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How to Motivate a Child With Executive Dysfunction

How to Motivate a Child With Executive DysfunctionMotivation problems are often one part of executive dysfunction. Here are some proven techniques that work well for motivating any child, especially one who struggles with executive function.

Praise That MotivatesDecades ago, the self-esteem movement made a wrong turn when it came to praise, says David Walsh, PhD, psychologist, teacher, and author of Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen. It put too much emphasis on children feeling good about themselves, he says, and not enough on gaining competence.

Today, we have a better sense of what really works. Led by Stanford University’s Carol S. Dweck, PhD, recent research has shown that certain types of praise are more effective than others. Some effective strategies foster a fixed mindset—the belief that abilities are set in stone. Others foster a growth mindset—the belief that talents can be developed. These tend to be among the most inspiring strategies: Dr. Dweck also found that describing the brain as a “muscle” with the ability to develop can help motivate kids.

Follow these tips to give more effective praise.

Praise the Effort

“Praising a child for innate abilities makes them risk-averse,” says Dr. Walsh. “They don’t want to run the risk of losing that identity.” Praising effort, on the other hand, gives children something they have control over – no matter their ability. “It turns out to be much more motivating.”

Be Specific

Rather than telling your child, “You’re really good at math,” it’s more helpful to say, “Hey, nice job on those equations. You must have worked hard on that,” says Dr. Walsh.

Praise kids for checking their work, too, adds Lisa A. Jacobson, PhD, NCSP (Nationally Certified School Psychologist), a pediatric neuropsychologist with the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Try phrases like, “Found a mistake? Great!” With this, you’re encouraging your child to work hard and work toward accuracy.

Be Sincere

“Children as young as seven years old know whether or not they deserve praise,” says Dr. Walsh, adding that: “When they get it and know they don’t deserve it, they come to two conclusions: One, I can’t believe you because you praise me for everything. Two, I must be really sad if you’re praising me for that.”

Don’t Overdo It

For children who struggle with learning and are at risk of losing their drive, it may be tempting to really pour on the praise. But constant praise may decrease persistence and erode self-reliance. For better results, praise intermittently, says Dr. Walsh.

A Balanced Parenting Style Is there a parenting style that works better than others for children with executive dysfunction? Try to avoid one extreme or another, says Dr. Walsh.

Too Much, Too Little

One extreme is being overly involved, directive, and strict. Another is a laissez-faire or permissive parenting style, which is paved with good intentions: You don’t want to put too much pressure on kids, so you let them off the hook too easily. “But if you end up doing things for children that they can do for themselves, they don’t develop that inner sense of competence and achievement,” said Dr. Walsh.

Just Right

A better way to build executive function is with consistent, firm, clear expectations and consequences that are laid out in advance, says Dr. Walsh. With countless repetitions, he says, children and teens develop the ability to manage themselves and direct their own energy.

Dr. Jacobson agrees: A sensitive and structured approach—customized to the child’s capabilities—goes a long way toward maintaining a child’s motivation. “It’s not just, ‘Honey, you’re fine, whatever you’re doing,’ but ‘Here’s what I expect, and let me support you in the process.’”

Other Tips for Promoting Motivation Here are a few other tips that may help.

  • Break it up. For younger children, Dr. Jacobson recommends building task motivation by interspersing work and play periods. Use a timer, so your child can see when playtime is getting closer. Then set the timer for several minutes of playtime.
  • Offer choices. To the extent possible, offer both young children and adolescents choices, says Dr. Jacobson. This includes what to do as well as how to do it. Autonomy is motivating.
  • Find the sparks. Not interested in school subjects? Figure out what else your child is interested in. Is she passionate about ponies? Ride that motivational horse, says Dr. Walsh, if only with reading materials.
  • Temper use of technology. Whether it’s video games, television, or Facebook—an overuse of technology is likely contributing to growing distractedness in the population at large, says Dr. Walsh. That won’t help motivate any child, let alone one with executive function challenges. Set limits, and stick to them, but start at an early age for better results.

Additional Resources


jeremyAnnie Stuart is a freelance writer and editor with over 25 years of experience. She specializes in consumer health, parenting and learning disabilities, among other areas.

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