How to Communicate With Children With ADHD

Three Parts:Making Everyday Communication BetterGiving Instructions and Assigning TasksDisciplining a Child with ADHD

As many as 11% of school-aged children have ADHD.[1] Children with ADHD have difficulty paying attention. They have short attention spans and are easily distracted. They also have a hard time holding lots of information in their minds at one time. Many parents and teachers believe that children with ADHD simply do not listen or aren't trying; this usually isn't true. Life with ADHD can be challenging, but you can help by a child with it communicating in a way that is easier for them. This can save both of you from a lot of stress and frustration.

Part 1
Making Everyday Communication Better

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    Minimize distractions. Children with ADHD have a hard time focusing. They are easily distracted by other things going on around them. You can improve communication by eliminating as many distractions as possible.
    • When talking to a child with ADHD, make sure the TV and stereo are turned off. Set your phone on silent, and don't try to carry on conversations with other people at the same time.[2]
    • Even strong odors can be distracting for people with ADHD.[3] Avoid using strong perfumes or scented air-fresheners.
    • Lighting effects can also create problems.[4] Replace any flickering lights or light fixtures that create unusual shadows or light patterns.
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    Wait until you have the child's attention. Don't start talking until the child is focused on you.[5] If you don't have the child's full attention, there is a good chance you will have to repeat yourself.
    • Wait for or ask the child to make eye contact with you before you begin speaking.
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    Keep it simple. In general, try to talk less and use short sentences.[6] A child with ADHD can only follow what you are saying for so long. You should express yourself in a way that is efficient and to the point.
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    Encourage exercise and movement. Children with ADHD often do better if they get lots of exercise. When restless, moving or standing can help them focus and minimize disruptions.[7]
    • Some people with ADHD find it helpful to squeeze a stress ball in situations where they have to stay seated.
    • When you know the child is going to have stay to relatively still for a while, it's a good idea to have him or her run some laps or otherwise exercise beforehand.
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    Be reassuring. Many children with ADHD suffer poor self esteem. Challenges that their peers overcome with ease can be a struggle for them. This can lead to feeling stupid or incompetent. You can help by providing reassurance.
    • It is hard for ADHD kids to think they are smart when peers and sibling outperform them academically. This can lead to a lack of self-confidence.[8]
    • Parents should encourage their special-needs children to set goals and teach them to achieve them.[9]

Part 2
Giving Instructions and Assigning Tasks

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    Break it down into steps. Children with ADHD are often overwhelmed by what might seem like simple tasks.[10] You can make it easier to achieve tasks by breaking them down into smaller steps, sometimes called "chunking."[11]
    • Teachers don’t tell students they have a 10-page research paper with citations due in a month then walk off and expect success. They pass out written instructions with the assignment chunked into milestones with deadlines. Students get feedback at every stage of the process. Parents can do the same with chores, establishing routines that reflect consistent instructions.
    • For example, if your child is responsible for loading the dishwasher, you might break up the task in this way: First load all the plates on the bottom. Now load all glasses on the top. Next is silverware… and so on.
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    Ask the child to repeat what you've said. To ensure the child heard and understood the instructions you gave, ask her or him to repeat back what you said.[12]
    • This allows you to verify that the child understood, so you can clarify if necessary. It can also help reinforce the task in the child's mind
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    Provide reminders. There are several types of reminders you can provide that can help a child with ADHD stay focused and on task.
    • For cleanup tasks, you can create a system that uses color-coded bins or shelves. Written labels and pictures can also help the child remember what goes where at cleanup time.[13][14]
    • A checklist, day-planner, calendar, or chore-board can also be helpful for children struggling with focus issues.[15]
    • At school, try to organize a "homework buddy" to help remind the child of school tasks they need to accomplish.[16]
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    Help with time issues. Young people in general don't have a very precise sense of time. Children with ADHD struggle with this even more.[17] To help a child with ADHD follow instructions in a timely manner, its important to help with these clock issues.
    • For example, set out a kitchen timer. Let the child know you'd like to see the task completed the before it beeps. Or, play some music the child is familiar with. Tell him or her you want the task completed before the music is over, or before a particular song ends
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    Provide praise at each step. As the child accomplishes each step of the task, praise him or her.[18] This will help build his or her self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.[19]
    • Providing praise at each step increases the chances of future successes, too.[20]
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    Make it fun. Making chores fun can help reduce the stress that an ADHD child may feel when taking on a new task.[21] Here are a few ideas:
    • Give instructions using silly voices.
    • Try role-playing. Pretend to be a character from a book, movie or TV show, and/or invite your child to do so. For example, your child could dress up as Cinderella on chore day, while you play music from the movie.[22]
    • If the child starts to get stressed out, make the next chore a silly one, or assign a silly movement to do or sound to make while working.[23] Don't be afraid to take a snack break if things get too rough.

