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ADHD: The Importance of Reinforcement

We hear, see, and feel things that are kept in our awareness for a short period of time and then forgotten. These things are not really learned. In order for a stimulus to be committed to the long term memory and, therefore, learned, reinforcement must occur. Reinforcement is the process by which our conscious and unconscious mind is given a reason, or motivation, for committing a stimulus, thought, or concept to long term memory. Since the child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have trouble with focusing on stimuli, proper reinforcement is critical in successful management of their ADHD symptoms.

Reinforcement is a complex and highly varied process. One of the most significant reinforcers for children is the internal, built‑in drive to learn so characteristic of all children. Children innately want to learn about their world. A high percentage of all stimuli impinging on their senses is assimilated and committed to long term memory, i.e. learned. This innate drive to learn persists in children until it is turned off by some negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement occurs when learning is made unrewarding, unpleasant, boring, or anxiety‑provoking. Under such circumstances a child may begin to lose his internal motivation. For instance, the young child eagerly wants to talk with his parents and others about all the exciting things he is learning–that the tree is tall, the sky is blue, that bugs crawl. If his enthusiasm is met with continual indifference, he eventually will grow less interested himself in learning. The first grader is usually ready to learn to read. But if he finds the effort confusing and frustrating and finds he is not making progress (As occurs in many children with ADHD), learning to read becomes unrewarding and he eventually will quit trying.

The human mind has fantastic potential for learning, for absorbing facts, and making leaps into new concepts. Each child has this innate drive to learn from the time his eyes begin to explore the environment, to his reaching for a rattle, taking his first step, saying that first word, to exploring the world of physics. This internal reinforcer, to remain strong, needs to be supplemented with external reinforcement for maximum learning to occur. This external reinforcement may take many forms. Certainly among the most powerful reinforcers are the social ones such as recognition, encouragement, and praise.

The knowledge that actions on his part will get him something he wants, such as more free time, treats, money, or participation in a special activity, is a strong reinforcer.

Rewards must be immediate and tangible to the child to be effective. We should reward each little step toward the right goal, not wait to give one big reward for total perfection. As learning is reinforced, the material becomes more and more indelibly imprinted on the conscious and subconscious mind of the child.

A word of caution in regards to rewards or positive reinforcement. It is important not to over do rewards and praise. If we continually praise or give too frequent rewards then the positive reinforcement looses its value to children. In fact, they can come to expect praise all the time and when they do not get it, they can act out or pull back on their performance. Also, praise must be genuine. It should be given for real progress, not given promiscuously. We reward actual behavior. We say, “You worked really hard on that paper. Good job!” rather than say, “You are such a smart boy.”

We should remember that the strongest reinforcer of all is success. Success breeds success. As the child is able to accomplish tasks and sense personal fulfillment, he wants to repeat this pleasant experience. Thus it is important to patiently work with the child with ADHD or other learning problem in a creative and patient way which will help him or her experiences academic, personal, and social success.

Classroom Strategies: Teaching the Child with ADHD

I have great admiration for the dedicated teacher. And most teachers I know are teaching because they love children and like being around them. They have a sense of satisfaction when they see their students learn, grow and succeed.

On the other hand, they are frustrated and personally defeated when one of their students fails to achieve and succeed. Thus the presence of a child with ADHD (Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder) in a class tends to stir up a mixture of reactions in a conscientious teacher. He or she wants to help, but is thwarted by lack of time, too many students, or a lack of materials or training. This easily leads to frustration and hopelessness.

One fourth-grade teacher spoke not only for herself, but also many colleagues, when she discussed a child with ADHD in her class. “Jimmy is a puzzle. I want to help him but I’ve been frustrated at every turn.”

In this short note we cannot offer solutions to all the problems of attention, hyperactivity, or organization that besets the child with ADHD. But there are some tried and proven methods that help. From time to time we will share methods and tools gleaned from experienced teachers. Hopefully, they will make the job of teaching the child with ADHD or learning disabilities a little less frustrating and more rewarding.

From long experience, we know that children with hyperactivity and attention deficits function much better in an organized, structured atmosphere. Not only does such an atmosphere facilitate the child’s performance in the present, this atmosphere also encourages the child to internalize this imposed organization so that, in time, he or she becomes more self-controlled.

