How To Improve Behavior In A Child With ADHD

Changing an ADHD Child’s Behavior

As kids return to school to start the new academic year, more and more parents are asking for ways to change their ADHD child’s behavior. This usually means their ADHD child has poor behavior, has bad habits, or displays misbehavior and they want to improve behavior of the kid.

Common complaints about the behavior of a child with ADHD include:

  • He doesn’t listen to me (pay attention to what I am saying or ignores me)
  • She interrupts when I’m speaking (has to get the last word in)
  • He won’t sit still in class (fidgets all the time disrupts the class)
  • She refuses to do her homework (I can’t get her to do her homework)
  • He talks back to me all the time (has a smart mouth – is mouthy)
  • She argues over everything or acts like she knows everything.

behavior adhdAs I’m sure you have noticed, all of these ADHD symptoms are really just typical behaviors or habits normally seen in ADHD kids and teens. They include the core symptoms used to make the diagnosis of ADHD-inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Examples Of Improving Behavior

Daniel was the perfect example of an ADHD child’s behavior problem

Daniel’s mom was about to lose her job. Not because she was a poor worker or wasn’t at work on time every day she was scheduled, but because of Daniel’s bad behavior.

Daniel’s behavior during the first two weeks of school was so bad, that Patti had to leave her job 7 out of 10 days to pick him up at school between 10 and 11 am. On each of those days, his teacher called telling her his mouthiness and constant fidgeting and interrupting were so disruptive to the class as a whole, that someone had to come and get him. Since Daniel’s father worked out of town for days at a time and no one else was available, Patti had to leave work to get him.

Once Patti arrived at the school, Daniel calmed down and appeared to act as if nothing had happened. Patti and her husband tried threats, punishment, promises of rewards for good behavior, but nothing worked, and in fact; his behavior worsened instead of improving.

At first, Patti’s boss was very understanding and let her take sick leave to handle the problem. But…the previous day was different. He told Patti he would have to replace her if something wasn’t done and he meant like yesterday.

So, what was Daniel’s problem? Why was his behavior so different from the previous school year? What happened over the summer that had changed this child?

Here’s what I discovered about Daniel’s ADHD behavior: Daniel

  • Was starting first grade
  • Was starting first grade in a new school
  • Was starting first grade in a new school in a new town
  • Had never had a school problem before
  • Had a stressful summer filled with his parent’s money problems, having to live with a grandmother until a new house was ready, and then had to deal with moving the twenty miles to our town
  • Had not attended school orientation like the other kids, because no one could take him.

I suspected Daniel was suffering school transition disorder with anger, frustration, and fear as a result of being thrown into a new and poorly controlled setting and the environment.

The Best Way To Improve Behavior In ADHD Kids

What could have been done to prevent or at least lessen the likelihood of Daniel’s behavior?

The best ways to change or improve an ADHD child’s behavior

  • Try to anticipate things that will disrupt your child’s life – whether large or small
  • Introduce changes slowly
  • Avoid springing things on your child abruptly
  • Target one behavior at a time
  • Set definite and clearly understood goals (end points)
  • Avoid setting unrealistic goals and time schedules
  • Go slowly
  • Avoid being judgmental or accusing
  • Reward each change toward good behavior, no matter how small
  • Set up ways to maintain the behavior once the goal is met
  • Allow your ADHD child maximum input into everything done, if he or she doesn’t buy into the game plan-guess what? It will not work.

While it is often difficult for a parent to behavior train an ADHD child without professional help, it’s not impossible. In my next article, we’ll discuss simple things you can do to start behavior training at home while waiting for that all important doctor’s visit to re-evaluate your child’s behavior problem.

Twice yearly re-evaluation of your child’s behavior disorder is the best way to make sure he or she is truly suffering from ADHD and not one of the more than 100 things that can look just like ADHD causing misdiagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Using Good Discipline To Improve Behavior In ADHD Kids And Teens

When used properly, good discipline can improve just about any child’s behavior, whether ADHD or not.

improve adhd behaviorBefore we get further into using discipline as an educational tool to shape behavior, I’d like to mention behavior contracts- an agreement that outlines what type of behavior is expected, when, where, why and what happens as a result of the behavior.

We continue our discussion about the use of principles of good discipline in children and teens with ADHD to help improve behavior, shape behavior or fix misbehavior. All of these things, of course, will reduce family stress and decrease frustration in both parents and teachers, as well as the involved ADHD child, ADHD teen or ADHD adult.

