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The Risks of Shaming Students with ADHD (What the Research Says)

Imagine the scene: It's the end of the semester, and a high school student, Imogen, is feeling overwhelmed with her finals preparation. Her father, noticing Imogen's grades aren't meeting expectations, confronts her in frustration, "Do you know how much we're spending on your education? I expected better results than this!"

This remark, stemming from a place of concern and disappointment, is laden with subtle shaming. It implies not only dissatisfaction with Imogen's academic performance but also a sense of financial burden tied to her education.

This kind of pressure can exacerbate Imogen's stress, leading to a counterproductive cycle where her worry over financial implications overshadows her focus on studying.

In this scenario, the father's intention to motivate Imogen to prepare more diligently for her finals backfires, potentially hindering Imogen's ability to organize, prioritize, and absorb the material she needs to learn.

In my blog, we'll delve into how parents can recognize and avoid these pitfalls, adopting more empathetic and supportive approaches that foster effective study habits and a healthier mindset towards academic challenges, especially during critical periods like finals season.

Engaging image showing a mixed-race parent and child with ADHD in a supportive study session, illustrating positive parental guidance and empathy in an educational context
The Risks of Shaming Students with ADHD (What the Research Says)

Why shame does NOT work when trying to motivate your student

Shame, a common tactic employed in various motivational contexts, is ineffective, and in many cases, counterproductive. This is highlighted in the context of smoking cessation, as detailed in research conducted by UCLA's Clarissa Cortland and colleagues.

The study specifically focused on how smokers react to negative stereotypes and shaming associated with smoking. It revealed that when smokers were confronted with stereotypes – such as being labeled as weak-willed or irresponsible – their likelihood to smoke increased.

“Messages that elicit negative stereotypes of smokers operated as ‘smoking-promoting messages,’” write UCLA’s Clarissa Cortland, Jenessa Shapiro, Iris Guzman-Ruiz and Lara Ray.

This was measured in a controlled experiment where smokers were either exposed to negative stereotyping or not, and their subsequent smoking behavior was observed. 20 minutes in, about 70% of the stereotype threat recipients had already started smoking, compared to about 40% of the control group.

The research found that those exposed to the negative stereotypes were significantly more likely to smoke sooner than those who were not. This indicates that shame and stigma, rather than acting as deterrents, can exacerbate the behavior they aim to discourage.

The experiment harnessed prior psychological research that has established stereotype threat as a behavioral challenge, whereby members of a stigmatized group are concerned they are being perceived through the lens of a negative stereotype. A girl can’t be good at math. An overweight person must be lazy. A smoker has no willpower.

Students, much like the smokers in the study, can internalize negative stereotypes and shame, leading to increased anxiety and reduced self-esteem.

These emotional responses are detrimental to the executive functions necessary for academic success, such as organizing, planning, and focusing.

For instance, a student who is constantly reminded of their poor performance may feel more anxious and less capable, leading to a decreased ability to concentrate and study effectively.

This creates a negative feedback loop where shame not only fails to motivate but actively hampers the very abilities required for improvement. The data from the smoking study serves as a compelling argument against using shame as a tool for motivation, advocating instead for approaches that build confidence, resilience, and a positive mindset.

How can parents respond when they are upset with their child's academic performance?

When dealing with a child's academic underperformance, particularly in the case of students with ADHD like Imogen, research underscores the importance of a supportive and understanding approach.

In a 2016 study published in the "Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology," researchers found a notable correlation between parental criticism and the exacerbation of ADHD symptoms.

“The novel finding here is that children with ADHD whose families continued to express high levels of criticism over time failed to experience the usual decline in symptoms with age and instead maintained persistent, high levels of ADHD symptoms,” said Musser.

This implies that negative reactions from parents, far from motivating, can worsen the challenges ADHD students face. Such findings are crucial for parents to consider; rather than expressing disappointment or frustration, they should focus on empathy, constructive support, and creative approaches to building meaningful relationships with their children.

A more effective strategy for parents like Imogen's father involves recognizing and adapting to the unique challenges posed by ADHD. I have found that using the following strategies can create a stronger emotional bond and lead to more positive educational outcomes:

Hold a board meeting with your child

Holding a "board meeting" with your child every 90 days to create a stronger emotional connection with them, thus giving you more insights into how to effectively support them.

Share what you appreciate about your child around the dinner table

Appreciating your child, especially when they have ADHD, can be incredibly affirming and transformative for both of you.

Start with a simple but powerful exercise: write down three things you genuinely admire about your child. These could range from their endless creativity, often a hallmark of ADHD, to their unique problem-solving skills, or even their infectious enthusiasm for topics they're passionate about.

Run regular Family Team Meetings to create a safe environment to problem-solve with your child

There is nothing worse than unexpected criticism from a parent or authority figure. But if the adults in a student's life take a strategic and measured approach to supporting growth, which includes praise for progress and prioritization of key metrics (rather than the fix-everything now approach), students CAN grow in incredible ways. This can be practiced through the Family Team Meeting process.

Get creative in how you motivate your student to succeed

There are many research-driven, time-tested ways to motivate your child to be successful in their education. Some of the strategies we teach at EF Specialists include using the "trial yes," asking students the "magic question," and leveraging motivational interviewing.

Applying this to Imogen's situation, her father could help her by breaking study tasks into smaller, more manageable segments, incorporating interactive and visual learning tools, and providing a quiet, organized study space.

Positive reinforcement is also key. Celebrating Imogen's progress, irrespective of how small it may seem, can significantly boost her motivation and self-esteem.

This approach not only aids in academic improvement but also nurtures a more positive and resilient mindset, crucial for students with ADHD.


Understanding the nuances of motivation, especially in the context of academic performance, is key for parents. The case of Imogen illustrates the pitfalls of negative reinforcement.

Instead, a strategy that combines empathy, support, and positive reinforcement can be more effective. This approach, rooted in research, fosters a conducive environment for students like Imogen to thrive, especially those facing challenges like ADHD.

For more insightful strategies and updates on how to support your student's executive function needs, don't miss out on our weekly newsletter. Subscribe now to stay informed and empower your child's educational journey!

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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 

With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.

He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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