Part 3
Disciplining a Child with ADHD

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    Prepare in advance. As with any other, a child with ADHD will sometimes need discipline. The trick is designing discipline that will be effective, given the way the brain of a child with ADHD works. A good first step is to prepare in advance for difficult situations.
    • When you know you are going to be in a situation that will be difficult for the child (e.g. one where she or he must be still and quiet for a long time), discuss it with her or him in advance. Talk about what the rules are, and agree on the rewards for following them and punishments for disobedience.[24]
    • Then, if the child begins to have trouble behaving, ask her or him to repeat the rules and consequences back to you. This will often be enough to prevent or stop unwanted behavior.[25]
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    Be positive. When possible, use rewards rather than punishment. This will be better for the child's self-esteem, and may also be more effective in promoting good behavior.
    • Try to catch your child being good and provide a reward rather than trying to catch him or her being bad and providing punishment.[26]
    • Keep a bucket or box of little rewards, such as small toys, stickers, etc. These kinds of tangible rewards can do a lot to help motivate good behavior. After a while, you can cut back on the tangible rewards, replacing them with praise, hugs, etc.[27]
    • Another approach some parents find helpful is a point system. Children earn points for good behavior that can be used to "buy" special privileges or activities. Points can be used for a trip to the movies, staying up 30 minutes after the normal bedtime, etc. Try organizing points around the child's routine schedule. This can reinforce daily good behavior and build self-esteem through repeated successes.[28]
    • When possible, try to make the house rules positive rather than negative, too. Rules should provide a model for good behavior, rather than telling children what they should not do.[29] This gives children with ADHD a model of what they should do, rather than making them feel bad about doing things they shouldn't.
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    Be consistent. In such cases that require punishment, be consistent about the consequences for misbehavior. Children should know the rules.They should know the consequences for breaking the rules, and the consequence should happen in the same way every time.[30]
    • Both parents should be on board, providing the same consequences in the same way.[31]
    • The consequence should apply whether the misbehavior happens at home or in public. Consistency is vital, and a lack of it can lead to a child developing confusion or willfulness.
    • Do not argue about the consequences or give in to begging or defiance, ever. If you give in even once, the child may learn that consequences are negotiable and repeat the misbehavior.[32]
    • Similarly, limit responses to bad behavior to the established consequences. Do not reward bad behavior with extra attention. Extra attention should be a consequence of good behavior only.[33]
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    Be immediate. Children with ADHD have difficulty with attention span and cause-and-effect thinking. Therefore, it is important to make sure consequences occur as soon as possible after the undesired behavior.[34]
    • Consequences that come too late after the bad behavior may have no meaning to the child. These consequences may seem arbitrary and unfair, resulting in hurt feelings and more bad behavior.
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    Be Powerful. Consequences must also be significant to be meaningful.[35] If the consequence is too minor, the child may simply brush it off and continue to misbehave.
    • For example, if the consequence for refusing to do a chore is nothing more than than being required to do it later, this probably has no real impact. However, not being allowed to play video games that evening may have a more substantial effect.
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    Stay calm. Do not respond emotionally to misbehavior.[36] Keep a calm tone and be matter-of-fact about doling out consequences.
    • Getting angry or emotional may cause a child with ADHD unnecessary stress or anxiety. This is not productive.
    • Anger can also send a message that the child can manipulate you through bad behavior. Especially if a child is misbehaving to get attention, this can promote further unwanted behavior.
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    Use timeouts effectively. A common punishment for bad behavior is the "timeout." This can be a helpful strategy for disciplining a child with ADHD, if used properly. Here are some guidelines:
    • Don't treat timeout as a prison sentence.[37] Instead, use it as an opportunity for the child to self-calm and contemplate the situation. Ask the child to think about how this situation came about and how to resolve it. Tell him or her to contemplate how to prevent this from happening again in the future, and what the consequence will be if it should reoccur. After timeout, have a discussion about these topics.
    • In the home, have a designated spot where your child will stand or sit quietly. This should be a place where he or she cannot see the television or other distractions.
    • Designate a consistent amount of time to remain quietly in place, self-calming (usually not more than one minute per year of age of the child).
    • As the system becomes more comfortable, the child might remain in place until he or she has achieved a calm state. At this point, the child might ask permission to come talk it over. The key is to allow the child time and quiet. When timeout is productive, give praise for a job well-done.
    • Don’t think of timeout as a punishment; consider it as a sort of reset button.


  • Be prepared to repeat yourself. The short attention span of a child with ADHD often requires this. Try not to get frustrated.
  • When things are difficult for you, keep in mind that the child is struggling, too. In most cases, the frustrating behavior he or she may exhibit is not malicious.

Sources and Citations

  1. ADHD & You at
  2. On Their Own: Creating an Independent Future for Your Child With Learning Disabilities and ADHD by Anne Ford (2007).
  3. On Their Own: Creating an Independent Future for Your Child With Learning Disabilities and ADHD by Anne Ford (2007).
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Article Info

Categories: Attention and Developmental Disorders