Discipline, ADHD, and learning differences
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Many parents struggle with how to discipline their kids. But for families of kids with ADHD or learning differences, it can be even harder to know what to do. How do you discipline kids who have trouble with the skills they need to behave? What strategies work best for kids with ADHD?
In this episode, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra get discipline tips from clinical psychologist Dr. Kristin Carothers. She explains why it can be hard for kids with ADHD to follow rules, and how positive discipline can help.
Hear answers to questions like: What do we do when kids with ADHD forget their homework? How can you get on the same page as your child’s school when it comes to discipline? Plus, find out why having fun with your child is part of an effective discipline strategy.
Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...
Rachel: ...the ups and downs...
Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.
Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about discipline. What works and what doesn't? Especially when it comes to kids who struggle with focus and attention.
Gretchen: Our guest today is Dr. Kristin Carothers, a clinical psychologist who divides her time between Atlanta and New York. Kristin is also an expert contributor here at Understood.
Rachel: Before we hear from her, though, let's make sure we're all on the same page about what we mean by discipline. The word sounds so kind of stodgy and old-fashioned, like training your children to never speak until spoken to or that kind of thing. But that's not what we're talking about here, right, Gretchen?
Gretchen: Right. So for the purposes of this conversation, what we're really talking about is helping kids to do what's expected of them in ways that are effective and hopefully not counterproductive.
Rachel: Mmm. Yeah. I mean, when we were growing up, most of the time, not doing what you were supposed to do would usually lead to some sort of punishment or negative consequence. For me, it was like getting grounded, which now is — I feel like it's barely a thing. But there were no devices to take away when I was 10.
Gretchen: Yeah. Grounding. You really don't hear that word anymore. Today you hear more about another approach that a lot of teachers, parents, and psychologists have come to see as more effective. And that's what we call positive discipline. We began our conversation with Kristin by asking her to define what that is.
Kristin: Yeah. Positive discipline is when you teach children how to correct behaviors using reinforcers, rewards, praise, right? So we have rules that are developmentally appropriate, that are clear, that are stated in what's called the positive opposite. So the "to do" behavior instead of the "not to do" behavior. So instead of saying "stop, no, don't," you say, "please walk," "please sit." You tell the kid what the expected behavior is so they know what to do instead of what they were doing that wasn't right.
Once the kid follows through with that, you then follow up, letting them know that you appreciate their follow-through. So they acknowledge it. Thanks for listening.
So rather than taking a punitive approach where we are nagging or where we're asking them questions — "Why do you always do that?" "Why can't you follow directions? You need to stop." — positive discipline practices really emphasize being able to tell kids what is expected in a manner that will allow them to do the behavior the next time, and then catching them when they do that behavior and giving them credit for doing that behavior.
Gretchen: Giving them credit for doing that behavior. I like that reminder.
Rachel: Can you talk about why getting kids to do or not do things can be particularly tricky when it comes to kids who have ADHD?
Kristin: I think for kids with ADHD, one of the things that we've got to remember is that they may or may not be listening when we speak, right? So it could be that there are competing demands for their attention, and they're not purposely ignoring you. But because of the way that their brains work, they may be having a harder time attending to a parent when they're engaged in a preferable activity.
The other issue, I think, is sometimes we can give commands to kids that are so lengthy that we forget one at a time. And we want to, before we give three commands, make sure that the first is followed.
Rachel: I totally do this.
Gretchen: I do it too.
Rachel: I'm like, "Here's what we need to do this morning." And then I rattle off like 17 things, like actually 17.
Kristin: And I think, like part of that is because we in our heads are trying to orient ourselves to like, this is everything we've got to do today. But we forget that our kids' brains don't necessarily work in the same ways that our brains work. If you said go brush your teeth, wash your face, and put your clothes on, they likely miss one of those three, right?
Or on their way to do those three, they're distracted by something that they see along the way. And then we're frustrated because we've given the commands, but we haven't waited for follow-through or the kid got lost in follow-through.
