in fact quite normal children.

So let’s start with some indisputable truths. First, children who are diagnosed ADHD can in fact pay excellent attention with some tasks. Parents tell me that their children can focus for long periods of time on constructive activities like building and drawing, but fail to pay attention to reading, writing, or rote tasks like math. Many of these children can be so engrossed in video games that they cannot hear their parents call them, yet they seem completely distracted while doing their homework.
So at least we have the knowledge that these children can sometimes pay attention. Whatever attention mechanisms they possess are not completely disabled.

One of the more ridiculous facets of the ADHD diagnosis is an admission that ADHD “symptoms” go away under certain environmental conditions. A primary example is that ADHD disappears when a child has individual attention. Another condition that cures this “debilitating disease” is engaging stimuli. And yet a third miracle cure is adequate structure and discipline. Amazing how these all correspond with what children actually need…

So the second indisputable truth is that children’s behaviors are changed—often radically—by the environmental conditions they are in. Nurture trumps nature yet again! An additional observation that must be noted is that adults can provide these environmental conditions.

The third indisputable fact is that the variable present or absent is motivation. Motivation is key for all behaviors. Without motivation, all behaviors—except reflexes—would extinguish (go away).

So what does this have to do with ADHD-like symptoms? Some children tend to be naturally (intrinsically) motivated by some tasks, but not others. Some children, of course, are motivated by the visual stimuli in video games and building things, but are not motivated by reading or writing. There is nothing unusual or abnormal about this. It is the parents’ challenge to motivate their child extrinsically (from without) until the child internalizes that motivation.

So Junior does not like to complete his math homework? Fine; there is no rule that Junior has to be naturally motivated to do math. But let’s say he earns a visit from Kobe Bryant if he finishes his homework on time and correctly, and at the same time, he knows that he will have a finger chopped off if he doesn’t do it on time or correctly. All of that motivation coming from two directions—positive and negative—will absolutely result in increased attention and concentration.

Now, I’m not a big believer in chopping off fingers and I’m sure you can’t afford to hire Kobe Bryant to come to your house to motivate Junior. But I’m sure you can think of some things in Junior’s life that are or would be motivating to him if you connected performance to those things.
Think about it. I’ve used this principle with countless school-age children. It works EVERY TIME.

*I refuse to refer to children as “having ADHD”, since I don’t think children can have ADHD any more than they can have cooties.

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