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Money helps ADHD students perform on task!

More and more children are being diagnosed with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) across the United States every year. ADHD symptoms include problems paying attention, staying focused, controlling impulses, and uncontrollable hyperactivity (NIMH). There is much debate about whether this increase in diagnosis is because of an increase in occurrence of ADHD, or an increased need to pathologize childhood behavior in order to medicate. With this influx of ADHD diagnoses across the country, there are more ADHD students in schools across the country that are having significant problems learning and attending to different information. So, it is important that cognitive researchers look at the ways that ADHD affects the cognition and learning process of students so that school lessons can be more effectively taught!

Check out the graphic below to see how diagnoses of ADHD have changed over the past century, pay attention to the bottom two rows that show different medications to treat the disorder and different Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) diagnoses of the disorder over time.

ADHD timeline CDC

Researchers have focused their research on the ways that ADHD affects working memory because deficits in working memory mimic symptoms of ADHD. Every person has the three different systems for memory: long term memory, short-term memory, and working memory. You can break up working memory further into components that focus on: visual spatial input, language (phonological loop), and the central executive (the control of the system that allocates attention to one of two previously described memory stores.  Working memory is important to understanding ADHD because it can be described as the ability to “maintain, control and manipulate goal-relevant information”(Dovis, Van der Oord, Wiers and Prins, 2013). Working memory and short term memory sometimes seem to be folded into one definition, but they are different because working memory does NOT just hold information, but rather manipulates and encodes information much more actively.

Deficits in the central executive portion of working memory result in inability to regulate behavior, emotions and generate self-control, all symptoms present in ADHD. These researchers wanted to see if these deficits were seen in the visuo spatial store as well as the central executive to get a better idea of how these deficits manifest across working memory. Additionally, these researchers were interested in following up on a study that look at how motivation helps students with ADHD learn, with theories suggesting that kids with ADHD need more reward in order to do well on tasks because of their “elevated reward threshold”. Finally, these researchers felt it was important to distinguish between the memory store parts of working memory and the central executive (the control center), because previous studies have shone that the previously mentioned problems with rewards affect performance on tasks, but with no research looking at differences in the effects of rewards on specific functioning of parts of working memory.

148 children ages 8-12 participated in this experiment, and 86 of those children had a diagnosis of ADHD. Participants completed a Chessboard task that was either tailored to isolate the central executive or their visuo spatial store. The Chessboard task presented a grid of blocks that were either blue or green for 900 milliseconds and in each grid, there was one square lit up. Participants had 500 milliseconds in between each grid before the next grid was shown. After the three grids were shown, participants then had to identify which block was lit up – in the order in which they were lit up – while obeying to the rule that they must report the all the green blocks before reporting blue blocks. The two conditions were slightly different, the visuo spatial store condition presented all of the green blocks before the blue blocks, while the working memory version presented the blocks at random times in order to require participants to recognize the blocks and REORGANIZE them before recall in the correct order according the rules given initially. The graph below is taken from the study and shows how the blocks were displayed with the white block depicting the “lighting” up of a block.

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 7.07.30 PM

Figure 1: Dovis, Van der Oord, Wiers and Prins (2013)

The researchers controlled for motivation by using two different reinforcement conditions: feedback only and monetary compensation: 10 euros. Participants either read: “on this task, do your best and try to perform as accurately as possible” or “with this task, you can earn these 10 euros”. Participants then were shown the physical euros and given more detailed instructions about how well they had to do in order to earn the money. The researchers found that students with ADHD and in the feedback reinforcement group did worse in both conditions: visuo spatial store and central executive. The students with ADHD who were in the reinforcement condition did significantly better in BOTH conditions than those ADHD students without that reinforcement. However, reinforcement did not have an effect on students without ADHD. These findings suggest that motivational deficits (controlled for by the reinforcement techniques) affect task performance in both the central executive and visuo spatial store conditions in children with ADHD. There were no significant differences found between these two conditions in the reinforcement condition.This research is significant because it suggests that students with ADHD need different motivation to complete attention demanding tasks than non ADHD students. This is important information for educators and parents so that they may develop a curriculum and reinforcement techniques that best suits the growing population of students diagnosed with ADHD.


Article Used: Dovis, S., Van der Oord, S., Wiers, R., & Prins, P. (2013). What part of working memory is not working in adhd? short-term memory, the central executive and effects of reinforcement. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology41, 901-917. doi: 10.1007/s10802-013-9729-9





  1. May 7th, 2014 at 21:53 | #1

    Great post here! First off I wish to extend these findings past the ADHD community. The main hurdle ADHD students face is attention. As know thanks to David Strayer, attention is the holy grail. Attention and sustained attention are the most essential processes in classroom learning. Without adequate attention levels, our ability to commit anything to memory is doomed. Anyone that has been in a classroom full of young adults knows that attention is not just an issue for ADHD students. Getting students to pay adequate attention to the information presented is a formidable challenge for teachers. If you have ever seen brain imaging studies of students in class, it is apparent that most students are not very active cognitive participants in classes. Therefore this phenomenon should be applied to all students.
    Secondly, the monetary reward for academic performance is something we all probably know. I knew of several parents who would reward their children with money for good grades. As humans we are wired to respond to incentives like this. Everywhere in life our behaviors are incentivized to different degrees by environmental factors, such as a monetary reward. The ADHD brain is more susceptible to such reinforcement than the normative brain. ADHD individuals show deficits in decision making as well as in the reward pathways of the brain. This is why there is much more substance use and abuse in the ADHD population. ADHD individuals struggle to make decisions and more impulsively react to reinforcement. This is why the monetary reward suddenly motivates the ADHD children. The motivation was always there, they just have more amplified responses to incentives than others. This is also why ADHD individuals frequently show decreased performance in areas of disinterest, but increased performance in areas of interest compared to normative peers. I think educators and parents need to make rewards more salient to ADHD individuals. If the correct rewards are constantly placed in front of an ADHD individual, this research suggests that this may mediate the negative academic effects of ADHD.

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