Rachel: Yeah, it's hard.
Gretchen: Can I ask, though, like the alternative, right, would be like Rachel steps in and says, "OK, first go brush your teeth." And then she waits for them to brush their teeth and then she comes back again. "OK, now do this." Now I feel sometimes like I become like a nag now because I'm, like, trailing behind, like telling you what to do at every step of the way. So what's the alternative?
Kristin: OK, very good points. Very good points, because you do become a nag and then you also have to get things done. And so I think it's about an environmental intervention at that point. Right? So we know we've got five things that have to be done. It's really important that if your kid hasn't internalized that yet, that they're in the same space as you to get those things done, so that you can give a command one at a time and see if is followed through, right?
So it may be that you've got to do everything in closest proximity to the bathroom so that you can make sure the teeth were brushed. So it's "Go brush your teeth," and you have to say that at the door to the bathroom.
Visuals, I think, are something that we don't utilize enough when we're trying to teach kids routines. You might need to just put the visual up in the bathroom that is teeth brushed, the face washed — some emoji, right? And you just say, "Go check your chart. When you've got the two things on your chart done, come back to me." And then it's like you got charts all over your house. Are you going to — but whatever. We do, it works.
Gretchen: Make sense.
Rachel: Yeah, that's totally makes sense. So how should we think of our role as parents when it comes to discipline? You know, are we trying to be, you know, this, like, stern authority figure or more of a sympathetic friend? Like, what are we looking for there? Because I struggle with that and I think I bounce around a little bit.
Kristin: I think as parents, we have to know that there's a time and a place for everything, right? There are times when you need to be that person who just listens empathically so that you can get your kids to open up and talk to you. There are other times where you've got to be firm and direct so that they know that they've got to follow through with your request.
And it's developmental, right? Before age 18, you are more of a coach. A teacher/coach. Once kids get to the point where they are leaving home, they're going off to college, you then are transitioning into a mentor frame. So we're not going to do friendship necessarily with a 5-year-old, but we will play with our 5-year-old and have specific times when we let them know, like, we enjoy being with them. We can do things they like and we're still the parent. We're still in the role of teacher/coach.
As kids get older, we transition to more of that mentor/support/friend because we want them to learn and make decisions on their own that are a little bit more tough.
Rachel: Right. And feel like they can come to us. Like, that's always my place where I'm like, I want to stay on the right side. Like being the person in charge. But then I also want there to be that comfort level of like, my kid will come to me if there's a problem.
Kristin: Right. And I think that's why is really important as parents that we have time set up that are like low-pressure, hang out, special times when we are not given directions, when we are just there with our kids, right? And that five minutes of time builds a foundation for a relationship so that when you go to give the kid a command, they know that there's time to spend with you. So it's not like, "All my dad does is boss me around. All my mom does is tell me what to do. They never spend any time with me." You build that foundation and then they're willing to share things with you.
Gretchen: Yeah, I like that. So my kids are older. They're middle school and high school. And I have found that our, like, special time of, like, just fun and there's nothing to, like, no chores or anything is actually driving in the car. Like taking them someplace and having my kid get to pick the playlist and singing along and just kind of having fun. That seems to be like the best place for me right now with my teens and tweens.
Kristin: I love that idea of picking the playlist because usually we're not — we're in the zone. We're in our own worlds. Long commutes can actually be good times to kind of try to fit that special time in.
Gretchen: Well, I'm going to pivot to another question. When we know that our kids have trouble with something. Let's say that we know that our kid — maybe our kid has ADHD. They have a hard time remembering to bring their homework to school. So in that case, should there be consequences? How do we handle that? What do we do about this?
Kristin: This is a really, really good one, especially with kids with ADHD. The homework is done, but it never got turned in. So what do you do now? We do want them to learn if they don't turn it in, they don't get credit for it. So there's a natural consequence where their grades might suffer, right?
