One of the most common concerns raised by parents of kids with ADHD is how to help them learn effective time management. It’s an essential skill all kids need to develop in preparation for independent living. Parents report being most frustrated by their child’s seeming inability to get to school on time or finish their homework before the very last minute. I assure you that kids with ADHD are also frustrated. But they often don’t feel time passing: this is called time blindness. Developing good time management skills is tougher for neurodivergent brains due to common issues with impulse control, distractibility, poor planning, and disorganization. It’s important to teach kids time management skills regardless of their age. With a lot of practice, they will get the hang of it. In addition to teaching about how time passes with backward design, finding effective motivators is an important puzzle piece. The right motivators are ones that are meaningful to your child and improve initiation and persistence. Let’s take a closer look.
Backward design: A strategy that works
Since many kids with ADHD struggle to feel time as it passes, we have to assist them to see it move. Analog clocks show this to them. They also need to understand how long things take. The backward design shows kids how to start with the desired time goal and work backward, subtracting how long things actually take. If you have to leave the house for school by 8 AM and it takes 15 minutes to each breakfast, 20 minutes to get out of bed and dressed, 5 minutes to brush your teeth, and another 10 minutes to grab your backpack, lunch, boots, and coat, then the wake-up time should be 7 AM with an extra 10 minutes for unexpected stuff. When you lay out the backward design for your child, set up a list for the tasks. Remind your child to check it instead of asking you for repeated guidance. This way, they learn sequencing, planning, organization, and time management skills.
Why parents should step back from managing their child’s time
As long as you, the parent, are responsible for the youngster’s time management, they will not fully learn how to do this for themselves. Here’s a common scenario: Your son has difficulty getting up in the morning and getting to school on time. Because you don’t want him to be late, you serve as his alarm clock, coming into his room or yelling at him to get up. On particularly rough mornings, you pull him out of bed. You always have breakfast on the table to avoid delays and pack his lunch the night before.
In this situation, your son has learned that you have taken on all the responsibility of his morning. He doesn’t need to set the alarm because you are always watching the clock; you will always ensure he gets up and has all sorted out food. Your son has no incentive to do things differently because he knows you’ll rescue him.
Shift responsibility for time management slowly
Although your intentions are good (you don’t want your son being tardy or hungry), he’s not practicing time management for himself. The time has come (pun intended) to shift some of that responsibility to him, but slowly.
Start with a conversation about what needs to change and why. Explain why it’s important that your son manages his morning more independently so he can accumulate the skills he wants and needs on his journey toward greater autonomy. Explore the various challenges together and then agree on one thing to change and work on that. Shifting too many things at once will only create frustration and confusion.
Brainstorm how your child can empower himself to get up in the morning without your help. And then, provide the necessary means, be it one or two alarm clocks or an earlier bedtime. Discuss the natural consequences of his not getting up on time. He’ll be tardy. He’ll need to walk instead of getting a ride, etc. Be patient while he learns, and stay consistent. Once he masters the first skill, you can introduce another one. Slow and steady progress wins the race in learning to understand and manage time more effectively.
Use motivators that are meaningful
I work with a lot of parents who say no matter how they try to motivate their children, nothing seems to work. Ingrid, the mother of a 14-year-old girl, told me, “She just doesn’t seem to care about the consequences. I can beg, plead, punish, or sweet-talk her. The result is always the same. I’m all out of ideas.”
Effective motivators for kids and teens are ones that are meaningful to them. Punishments rarely work because they don’t teach your child anything – it’s just an angry reaction. The carrot is much better than the stick for inspiring kids to do the right thing. Each child is different, so there’s no formula for how best to motivate them. Work collaboratively to identify what matters to them. Then use those activities or rewards to inspire them to make different choices.
Motivators that work
Say your child’s favorite breakfast is Dad’s special pancakes with whipped cream. For each morning that your child comes down to breakfast by 7:30 AM, you’ll make the special pancakes and even offer extra whipped cream. You know that eggs on toast won’t do the trick, but the promise of extra whipped cream is worth coming to breakfast for.
Of course, there’s no magic here, so work with what you have. Be prepared for your child’s motivators to change over time as they grow. Pancakes may work for a 12-year-old, but by age 16, the prospect of getting a driver’s license may be a far more meaningful enticement.
Instilling effective time management skills is a labor of love, patience, and steadiness. Sometimes it’s easier to do the work on behalf of your child, but we parents know it’s better to do what’s right than what’s easy. It may take a while, but with support and practice, your child or teen with ADHD will develop these critical tools along the way.
Want to ask Dr. Saline a question? Click Here
Become A Member
Please become a member of my newsletter community. You can find support and resources and connect with a group that understands your questions and needs. Click here