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ADHD Rewards and Consequences: The Science Of How It Works

April 12, 2023
Table of Contents

    With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rewards and consequences can be powerful tools to promote appropriate behavior. However, they aren't all created equally, and understanding the ADHD brain makes a difference. Though it's not always the case, if you have a child with ADHD, you may find behavior modification challenging.

    Many parents of kids with ADHD see favorable results from using a reward system for positive behaviors and consequences for inappropriate behavior. Still, there can be confusion surrounding why this works and how to use reward systems in the most ideal way. So, what should you know?

    In this article, we'll discuss whether rewards and consequences work for ADHD, understanding positive reinforcement for ADHD, and good rewards for children with ADHD. Then, we will talk about understanding your child's view and how Joon can help.

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    Do Rewards Work For ADHD?

    Rewards are a tool used for behavior modification in children, and many parents find that reward systems are effective for their children. Not only do rewards work as reinforcement for kids with ADHD, research suggests rewards may work better for kids with ADHD than their neurotypical peers. ADHD is associated with altered reinforcement sensitivity, which changes the way a person responds to rewards. Research shows that the positive effect of reinforcement on cognitive tasks is greater for kids with ADHD than typically developing children. In other words, they're more apt to respond and improve performance when given a reward or response cost. It is also seen that small, immediate rewards are favored over rewards that are larger but delayed.

    Do People With ADHD Understand Consequences?

    In children with ADHD, there can be a discrepancy between behavior and consequences. In other words, it can be harder for kids with ADHD to understand what they did wrong (and how consequences are a result of that behavior) when compared to neurotypical peers. However, this does not mean that people with ADHD don't understand consequences. Instead, kids with ADHD require clear explanations for what they did wrong and why the consequence is a direct impact of that action.

    Similarly, with the way the ADHD brain works, it is important to remember that impulsivity and trouble delaying one's responses can mean that people with ADHD act without thinking - only realizing that a certain behavior was inappropriate after they did it. As a result, people may repeat mistakes or have trouble suppressing impulses overall and feel deep shame.

    Paired with rejection sensitivity, all of this can be very challenging emotionally. Patience, understanding, gentleness, and working together are all critical when helping kids with ADHD modify their behavior.

    Understanding Positive Reinforcement and ADHD

    More than one study has been conducted on how rewards and discipline work for children with ADHD. The research is actually quite extensive. For example, an article published in the journal of abnormal child psychology, which examined a sample of over 1,100 kids, found that a child's neurotype can impact reward and punishment sensitivity. All kids with ADHD (regardless of other disorders) showed increased sensitivity to rewards and anxiety factors in comparison to neurotypical peers. The ADHD-only and ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) groups scored higher than other groups on impulsivity and fun-seeking. On the other hand, the ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) group scored higher on punishment sensitivity. This suggests that assessing a child's responsiveness to different ethical behavior motivation techniques can help parents, providers, and others (e.g., teachers in school) determine what works best to teach the unique child positive behaviors or reduce negative behaviors.

    Behavior Motivation

    Behavior motivation is exactly what it sounds like, referring to what motivates our behavior. Some things are known to motivate human beings, like meeting our basic needs and feeling good. That said, some of the things that motivate a person most can differ.

    Behavior modification is the process of changing behavior, and it utilizes various techniques, like rewards, consequences, praise, self-monitoring, and modeling. For some kids, behavior modification can take extra time, positive words for good behaviors, and sensitivity when giving negative feedback.

    Professionals and parents can use knowledge surrounding behavior motivation and ADHD when teaching children with ADHD skills and behavior modification to help them meet their ultimate goal.

    Dopamine and Rewards

    People with ADHD have a dysfunctional use of dopamine, which controls some emotions and behaviors. Part of understanding positive reinforcement for kids with ADHD is understanding that this is how their brain is wired. While imbalanced levels of dopamine can lead to poor impulse control or emotional regulation,especially if left unchecked, people with ADHD can use this information to understand themselves and adjust their behavior. Parents of kids with ADHD can also benefit from this knowledge, as you can start to identify why your child does what they do and what works in terms of behavior modification.

    Immediate Rewards

    Those who work in abnormal child psychology often recommend immediate rewards for children with ADHD, but why? Research suggests that children with ADHD show reduced activity in the ventral striatum when anticipating a reward. This may explain why immediate rewards are favored among kids with ADHD.

    What Are Good Rewards For ADHD?

