What Is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a process in which certain behaviors are rewarded with something desirable or pleasant. The more frequently the desired reward is given, the more the behavior is reinforced. This method is commonly used to teach a new behavior, like incorporating a positive habit into your routine. It can also be used to strengthen an existing behavior, like if you want to increase the pace at which you complete certain tasks.

There are four types of positive reinforcement which can be used:

  • Natural reinforcers: These are the types of rewards which occur naturally, like getting a good grade after studying for a test or feeling good after you work out.
  • Social reinforcers: Positive recognition and other types of social approval are social reinforcers. An example would be praising someone for their work on a project.
  • Tangible reinforcers: Any physical reward is a tangible reinforcer, like having a piece of candy after completing chores or earning a raise at work.
  • Token reinforcers: These reinforcers are essentially points or tokens which can be earned for certain behaviors then traded in for something else of value, like a prize.

ADHD Reactions to Rewards and Punishments

Why does positive reinforcement work for people with ADHD? The answer comes down to the tricky balance of rewards vs. punishments. Research has found that ADHDers are highly incentivized by certain types of rewards, while at the same time being more sensitive to punishments.

The types of rewards which are most effective for individuals with ADHD tend to be positive and immediate. For example, a social reinforcer (such as praise) or a tangible reinforcer (such as candy) are likely to be the most effective for someone with ADHD because they can be awarded to someone immediately. On the other hand, a token reinforcer (which requires waiting until you have enough points to get an actual reward) or a natural reinforcer (which often takes time to appear) may be less effective because the rewards feel like they’ve been withheld.

Another aspect of positive reinforcement that can benefit those with ADHD is making sure the reinforcers are reliable. Changing the reward unexpectedly can cause a dip in motivation. For instance, studies have found that children with ADHD respond better when the expectations are clear, like knowing exactly what reward they will receive for completing a specific task.

Keeping things positive is important because people with ADHD have a harder time using punishments as motivation. Those with the condition often experience more self-doubt and low self-esteem, and negative feedback can exacerbate these issues. Being punished for doing something incorrectly, like turning in an assignment after the deadline, can result in even more procrastination rather than motivation to not repeat the same mistake. Because of their sensitivity to rejection, ADHDers often try to avoid situations where they may fail or be punished.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement for ADHD Adults

Many of the positive reinforcement examples for ADHD individuals focus on kids. But there are also several types of positive reinforcement which can be beneficial for adults with ADHD, such as:

  • Praise: People with ADHD — at any age — tend to respond well to praise that is genuine, consistent, and immediate.
  • Experiences: A great way to encourage positive behaviors is turning a desired experience into a reward, like a longer lunch break at work.
  • Rewards: Examples of some tangible rewards that may be appreciated are money, food, or items related to their favorite hobby.

How to Motivate Yourself with Positive Reinforcement

If you’re someone with ADHD who wants to get motivated, there are a number of methods you can use. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Start small: Sometimes, the hardest part is just getting started. In these situations, focus on completing one small step to begin and see if that encourages you to keep going.
  • Make it fun: Look for ways to add excitement to boring tasks, like folding laundry while listening to upbeat music.
  • Gamify it: Turn the task you need to get done into a game. You can race against the clock to see if you can complete it within a certain time frame, for example.

If you’re still struggling with motivation, consider revisiting your ADHD treatment plan. Finding a combination of medication and therapy that works for you can help with symptoms related to lack of motivation and procrastination.