ADHD and cheating

ByKate Kelly

At a glance

  • There are many reasons why kids with ADHD may cheat.

  • Cheating can be a sign of an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Sometimes, cheating is related to issues with executive function.

An episode or two of cheating is pretty common for many kids. They might bend the rules of a card game in order to win, or copy and paste someone else’s words into a paper and call it their own. But when kids with ADHD frequently cheat, there may be more behind it than simply wanting to win or to take the easy way out.

For them, cheating is often related to issues with executive function that come with ADHD. It can also be a way of coping with the challenges that come with having ADHD.

Learn more about the connection between ADHD and cheating.

Why kids with ADHD may cheat

Impulsivity: Sometimes, kids plan to cheat. But for kids with ADHD, cheating is often an impulse. ADHD makes it hard for them to stop and think about possible consequences to their actions. It also makes it hard to resist temptation, especially when the stakes are high. Imagine an eighth grader with ADHD who’s taking a science test. She’s been doing poorly this marking period and needs to get a good grade. Suddenly she realizes she can see the test of the kid sitting next to her. She didn’t plan on cheating. But her impulsivity leads her to make a bad decision.

Wishful thinking: Kids with ADHD can sometimes be unrealistic and overly optimistic in how they view things. It’s part of their issues with executive function. It may also be a defense mechanism. They may downplay cheating by telling themselves, “The coach won’t notice,” “It’s not a big deal,” or “It’s just this once.”

School struggles and frustration: ADHD is a problem with executive function. These kids typically have trouble with attention, organization, working memory, and other key executive skills. That can make it hard to keep up at school, despite working very hard. Many kids with ADHD become frustrated by repeated academic setbacks. When they don’t see their efforts paying off despite trying their hardest, their self-esteem can take a real hit. Cheating can be a way to feel some measure of “success,” even if it’s not real.

Wanting to please and fit in: Like most kids, children with ADHD want to please their parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. It doesn’t feel good to be falling short of expectations all the time. Kids with ADHD also want to fit in with their peers and not be seen as stupid or lazy. They may resort to cheating to avoid feeling like a disappointment to others. Cheating may also help them hide their challenges from other kids.

Pressure and fears about the future: Some teens with ADHD, like many of their peers, feel pressure to get good grades in order to get into a good college. But years of struggling in school can leave them feeling more stressed and fearful about it. If cheating can give them a boost and put them on better footing grade-wise, it may seem like it’s worth the risk.

Working with the school to address cheating

Getting a call from the school saying your child has been caught cheating on a test can be an unpleasant surprise. Parents might naturally become embarrassed or angry. But it’s important to be calm and get the facts before responding.

Find out what happened by talking to both your child and the teacher. You may be upset that your child cheated. But it’s more important to focus on the issues that led to cheating and then work on solutions.

When you talk to your child, ask for specific information. Was the test format difficult? Was time a factor? Or did your child simply not know the material? Get the teacher’s feedback too. Depending on the answers you get, here are some possible solutions:

  • If your child doesn’t have a 504 plan, you might consider taking steps to get one so your child can get accommodations.
  • If your child already has a 504 plan, it may need to be adjusted to include different accommodations or support.
  • If the cheating is the result of your child not having prepared for the test, see what you can change at home. You might break down tasks, for instance, and help your child come up with a plan to get things done.

Kids with ADHD may also cheat at school outside of the classroom. While playing a game at recess, for example, they might insist the ball was in bounds when it wasn’t. In these instances, ask both the school and your child for details about what happened.

It’s entirely possible that there were other kids involved, and your child was unfairly blamed. Also make sure you have open communication with your child’s teachers so you’re aware of any social difficulties at school.

Talking to your child about cheating

While it’s important to understand what prompted the cheating, you also need to make it clear that cheating isn’t acceptable. Let your child know that having ADHD and the problems that go with it isn’t an excuse to cheat.

Instead of scolding kids for cheating, however, try talking things out. Ask for details about what happened. Be careful not to ask your kids why they cheated. Even adults have difficulty answering why they do certain behaviors. Instead, ask what has happened in school recently, and ask about how things are going with other kids.

The consequences for cheating should also be clear. Talk with your child about what might be a reasonable consequence for this episode. The consequence you set together should help your child learn from the experience. The goal is for it to reduce the likelihood of future cheating without being excessive.

You may also find that your child comes up with a harsher consequence than you would have given. This may be because many kids with ADHD feel great remorse when they have broken a rule.

Your child needs your support during episodes like these. It can help to treat cheating as a sign that your child probably needs help figuring out better ways to solve the problem that led to the cheating. By looking at the source of the behavior, you can help your child figure out how to behave differently in the future.

Kids with ADHD often struggle with other difficult behaviors. Learn why lying and aggression are common challenges. And watch an expert explain how ADHD-friendly parenting can help your child.

Key takeaways

  • Academic and social pressures are common causes of cheating.

  • Focus on solving the underlying problem that led to the cheating.

  • Kids with ADHD may want to please parents and teachers more than other kids do.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD is an ADHD/ASD expert and a best-selling author.