How to Motivate Your Child When Nothing Motivates Your Child

Motivation is what drives us to do the things we do. It is the reason why we work hard, make goals, and strive to be good people. Sometimes, what motivates your child when they have ADHD or autism is different from what would typically motivate their peers.

Tips for Motivating Your Child

Types of Motivation

There are two types of motivation. Basically, we are either motivated by how something makes us feel, or we’re motivated by what we can physically gain by doing something.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation is when you’re motivated by internal rewards. In other words, because it makes you feel good or you enjoy going it.

For neurotypical children, intrinsic motivators are usually effective.

Some examples include:

  • Feeling they fit in with peer groups (self-esteem, social)
  • Sharing experiences (self-esteem, social)
  • Receiving recognition from others, for example, the teacher or friends (recognition, self-esteem)
  • They want to learn more about something (curiosity)
  • It’s simply enjoyable – they find the activity/behavior to be fun, interesting, or entertaining.

However, children with ASD and ADHD may not find these types of motivators meaningful to them. When that’s the case, you need to figure out what motivates your child and apply those tactics.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation is when you’re motivated by external rewards or incentives.

Some examples of extrinsic motivation that often works with kids include:

  • Physical contact (for example, a light pat on the back or a hug)
  • Non-verbal recognition (such as a wink, thumbs up, or a nod)
  • Verbal praise
  • Extra time for social activities with peers
  • Reinforcers, such as stickers or check marks to be exchanged for money or privileges.

Some children don’t find external rewards (or reinforcers) motivating either.

In fact, students with ASD might not be able to understand or tolerate (due to sensory concerns) many of these extrinsic motivators.


This post is part of a 13 part series. Each post in the series will explain an evidence-based strategy used by professionals for managing behavior with children on the autism spectrum. Each part of this series will contain a table of contents so you can easily navigate to the different strategies.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction 
  2. Build a Relationship
  3. Individualize Motivation
  4. Observe, Listen, then Join
  5. Optimize Language
  6.  The Premack Principal
  7. Basic Redirect
  8. Breaks
  9. Picture Rehearsal
  10. Add Structure at Home
  11. Teach Independence with Prompting
  12. Transactional Supports
  13. Add Structure to the Learning Environment 

Individualizing Motivation

What motivates your child? How to Motivate your kid when NOTHING Motivates your kid! // #Parenting #PositiveParenting #Motivation #EncouragingKids #BehaviorManagement #ChoresAndResponsibilities #ADHDKids #Autism #ExecutiveFunctions

Building onto strategy one – The better you know them, the better you can figure out what individual ways to motivate your child. Children with autism and ADHD are usually most motivated by their special interests.

Keep in mind your child is an individual and you should respect their wishes and choices. Using motivators is a great strategy for enticing the exploration of new activities and demands.

However, forcing children into things can create negative emotional memories, making it more difficult to encourage the activity/demand later.

Keep motivators on hand at all times.

The Importance of Motivation

Getting and keeping your child motivated is so important because:

  • Individuals with ASD are often not intrinsically motivated to learn or participate in social groups (especially if it’s not their area of special interest)
  • They usually need to learn about the social world and learn social skills – a strong motivator will encourage them to participate in this learning.
  • They need to learn skills to adapt, to engage, and to communicate
  • Without motivation to learn something, there is often no learning
  • It’s required in order to get things done – from chores, or housework, to hygiene and anything in between.

Types of External Reinforcement

There are many types of reinforcement and you can use any/all of them. This depends on your child and what motivates them. It can be:

  • Verbal like telling them good work
  • Visual reinforcement like a checkmark on a chart – this works best with a chart specifically catering to your child’s special interest.
  • Physical reinforcement like candy or a sticker
  • Time to participate in an activity of their choice (favorite toy, special privilege, etc.)

Best Practices When Using Reinforcers

Reinforcement should be immediate (within 3 seconds of the expected behavior if it’s a physical reinforcement such as a candy, sticker, token, or checkmark). As your child progresses you can begin to delay the reinforcer.

It should always be contingent upon the behavior – don’t give the reinforcement if your child didn’t do what was expected. If you are using something an a reinforcer, it’s important that you don’t use it at any other time (for example, when trying to calm your child).

Use variable intensity. In other words, if the expectation or demand is bigger, offer a bigger reward.

For example, the school has a tin of pokemon cards, and my son gets the opportunity to pick a card from the tin for completing work or trying things he normally wouldn’t want to do. There are a few very rare cards in the tin which they use for more challenging situations to increase his drive to succeed.

How to Motivate Your Child

If your child is not intrinsically motivated, you need to figure out what motivates your child and then get creative. You need to find ways to apply that motivator to other situations that are challenging.

For example, because of my son’s special interest in Pokemon, we motivate him by using the typical extrinsic motivators mentioned above but making them pokemon-related in some way.

Some ideas:

  • Print off coloring pages of their favorite TV show or special interest and keep them away with a “special” box of crayons, markers, and stickers for decorating the pages.
  • “Blind box” surprises – The little boxes with surprise toys inside. I find the anticipation that comes along with not knowing what’s inside the box makes kids want them more than toys that aren’t surprising.
  • Credits to use in favorite video games, or time earned playing those games, like mentioned above.

The most important thing is to find out what works for your child and use it.

It’s also likely that you’ll need to frequently change the type of reinforcement you’re using because the same item doesn’t usually stay motivating to a child over time.

Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation

First pg all, research shows that regularly offering physical reinforcement and incentives does not decrease intrinsic motivation.

So you don’t have to worry that if you always give your child a reward they will never be self-motivated.

So you can encourage your child to develop intrinsic motivation while also using external motivators to guide their behavior. This is true for all kids, not only ones with special needs.

To encourage intrinsic motivation, you need to give your child a chance to feel those rewarding internal feelings that drive that motivation.

Try these tips:

  • Give your child responsibilities that you know they can handle well so there is a high likelihood they will be successful.
  • Make “effort” your expectation for some tasks instead of completion. Your child should always feel proud if they tried their best.
  • Be excited for them and show your excitement and enthusiasm.
  • Put their work on display – hang their artwork or spelling test on the fridge.
  • Don’t ever compare them to others.
  • Challenge them to beat their own personal best
  • Do something rewarding together – like volunteering or donating old belonging and share your feelings about it and your enjoyment. It can be hard for kids to make a connection between dropping their clothes off at a bin and how that helps others in need so this works best when your child can actually see they are helping. For example, volunteer at a food bank or pass out care kits to the homeless.
  • Make sure your child feels like an important contributor to the family.
  • Visually track responsibilities and expectations to work up to a bigger reward. Seeing themselves getting closer and closer to the reward can motivate them to keep working hard.
  • Make it enjoyable. Face it, some tasks are just boring and unrewarding for kids. Like cleaning. You may feel good when your house is clean but it doesn’t have the same effect on children. So make it fun. Turn a chore into a game. Sing songs, laugh and play together while doing it. Get two toy bins, set a timer for 60 seconds and see who can pick up the most toys in 60 seconds.
How to Encourage Kids to be Intrinsically Motivated - What Motivates Your Kids? Get 10 tips to make them intrinsically motivated , teaching them a growth mindset, and more tips for external motivators. #growthmindset #motivation #adhdkids #autism #positiveparenting #parenting

Positive Reinforcement

Using positive reinforcement actually changes the way the brain functions and alters the chemical makeup of neurotransmitters in the brain.

This is related to neuroplasticity and the effective use of motivation is a great way to teach new skills.

You can read a bit more about how positive reinforcement affects the brain here.


Continue to Strategy 3: Observe, Listen, Join

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