My child just isn’t motivated to do their work or help around the house, what can I do?

It can be hard to find internal motivation (particularly at this time)! If you think about it, we are all motivated externally, whether it is through a paycheck or praise from our boss or a partner. For children with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism and ADHD, internal motivation can be particularly challenging. I recommend implementing some sort of reinforcement system (such as this token system or reward chart), keeping in mind that the reinforcements (aka rewards) do not have to be expensive or grand. You can come up with a list with your child –things such as picking the movie to watch on the weekend, reading an extra story at bedtime, or choosing a dessert. I created this checklist of things to ask yourself when creating a reward system:

Is the reward realistic?

  • Make sure the reward that you pick is actually doable. If your child picks watching a movie as a reward, but there isn’t time to watch an entire movie, this isn’t going to work.

Is the reward specific?

  • Try setting the amount of time for the reward and when they will get the reward. For example, “playing on the tablet for 30 minutes before dinner”

Does everyone know how the reward is earned?

I often hear parents say that their child can receive a reward if they’re “good.” I would encourage you to define what good means. What are the behaviors you hope to see – for example, following directions the first time they’re asked, finishing their homework, clearing their plate from the dinner table. Make sure the effort equals the reward; think of it this way – if someone gave you an impossible task and told you that you could earn $1 at the end, would you try it? Probably not! But if you thought you could do it, you’d probably try it.

Is the reward immediate?

  • A reward at the end of the week may work for some kids, but for others it just may be too far away. Perhaps you can have small rewards immediately and larger rewards at the end of the week.

Did the reward come after the behavior/task?

  • Think, “once you complete [insert behavior/task] you can have [insert reward].”

Did you follow through?

  • This is a really important piece. Remember, the goal is to motivate the child to complete the behavior or task. If you do not give the reward, you’re teaching your child that even if they do what you ask, they may not get the desired reward, and this behavior is not likely to increase – plus, you may even decrease motivation to complete such tasks again! I’ll give a similar example to the above – if your boss tells you that you can get a raise if you work all night, but then you don’t get the raise, how would you feel?


What about suggestions for focusing on schoolwork?

My suggestions for completing school work can also apply to completing chores or other tasks around the house. Recall in my previous posts on maintaining a schedule, I wrote about the benefits of using visuals – such as pictures or a list of steps to complete an activity. Try having a daily schedule and a “To do list” with tasks for the day that your child can cross off as they complete them. Make sure to add in breaks and fun activities so that your child knows how much longer until they get to do something “fun.” Some children may need fewer tasks before a break – for example, completing “three math problems”, rather than an entire math worksheet. You could also have a “to-do” box that contains pieces of paper with pictures or written instruction of tasks for the day, as well as a “finished” box, where your child can place the task once they have been completed. Visual timers can also be helpful to show how much longer they need to work before a break. I highly recommend breaking down large tasks into smaller tasks – for example, rather than saying “clean your room”, you could list “make bed, put away toys”, or break this down even more to “put blanket on bed, put pillows on bed.” I also suggest trying to have preferred or fun activities after completion of less preferred activities, or at least have a good mix of the two.


I need to get my own work done, any suggestions for keeping my child occupied?

I recently read a great suggestion from Dr. Stephanie Lee in a post from the Child Mind Institute. She suggested using a visual drawing of a traffic light to show when you are able to give your child your attention. For example, putting a note with your name on red may indicate “not available” and on green would mean “available.” Keep in mind this will best if there is an appropriate trade-off between the amount of red and green. For example, if your child is only able to entertain themselves or complete work on their own for 10 minutes, they may need more attention or guidance at the end of that time frame. Try to include a list of activities that your child can do while you are in the red zone and a time limit for when you will move to green. For example, “While I’m in the red zone, you can play with your Legos. At 2:00pm when I am done with my phone call, I’ll be in the green zone and can play Legos with you.”


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This post is part of a multi- part series of articles written by Dr. Jamie Barstein, child clinical psychologist at The Help Group with expertise in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities as well as their family members. 

Contributions to this series were made by Dr. Laurie Stephens, Director of Program Development at The Help Group.