Why ADHD Kids Have Trouble Doing Homework: No Payoff

By Eliza Strickland | September 9, 2009 5:09 pm

ADHD kidKids suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have altered brain chemistry that prevents them from experiencing motivation and rewards like other people, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Lead researcher Nora Volkow suggests that faulty transmission of the brain chemical dopamine may be to blame for the difficulty people with ADHD experience trying to finish tasks that have no immediate payoff — the difference between doing homework, for instance, and playing a video game [CBC News].

The researchers used PET brain scans to determine how the brains of people with and without ADHD handled the neurotransmitter dopamine, a versatile chemical that is involved in regulating mood, attention, and learning. In particular they measured levels of two proteins – dopamine receptors and transporters – without which dopamine cannot function effectively to influence mood. ADHD patients had lower levels of both proteins in two areas of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens and midbrain. Both form part of the limbic system, responsible for the emotions, and sensations such as motivation and reward [BBC News].

While the research didn’t prove that the reduced dopamine action caused ADHD, Volkow says it does indicate a possible way to cope with attention-deficit kids in the classroom–make schoolwork more immediately rewarding. “My strategy would be rather than exercising the attention network, let me give an intervention that will make the task much more engaging,” she said [HealthDay News].

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Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: ADHD, emotions, learning
  • john glennon

    If only it were this simple. Even with immediate payoff like money, a treat, or playing a video game for a few minutes, ADHD children have trouble finishing a mundane task. Volkow thinks making homework more engaging would allow more attention to the task. Of course it would. That’s the conundrum teachers have faced for centuries now.

    My wife and I opted to use cognitive training for our son, Alex. We used Play Attention (www.playattention.com) and ADHD Nanny (www.adhdnanny.com). We’ve been very successful with these approaches. We also changed our parenting skills with great success.

    It’s just important to know that medicine teaches nothing. Parents and teachers must actively participate to help change a child’s life.

    The brain is incredibly plastic — neuroplastic. It will adapt and make changes provided the correct stimulation. Making all activities more engaging is not realistic. We should do this when possible, but the brain will adapt or compensate if it’s shown how. It’s important to understand that we are not necessarily bound by our genetics.

  • Christina Viering

    Good information john!

  • pc

    John – how did you change parenting skills – what resources can you recommend?

  • Benny

    How many parents are like John, pro-active and nurturing? Then how many are lazy, put the TV on, medicate my kid ’cause I screwed up kind of parents? Doctors medicate with near total abandon, schools pigeon hole and abdicate responsibility, and the government gets bought by drug companies. adhd has grown so fast that you’d think something is in the water. Kids should get more exercise before they become 10 yr. old druggies. Schools should bring back phys ed. and school lunches should be replaced or augmented by school breakfasts.

  • random

    John – When they were talking about games and homework I believe they meant making the mental/emotional rewards of finishing homework more similar to the rewards a child feels while actualy playing a game, not using games as an actual reward

  • Oddball

    I struggle with ADHD too. But my mom doesn’t think so! I try to explain to her why I can’t focus, but she insists that I need to study harder and longer! I try, but it’s hard. I’m smart and understand the work, but I can’t study for a test for anything! Because I’m young she thinks I’m just hyper! :(

  • http://learningsolutionsathome.com lucy barlow

    Great article…thanks for your insight. I also have a strong interest in the area of ADD and APD. Please visit our site and read my article Attention Deficit Disorder Verses Auditory Processing Disorder – A Big Difference at http://www.learningsolutionsathome.com. Thanks and take care, Lucy Barlow

  • Sherrie White

    I’m 50 years old and in the last couple of years I started hearing the question “Do you have adult ADD?” Quite honestly I love my ADDLAS (look a squirrel) as it now referred to. I’m wonderfully creative and very technical. It makes a great combination. Yes, finishing things is a constant struggle, but as you grow up, you learn to finish things. My son who is 18 is just like me. always off to do something new. And he’s a poet. Yes, there’s a reason he’s not a novelist. He can’t concentrate that long. Isn’t being different a wonderful thing?

  • kira case

    I found this very interesting. Not to mention kind of personal because I myself have ADHD. So I definatly would understand the part were its hard to pay attention for long periods of time. I think making school work or home work or classwork even, haveing benefitts right a way is a very good idea, or maybe try making things in class more interesting so it grabs the students attention. I know for a fact if a class is very interesting or fun I’m definatly able to pay attention longer and get more out of it.

  • kira case

    I found this very interesting. Not to mention kind of personal. I myself have ADHD all my life. It is very hard to concentrate for long periods of time. So if they started making home work or even school work benefit a kid faster it would help a lot. I also think trying to make classes more interesting or fun would help a lot to. I know I can pay attention and retain things much better if it was interesting and grabs my attention the first time.

  • john glennon

    Thanks, Christina.

    PC, to answer your question, I think out of all the strategies we employed, consistency was the greatest factor. This was difficult for both my wife and me. We actually formed a contract together so that we didn’t work against each other. The couple has to be on the same page.

    The contract also detailed the structure we set at home; warnings, consequences, homework times, bed times, etc. Just doing this much can make things sooooo much easier. It also keeps parents from becoming angry since we understand what to do.

  • http://www.mailentries.com Mail Entries

    It is a really interesting findings.

  • Samantha

    Really good information. I found some unique tips to help my son with homework and got to talk to an experienced teacher here: http://www.mommyalertadhd.com

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  • Sam T

    I still suffer from adhd. Its so bad at this point i can no longer go to movies or take long drives. Do the homework with kids is a bad idea. Instead. Be around them. Lets say while you are cooking or doing something. To get through university i had to listen to music while i did my work even reading. I cant read without music my mind will wonder. Breaks also help adhd kids.


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