But I think the question you're asking is, do we put then a consequence in place to help them to learn? And what I'm going to say is a consequence doesn't always have to be something that's bad. It can be saying to the kid, we worked really hard on this assignment today. Tomorrow you've got to turn it in. I'm going to put a Post-it note on your lunchbox that says "Turn it in." If you can turn that in, when you get home, you can have five minutes of extra game time.
Now, the flip of that is if you've been working at this with an older kid and they're still not getting, the flip of that is, "Listen, you've got to turn in your paper. If you don't turn that work in, then you won't be able to do X after school, because we've got to work on getting it turned in." Right? And then you go crazy with praise once they got it done. "I'm so proud of you for turning that in. Thank you for getting that in. I got an email from your teacher.".
You might even put the teacher on lookout. For a kid with ADHD, that's pretty helpful to have a home-school communication. Put a note. "The work is in the book bag. Would you be able to let me know if he's able to remember?"
Gretchen: Right. And with this example that you gave, like, you know, "You don't — you didn't turn in the paper. So now we're taking this away because we need to work on turning it in." Or like, maybe it's "We need to work on all your homework to make sure you keep your grades up, because guess what? You lost credit for that." It seems related at least, right? It's not like you're just taking away time and saying, "Nope, no TV for you. Sorry."
Kristin: Yeah, we've got to be careful with that as parents, because I think a lot of times when we take things away or we implement a consequence is because we're angry. Right? We're super frustrated. But all our kid learns is like my parent is angry. They don't necessarily learn a skill from that. So if we say, "Well, you didn't turn it in, you lost points, now we got to work on this extra credit." Or "Now we've got to work together on drafting this email to the teacher about the work." Right? It's related. It teaches a skill.
Gretchen: Yeah. And if you make a mistake and say — which I perhaps I've done this — you just say "this is canceled" and like, walk away. You can recover from that, right? You can go back and say "Hold on a minute. Let's talk about this."
Kristin: You can recover. You can — I think it's important to recover.
Rachel: I hope so.
Gretchen: I know, right?
Kristin: It's important to recover. You're teaching a skill. Right? Emotional regulation. "I was really angry when I said that. I was wrong." Like able to say to your kid "I was wrong" is big because we want to raise people who can admit fault.
Kristin: So we are fallible as parents. We make mistakes. We can walk it back. And we can say, "I'm going to give you another chance to earn this opportunity back."
Rachel: OK. Well, thank you for for bringing that up, Gretchen, because that totally happens in my house a lot.
Gretchen: Same with mine.
Rachel: I like, you know, in the moment this — it seems like a good idea to take some thing or event away. And then like five minutes later, I'm like, what did I just do?
I want to also ask about if and when parents find that they're maybe not on the same page as teachers or coaches. So let's say we're taking kind of a positive discipline approach at home. And then at school, it sounds like the teacher or the policy is maybe more punitive or less, you know, understanding. How do we handle that?
Kristin: That is hard. So when we're looking at school environment versus home environment, and home environment being very different from the school environment, I think it's really important for there to be home-school communication that is collaborative with the teacher. So let's say the system at school is pretty punitive. The system at home is a little more relaxed. The first thing we need to do is let our kids know this is going to happen in life. They are going to be times when the things that are allowed at home are not the things that are allowed at school. And sometimes it just is what it is and there's nothing we can do about that. That's number one.
Number two is you'll try to the best of your ability to advocate for them with the teacher. So if there's a system that's pretty harsh or that, you know, for some reason doesn't work for your kid because of the way they learn, right, then you do have the responsibility as the parent to educate the teacher about why you address things the way you do at home. And finding out from them if there are things that you could do that would help them be able to implement some of your practices in the classroom.
So not placing another burden on the teachers, but saying, "Hey, so I've got this resource, we use this particular chart at home, and if he could bring this chart with him and check off these things, he could bring it back home to me and I'll monitor it." Those are the types of resources that take some burdens away from the teacher and let them know that you're trying to collaborate with them.
