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Keeping Things Positive with the Premack Principle!

By Krista Forand, M.Ed.

Many parents (those who have children with ADHD and those who do not) look for strategies to get their child to complete chores, finish homework or complete some other undesirable boring task that the child does not particularly enjoy. As a psychologist, I have come to understand, based on the vast knowledge that we have about human behavior, that we all do better in life when we are reinforced or rewarded for engaging in behaviors that are positive and productive to ourselves and to those around us (e.g., getting a paycheck at the end of the month for doing our job). We don’t do so well when we are punished for negative behaviors (e.g., getting yelled at for forgetting to pick up milk at the store) or when we have something we enjoy taken away because we didn’t do what we were supposed to (e.g., when a child gets her video games taken away because she didn’t clean up her room).

Many parents that I speak with do a lot of that last example – take away things when their child doesn’t listen or complete a particular task. There are some problems with this approach and it is important for parents to understand how this approach may be affecting their child and their relationship with their child. First, when children have things that they enjoy taken away from them they experience more negative interactions with the people who are taking those things away (e.g., their parents, teachers etc.). These interactions can end up being not-so-pleasant for everyone involved and resentment can build up on both sides. Children who constantly have things taken away from them may give up and feel hopeless and they may feel like the adults in their lives don’t really want them to be successful because they tend not to experience much success. Second, taking things away doesn’t provide any incentive for children to engage in positive behaviors, which also communicates to them that they really don’t have much control over their behavior or the outcomes of their behaviors.

There is a different way of looking at this. Rather than taking video games or favourite toys away, use them as rewards for engaging in positive behaviors. This slight variation is based on what is called the Premack Principle, and it can make a world of difference. Basically, this principle says that people will engage in a less desirable behavior (e.g., completing homework) if they know that when they do they will be able to engage in a more desirable behavior (e.g., playing video games). The Premack Principle also says to find the rewards that will work best look at what the person normally does in their free time. These are called “high-probability behaviors” because they happen frequently. Typical high-probability behaviors for kids are things like playing with particular toys, video games, computers or television. As a parent, consider what activities your child would engage in if he/she was given an entire day to do them. These activities are now your best way to reward your child for engaging in “low-probability behaviors” (i.e., those behaviors that your child barely ever engages in when they have free time, like homework).

The Premack approach also assumes that favourite activities, such as video games and television are not things that children have automatic rights to, but rather they are privileges that are granted when other activities have been completed (e.g., chores, homework). A typical way to present this approach to a child would be to say, “Once you finish your homework, you may play 30 minutes of Minecraft”. With this approach, the choice is in the child’s hands and the adult is less likely to be seen as “the one who takes things away”. Of course, with children who have ADHD this approach will likely also need to be combined with other strategies that will help the child to be successful, such as helping the child to break the homework down into manageable chunks, creating a plan for getting it done and allowing him to take short breaks if attention span is particularly problematic. Always ensure before implementing these kinds of behavioral management strategies that the child is capable of completing the task that you want completed. Again, children with ADHD will require more support and structure in order to be successful, but as they experience more success, their self-confidence will grow and they will feel less hopeless about all of those things that they find more difficult.

So if you’re considering trying out the Premack Principle, keep the following things in mind:

1. Create a list of “high-probability” behaviors that will become the rewards list. What activities does your child engage in when he/she is given free time and free choice?

2. Involve your child in the creation of the rewards list. That way, this plan isn’t just coming from you, but it is a collaboration between you and your child.

3. Next, make a list of those “low-probability” behaviors that you, as a parent, want to see happening more often (e.g., homework, cleaning up, feeding pets, taking out the garbage).

4. Work with your child to create a plan about what low-probability behaviors must occur before they can engage in a high probability behavior. An example might be “once you empty the dishwasher, you may spend 10 minutes on the computer”.

5. Keep in mind that as your child grows up, you may need to re-evaluate the rewards that you use. Some activities will no longer be “high-probability” because your child has grown out of them. Update the rewards list and try out new ones when you notice that the plan isn’t as useful as it used to be.

6. Support your child in completing the less-desirable tasks and always keep in mind that children with ADHD will need extra support in order to be successful.

7. Seek professional help if you believe that there may be other things going on that are making it hard for your child to engage in this behavior plan (e.g., anxiety, depression, communication difficulties).

Krista Forand, M.Ed.


Krista has worked in various roles with the CanLearn Society (formerly Calgary Learning Centre) since 2009. She is currently working with the clinical team as a registered psychologist, providing assessments and group interventions for individuals with learning and attention difficulties. In 2014, Krista obtained her graduate degree from the University of Calgary where she cultivated her interest in learning disabilities and attention disorders. She believes in the therapeutic effect of psychoeducational assessment and how this process can empower individuals and families to take control of their lives, by understanding their unique way of being in the world.