The following suggestions regarding classroom management have been derived from the available literature, current research findings, and clinical observations, as well as teaching experience. The goal of these strategies is to help the child internalize control of attention, impulsiveness, and activity, thus improving work habits and general behavior. The methods are designed to help the child develop more conscious control. Each teacher will not, and should not, employ each and every technique presented. This is simply a sampling of practical techniques which can help with certain problem behaviors. The teacher can pick those he or she thinks may work for him or her with the child in question.

Classroom Strategies Useful With ADHD Children

1. Seat the student near the teacher’s desk in a reassuring non-threatening way.

2. Call the student’s name before addressing him or asking him to recite.

3. Stand near the child when giving instructions.

4. Physical features of the work environment influence the activity and lack of focus level and the following guidelines should be followed:

a. Reduce the visual stimuli in the child’s visual field (place construction paper over windows; reduce the presence of posters, pictures, etc.)

b. Lighting should be of medium intensity, no flickering or bright lights.

c. Try to schedule work so that the child is not being expected to concentrate when there is a lot of distracting noise in the hallway.

d. For children with significant attention deficits, create a private study office by screening off the work area.

5. A child with ADHD will often have difficulty finishing work. Give shorter assignments with immediate feedback of results. Multiple short assignments work better than one long assignment.

6. Work from small units to larger units in the quantity of work required, the complexity of the task, and time required to complete tasks.

a. Shorten assignments.

b. Start with easily accomplished tasks.

c. Build assignments in terms of length and complexity.

d. Plan interruptions of long assignments.

e. Cut work sheets, e.g. arithmetic, into long strips, present each strip individually.

f. Vary activity.

g. Break assignments and experiences into smaller units.

h. Gradually increase quantity and complexity of timed units.

i. Do not make large leaps either forward or backward at any one time.

7. Use techniques, such as assignment cards, that help improve short-term memory.

8. Use unique, distinct visual and auditory stimuli.

a. Cue the child to distinguish features of each stimulus in reading or arithmetic by: underlining, color coding, and/or specific verbal direction.

b. Use a multi-sensory approach to allow rehearsal of the material, i.e. speaking orally, writing down key words, drawing pictures, etc.

9. Provide an opportunity to express motor restlessness in appropriate ways. When possible you may allow the child to work standing or moving about at times; the use of a round table that child can move about may help. Incorporating adequate physical education that allows for gross body movement without involving competitive sports can be helpful.


Yes, there are no easy answers to treating and teaching children with ADHD. These children are often lovable and attractive, while at the same time frustrating and exhausting to the teacher. One or two such children in a regular classroom without help for the teacher can be stressful for everyone. Open, free communication between teacher, parent, physician, and educational diagnostician is of critical importance if success is to be realized.

While the institution of a well structured, organized environment at home and school will allow many hyperactive children to function reasonably well, others will need additional modes of therapy such as medication or a prescribed behavior modification plan. However, the teacher is always a key member of the management team.

Additional teaching tools to help with the Child with ADHD can be found in Dr. Grant’s book, ADHD—Strategies for Success which can be ordered from this website.

Guidelines When Seeking Help for the Child with ADHD

When faced with a child who  attention deficit disorder or is under performing in school or having trouble with behavior, parents need to seek help and advice from experienced professionals representing various disciplines.  And there are many competent helpers available–educators, psychologists, physicians, therapists who have a wealth of experience working with children with ADHD.  However, parents need to be careful in seeking help. Some signs to watch out for are as follows:

1. Any one offering a complete or, quick, cure for ADHD. So far I have not found any “quick fix” for developmental problems such as ADHD or learning disabilities. Help is certainly available but it involves time, effort, and cooperation of many people. When fad treatments are latched onto, time as well as the family’s resources, are often wasted.

2. Anyone pushing a method of treatment not known to the school personnel, your physician and other professionals in the community. You can be sure that your child’s teacher, principal and counselor as well as your pediatrician are interested in what the community has to offer for ADHD diagnosis and treatment. If there is someone or some program around which can help, one of these people you trust is likely to be aware of its existence. They are not likely to recommend a program that is worthless and expensive.

3. Anyone who pushes just one form of therapy for ADHD. The strengths and weaknesses of each underachieving child is unique. No one treatment is a panacea for each of them. Most children will benefit from a variety of interventions through special education, behavioral management, and maybe medical treatment. Most competent professionals will be open to any possibly effective technique.

Good luck in finding good help for your child with attention and learning challenges (more…)

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