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Behavior Therapy for Children with ADHD

Most experts recommend using both behavior therapy and medication to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Here's what families need to know about behavior therapy and how it works.

What is behavior therapy?

Behavior therapy focuses on how important people and places in the child's life can adapt to help them improve their attention and activity. It differs from play therapy or other therapies that focus mainly on the child and their emotions.

Behavior therapy is based on three basic principles and strategies:

  1. Set specific, doable goals. Set clear and reasonable goals for your child, such as staying focused on homework for a certain amount of time or sharing toys with friends.

  2. Provide rewards and consequences. Give your child a specified reward (positive reinforcement) every time they show the desired behavior. Give your child a consequence (unwanted result or punishment) consistently when they display inappropriate behaviors. Sometimes when you start using a punishment, the behavior may increase before it starts to decrease and disappear.

  3. Keep using the rewards and consequences. Using the rewards and consequences consistently for a long time will shape your child's behavior in a positive way.

How can behavior therapy help my child?

With behavior therapy techniques like these, parents, teachers and other caregivers learn better ways to work with and relate to the child with ADHD.

You will learn how to set and enforce rules, help your child understand what they need to do, use discipline effectively, and encourage good behavior. Your child will learn better ways to control their behavior as a result. You will learn how to be more consistent.

How are parents involved in behavior therapy?

As their child's primary caregivers, parents play a major role in behavior ­therapy. Parent training is available to help you learn more about ADHD and specific, positive ways to respond to ADHD-type behaviors. This will help your child improve. In many cases parenting classes with other parents will be sufficient. However, with children who have more challenging behaviors, individual work with a counselor or coach may be needed.

Taking care of yourself also will help your child. Being the parent of a child with ADHD can be challenging. It can test the limits of even the best parents. Parent training and support groups made up of other families with children who have ADHD can be a great source of help. Learn stress-­management techniques to help you respond calmly to your child. Seek counseling if you feel overwhelmed or hopeless.

Ask your pediatrician to help you find parent training, counseling and support groups in your community.

10 tips help your child control their behavior

  • Keep your child on a daily schedule. Try to keep the time that your child wakes up, eats, bathes, leaves for school and goes to sleep the same each day.

  • Cut down on distractions. Loud music, computer games, and TV can be overstimulating to your child. Make it a rule to keep digital screens and music off during mealtimes and while your child is doing homework. Don't place a TV in your child's bedroom. (See "Make a Family Media Plan.")

  • Organize your house. If your child has specific and logical places to keep their schoolwork, toys and clothes, they are less likely to lose them. Save a spot near the front door for their school backpack so they can grab it on the way out the door.

  • Reward positive behavior. Offer kind words, hugs or small prizes for reaching goals in a timely manner or showing desired behavior. Praise and reward your child's efforts to pay attention.

  • Set small, reachable goals. Aim for slow progress rather than instant results. Be sure that your child understands that they can take small steps toward learning to control themself.

  • Help your child stay "on task." Use charts and checklists to track progress with homework or chores. Keep instructions brief. Offer ­frequent, friendly reminders.

  • Limit choices. Help your child learn to make good decisions by ­giving him only 2 or 3 options at a time.

  • Find activities at which your child can succeed. All children need to experience success to feel good about themselves.

  • Use calm discipline. Use consequences such as time-out, removing the child from the situation, or distraction. Sometimes it is best to simply ignore the behavior. Physical punishment, such as spanking or slapping, is not helpful. Discuss your child's behavior with him when both of you are calm.

  • Reach out to teachers. This can help develop a good communication system so that you can coordinate your efforts and monitor your child's progress.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from ADHD — What is Behavioral Therapy? American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2023)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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