    Rewarding children with ADHD is a clear way to support the behavior you want to see, but as discussed, some rewards can be more effective than others. For some parents, it may take trial and error to find what works, but doing so is possible. With that said, here is a parent's guide to reward ideas for children with ADHD.

    How Joon Can Help

    Joon is a to-do app and game that functions as a reward system for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related disorders. Here's how it works:

    Parents sign up first with the Joon Parent App and make a task list for their children. You can add unlimited tasks to your child's list, which is fully customizable and can be changed at any time. Kids connect with a separate app called Joon Pet Game. After completing items on their task list in real life, they get rewards that allow them to take care of a virtual pet and move forward in the game. 90% of kids who use Joon finish every task their parents assign, and many users say it has improved their parent-child relationships.

    Joon is rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars in the App Store, with over 4k reviews from parents like you. Even better, it's backed by experts such as child psychologists, teachers, and occupational therapists.

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    A token economy system

    Token systems let you provide a reward immediately (in the form of a token) while kids and teens work up to a bigger reward. A token economy system can be helpful for older kids and teens who have ADHD but may not be motivated by the smaller, more simple rewards younger kids are, like stickers. Sticker charts, tokens, or other low-cost rewards for younger kids can be helpful.

    Screen time

    Screen time privileges are a great reward for many kids with ADHD, as it can provide dopamine and is something that many children gravitate towards. Some parents might give kids rewards in the form of an hour of video game play, an extra hour to watch TV, or something else.

    Verbal praise

    One of the things we know can motivate human behavior is praise and positive reinforcement from others. Verbal praise makes most children feel good, so it can be a very successful way of motivating children, whether it is used independently or alongside other rewards.

    Small objects

    If you decide to focus on giving a child immediate rewards, small objects can be a positive motivational tool. Fun items like stickers, play dough, a toy that the child picks at the dollar store, or something else that's motivating for the unique child can work.


    Rewards don't always have to be material to work. A fun activity can also be an ideal reward for kids! Going to the park, spending time with friends, or swimming are all examples of ideas parents can use. Like with using objects as part of a reward system, consider which idea(s) make the most sense for your child.

    Understanding Your Child's View

    Understanding your child's point of view is a critical component of successful parenting. Kids with ADHD can have more trouble with paying attention, following through with tasks, and impulsivity than other kids. Consider the following to help you understand your child's point of view as you work on their behavior.

    Patience and compassion matter during discipline

    Your child may make mistakes more than once, and it's likely not on purpose. Show compassion for this during discipline. Talk through why what they did is not okay during discipline, and provide replacement behaviors.

    Take care not to ignore or forget positive behaviors

    Make sure that you don't fall into the trap of giving children negative reinforcement only. While unintentional, some parents who endure frequent power struggles focus on problem behaviors disproportionately.

    Giving children positive attention when they do something right or exhibit good behavior is essential. Give positive feedback whenever you can, and make it specific. For example, "That was a great way to express that," or "Thank you so much for using your indoor voice at the store; that was so helpful."

    Explain rewards, consequences, and expectations in detail

    Do not rely on common sense when parenting. Kids don't "read between the lines." It's best that you don't leave anything unsaid, even if it seems obvious to you. Instead, if you want your child to do what they're told, explain what is expected clearly. Similarly, if you use a reward system or punishment, explain that it is connected to the behavior directly.

    Teach children coping skills for big feelings

    Coping skills matter. Teaching coping skills is necessary for all kids, but if a child experiences angry outbursts or other behavioral problems that pair with high emotions, a special focus on coping tools can be critical. Breathing exercises, taking breaks, and other techniques can help during times of anxiety, anger, or other strong emotions.

    It's okay to ask for support

    If your child needs extra help with behavior or mental health, working with an expert like a counselor or therapist can help. Talk therapy can help kids, teens, and adults with ADHD learn healthy self-regulation alongside other skills. Often, it is recommended that kids with ADHD pursue therapeutic interventions alongside other ADHD treatments used in child and adolescent psychiatry.


    All of us experience motivations that affect our behavior in some capacity. Research in abnormal psychology shows us how children with ADHD and other conditions may respond to rewards and punishment differently. Understanding the science of rewards and consequences for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can aid a parent or family in successful behavior motivation. A reward system that includes immediate rewards, like small objects and verbal praise, apps like Joon, and fun activities can all be helpful for parents and their children. Every child's brain is different, even among children with ADHD, so your family may use trial and error to find what works best for your child.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.