Gretchen: Yeah, I was going to say, as a former teacher myself, that I taught middle school and I would appreciate any time a parent told me, hey, this is what we do at home and it works, you know — try it here. Like, great. Thank you.
Rachel: So that brought to mind one thing that I have experienced. When my son was in elementary school, there were times when as a consequence for, you know, whatever the issue was, if he had a conflict with another kid or he wasn't, you know, just doing whatever needed to happen, where he would lose recess. And it felt counterproductive — probably for all kids, but especially for a kid with ADHD who might really need that time to get that energy out and take a break. And now they're like the kid who can't go out for recess. So is that a thing that can be part of a 504 or like, is there another way to handle things like that?
Because I do get that sometimes they have very little to work with. It's like, look, we have to, you know, have some kind of consequence for the thing that just happened. But then at the same time it's like, it's not helping anyone because then the child is like kind of, you know, off the rails in the afternoon after, you know, missing recess.
Kristin: Right. OK. So I think recess is very important for kids. I grew up in a system where we did not have recess. The only time we had recess was when we had a substitute teacher. And so I know how much I looked forward to recess as a kid. I think when it comes to recess it's important to think about incremental removal of time rather than taking away the full recess period. People need to know that they can still work towards something.
So if a kid exhibits a behavior and it's a behavior that is pretty resistant to change, and you just take recess away, there's nothing else to work towards. And the kid doesn't get the benefit of having the time to run and play and grow their brain in that way, right? So if there's a 20-minute recess period, rather than taking away the entire 20 minutes, it may be that for the first five, the kid has to sit and wait.
Kristin: And then they join for the next 15. Because that incremental piece is just showing like, look, you engaged in a behavior that was inappropriate immediately before this. And so now you've got to take a five-minute break. Tomorrow you will have your entire 20 minutes if you're able to follow the rule.
The other thing, if it was a negative interaction with the person, it may be that now the two people are going to have to work together on a project to problem-solve. So it may be that the recess is structured. You all had this disagreement. It wasn't managed appropriately. Now we've got to practice how we manage interactions appropriately. You all are going to work together on this activity with supervision.
So the teacher's got to be willing to sit there for five minutes. You guys are going to work together to complete this puzzle. You all get this done, you're gonna dab it out. High fives, move on. OK? So a corrective experience. A repair. Because I think positive discipline does focus on there's an opportunity for repair. Right? There's an opportunity for reconciliation. We don't want to just say you've done this wrong thing, and now all bets are off. You can never come back. We've got to give structured opportunities for repair.
Rachel: I like that.
Gretchen: That makes sense. Kristin, how do we figure out if our child can't do something we need them to do versus they won't do it? Because I think sometimes parents worry that ADHD will become an excuse for our kids and a way to get out of doing things that they don't want to do.
Kristin: That is an excellent, excellent question. I don't even have a fast answer for it. I think you gotta listen. Yeah, no fast answers. You got to do some data collection as the parent and like, really try to figure out, like, is this child consistently unable to do this thing and not compare it to other things? So here's the thing. People come to me all the time and they'll say, "There's no way he can have ADHD, or she can have ADHD. They can sit and play video games for hours. Why can they focus on that but they can't focus when I get to homework?"
It's because of this thing called hyperfocus, right? Hyperfocus occurs for kids with ADHD when they are engaged in activities that are reinforcing to their brains. Right? So if I'm engaged in a reinforcing activity that's reinforcing to me, it is intrinsically motivating. I don't need you to tell me to do it. I'll do it on my own for hours.
The issue is, with ADHD, is that they are — a lot of the interventions have to be environmental interventions, reward/reinforcement interventions, because there are many things we ask kids with ADHD to do that are not internally reinforcing or rewarding. And you get no hyperfocus, you get the opposite. You get distraction, right?