In previous articles, I outlined what I consider to be the four essential elements of good discipline when dealing with adults, children, and teens with ADHD. Actually, these principles can be adapted for use in children and adults who are not ADH but are suffering any type of behavior problem or misbehavior.

To quickly review, thus far we discussed the first two of the four essentials: Consistency and Fairness. I’ve received e-mails from several parents stating as far as they were concerned, being consistent and fair are the most important things when it comes to dealing with childhood behavior or shaping a child’s behavior.

I agree being consistent and fair in what you do when dealing with your child are very important facets of good discipline, but ask you to keep an open mind about the other two essential elements as we discuss Accountability and Flexibility.


You and your child are both accountable when you each live-up to whatever agreement you mutually make to improve poor behavior or train good behavior. Once again, please let me remind you that discipline is an educational experience, not punishment or negative reinforcement and if you confuse the two, then your behavior contract will be worth much less.

You see; in order to be fair, consistent, and effective; whatever agreement you make must include what is expected of both of you in certain circumstances and what will happen as a result of both good behavior and poor behavior and what occurs if either one of you fails to live up to the terms of the agreement. Remember, it’s just as important to have consequences for good behavior, as it is for the bad behavior you wish to discourage, and the consequences should be worth the effort.

For example, 10 year old Roderick and his mom showed up in my office after he got angry and kicked a hole in his bedroom wall because she wouldn’t let him go skating with friends on the previous Saturday.

Rod’s mom had promised he could go skating with his friends if he cleaned his room every day for a week. Rod explained he thought everything was going great, as she would check his room after he cleaned it every day. He honestly believed he had kept his part of the deal.

Unfortunately, his mom changed her mind on Saturday and would not let him go skating as promised. She said he just didn’t quite clean his room as well as she expected and wanted me to “fix his terrible attitude and violent behavior”.

When I asked when and how she had shown him exactly how she wanted him to clean his room, she responded by saying; “He knows how I want his room to be cleaned. I shouldn’t have to show him. He never listens or pays attention anyhow. So, why should I waste my time?”

As you can plainly see, Rod was in a no win situation. His mother was actually causing his behavior problem to worsen by being inconsistent and failing to be accountable for her own actions!  In this case, Rod suffered all of the consequences and his mom suffered none.

Was she being unrealistic, unfair, or did she really never intend to let him go skating just to prove she was in control?


Flexibility means being able to adapt and change the discipline and behavior contract as needed. Both you and the child need to be able to modify things. If you need to change the terms of a behavior contract in mid-stream, then it’s very important that all participants agree to do so.

For example, parents often tell me how they “use discipline to fix bad behavior” in their children under age six years by using time-out. They make their child sit in a corner for one minute for each year of age in hopes that forcing him or her to sit quietly will somehow cause a change in their behavior.

I think many parents misunderstand that time-out is actually a form of punishment; unless a learning experience is tied to the time-out event. I tend to think time-out works best when the misbehaving child understands and buys-in to the fact that he or she will suffer through a learning experience when certain misbehaviors occur.

As a side notetime out works equally well in children over age 6 or 7, but it’s often misused. Most of the time, these kids are told they are being placed on restriction for bad behavior, but parents often use too much variability and flexibility when deciding how long or how harsh the restriction or punishment is to be.

I believe to work effectively that children over age 7 years should receive one day of suspension per year of age per episode of misbehavior. Likewise, to turn this into a discipline moment instead of punishment, these kids and teens definitely need to agree in advance as to the terms of the behavior contract, so that they are responsible for their behavior and its consequences and won’t think they are being punished instead of being disciplined.

Key Note: Restricting an older child or teen beyond 16 days usually causes excessive frustration in both the parent-teacher and the child, which results in poor behavior modification and tends to cause rebellion. Trying to enforce unrealistic long-term restrictions, limitations or suspensions is the number one reason that discipline and behavior contracts fail.

Summing Up

Hopefully, these tips on dealing with the four elements of Good Discipline in Children and Teens with ADHD will help you in dealing with your child’s poor behavior or misbehavior. Once again, I’d like to point out that a parent can actually be so inconsistent, inflexible, poorly accountable, and unfair when using discipline techniques that they might cause a child to be misdiagnosed with ADHD, because a child can be so confused about what you’re saying is discipline, but looks like punishment, that they become angry-hyper-impulsive and are once again mistaken for ADHD.

In closing, once parents and teachers learn the ins and outs of good discipline, many of these faux ADHD children and children misdiagnosed as ADHD, will mysteriously seem to lose or out-grow their ADHD.

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