Parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) know a lot about the breadth of their patience—they've had it tested over and over again trying to deal with the disorganization, the lack of planning, the screaming, the lying, etc... What parents might not know is that many of these behaviors are the result of an inability to see past the present through to the future consequences, also called executive dysfunction.

This often results in, among other issues, poor hindsight, poor foresight, and an inability to “put on the brakes,” says Martin Kutscher, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Neurology of New York Medical College. But these issues don't have to spell doom for your child.

In his book ADHD: Living Without Brakes (Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 2008), Kutscher outlines four main ways parents can steer their child in the right direction: 

Rule #1: Keep it Positive

ADHDers are like moths drawn to the brightest light—unable to inhibit anything but the most attractive stimulus. Positive reinforcers make very attractive bright lights. Rewards should be immediate, frequent, powerful, clearly defined, preferably relevant, and consistent.

How else can you keep it positive when it feels like you're living in a house of cards? It's okay to be a little (or a lot) frustrated, as long as you still get “a kick” out of your child's unique qualities. It's never too late to let your child make you smile, even if you're just chuckling in disbelief. It would also be easier to view a child positively if we understand what underlies a child's actions. Here are some tips to answering the question, “Why did he do that?”

  • Ask your child! Let him know you really heard by rephrasing what he said before you respond.
  • Ask yourself how you would feel in that situation.
  • Remember we are seeing only a part of what is going on in a child's life. Parents need to remember their child may have had an especially difficult time in school.
  • The Four-Second Rule explanation. Often, the behaviors make sense if we remember that ADHD children live almost exclusively in the present without much ability for foresight.

Rule #2: Keep It Calm

Seek to defuse, not to inflame. Negative behaviors usually occur because the child is spinning out of control, not because he is evil. Therefore, for explosive kids, the first step is to “just stop!” Even five or ten minutes is usually enough for the most brakeless ADHD brain to regain composure. 

Be clear with your child that this is not a punishment. Rather, the child gets to do some pleasant—yet soothing—activity. Consider listening to music, playing Legos, or reading something of their choice. If offering a pleasant activity doesn’t work—and there are some children for whom it won’t—then ignore the child. It takes two to fight.

Rule #3: Keep It Organized

ADHDers don’t have typically functioning brains in the area of organization. Here are four principal elements required to keep your student organized:

  1. An assignment pad. Ah, our trusty old friend, the assignment pad. So basic. After all unless the child has his assignments in writing, how is he going to reliably do them? The trick is making sure your child uses it and brings it home with him.
  2. A monthly planner. If a book report is due in two weeks, have your child write it down on the monthly calendar. Then, work with the student to break down the project and record the due dates for the multiple steps involved in the project—such as when to obtain the book, read the book, write the rough draft, edit it, and hand in the report.  
  3. A bi-fold folder for all papers coming form school (left side) and for all papers going back to school (right side).  
  4. A single binder (or two). The presence of multiple hiding spaces for papers spells disaster for an ADHD child. A single binder—or perhaps one for the morning and one for the afternoon—would work a whole lot better for ADHD kids.

Rule # 4: Keep in Going

In other words, keep doing Rules # 1-3. ADHDers are born with a neurologically different brain. The issues are not going away overnight. Neither will the need for support. When acrobats are taught a new trapeze act, their trainers provide them with a safety net. When gymnasts perform their high bar routines, they have a “spotter.” No one worries that providing these safeguards will interfere with learning, or make the performer take his task less seriously. It is simply that without a safety net, the penalty for missing a handgrip while flying across the trapeze bars in neither commensurate with the mistake nor productive. Be the safety net or “spotter” for your special needs child.