So first things first. Let's like really do an accounting of when are the times that you've seen your kid be able to accomplish this task? I'll put myself out there, myself and my son with getting dressed in the morning. If he knows that we are taking a trip that day out of town, he can respond to an alarm. He can be up and dressed before I hit the stairs. It's amazing.
But if there is nothing that he is really looking forward to happening that day or that weekend, there is going to be a struggle to get him out of the bed and into the bathroom and to get the teeth brushed and the clothes. I'm almost dressing him and I know he can dress himself. This is all a function of dawdling. I'm not really ready to get on the school bus. Ugh, it's another school day. How am I going to get out the door?
Gretchen: Yeah, but I like this idea of the — you have to do the collection, right? You have to check off. Have you seen this happen? Is there capability there?
Kristin: There's capability. Yes. So then how do we reinforce capability? Like, if you get yourself up and dressed to the alarm, then you can wear that special shirt that you wanted to wear. Or I'll let you put this little gadget in your book bag. But gadgets are tricky for kids with ADHD because they can get them into more trouble. So watch the gadgets.
Rachel: Yeah, there's like 50 fidgets in my daughter's backpack right now.
Gretchen: But if you do start noticing and tracking things and you actually see, though, wow, my kid just can't — I've never seen them do this. What do you do then? So, you know it's actually something they can't do.
Kristin: So then we've got to break that behavior down to simplest parts, and we got to shape it one step at a time. Right? If you know that if you put a worksheet in front of your child, they've only gotten to two questions in 20 minutes by the time you've come back, then you can't leave that child just yet. You've got to say, "OK, I've got to sit here and we're going to cover up half of the paper. I know you can do two questions in five minutes because you did two questions in 20 minutes. So let's go." Timer's set, one and two. Timer goes off. "Great job getting one and two done. Let's see if you can get three or four done in three minutes." Right? You may have to be physically present to shape some of these behaviors that they can't do just yet.
Gretchen: Kristin, so we know we're getting to the end of our chat time. I'm wondering if there's anything we haven't touched on that you want to mention.
Kristin: As parents, be kind to yourselves. Like you're not always going to get this absolutely right. There might be a consequence that we said that we think back and we're like, oh, that wasn't really fair. Or there might be a time when we should have implemented a consequence and we're worried like, oh, now is it going to be a brat?
And so I think we've got to know that we are doing our best and we can do better. That it's OK to reach out for support and to not have all the answers. It's really important to give ourselves the opportunities to be just good enough. Like we're not perfect, but we can be good enough.
Gretchen: Just good enough. I'm going to remember that. Well, thank you so much, Kristin. This was a great conversation.
Rachel: Yes. Thank you.
Kristin: Thank you, guys. I really enjoyed participating.
Gretchen: So what do you think, Rachel? Do you feel ready to try some new positive discipline strategies at home?
Rachel: I do. And, you know, the thing is, I'm usually pretty good about trying something new when I when I hear about, like, you know, try this to get your kids to do whatever it is that we need them to do. The thing I need to do, though, is be more consistent and really do it. Not just do it, you know, because I heard about it 10 minutes ago. So I'm really excited to really do it.
Gretchen: Yeah, me too. I think one of the things I liked, though, is that she acknowledged we're going to make mistakes along the way and that we can back up and we can say, hold on a minute, I lost my temper, I am sorry. And I've definitely done that. And so I don't know, I feel not so bad about the fact that I've had to do that. I feel OK and I'm doing an OK thing. So thank you, Kristin, for that.
Rachel: Yeah. Giving ourselves grace is so important. And speaking of giving ourselves grace on our next episode, we can't wait to share with all of you some of the parent fails that you've shared with us.
Gretchen: Yes. We are so excited to dig in, because believe me, when it comes to messing up, you are not alone. We've all been there. I've been there. We're going to be sharing our own stories and laugh a little and feel like it's OK for us to have made some mistakes. So stay tuned for that.
You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.
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Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.
Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.
Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.