Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) avoid punishment more often over time than typically developing children, a recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests
The team of researchers from Japan and New Zealand presented children with ADHD and typically developing children with a choice of two simultaneously available computer-based games that involved reward and punishment.
Both games consisted of a two-by-two grid on which a mix of fun characters and sad faces appeared after pressing a button on the screen. Four matching characters equalled a ‘win’ while four sad faces equalled a ‘loss’. Any other combination was a neutral outcome. The children could switch between playing the two games as often as they liked.
Altogether, 210 children took part in the research, with 145 diagnosed with ADHD. All children were living in Japan or New Zealand and spoke English as their first language.
The chance of winning rewards was equal for the two games, but one of the games was designed to have a four times higher likelihood of losing: playing on that game, a child would be “punished” more often than with the other one.
Explained Professor Gail Tripp, one of the authors of the paper and director of the Human Developmental Neurobiology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST).
In both games, when a child won, the computer gave him or her 10 points and played a simple animation; when a child lost, the computer took away 5 points and played a laughing sound. All children began with a positive balance of 20 points and the game continued until either they reached 400 points or completed 300 trials.
Each child won a prize at the end of the game. The rewards were also arranged to discourage children from playing on one game exclusively or switching every time. A session lasted typically half an hour — long enough to observe fairly stable performance over time.
What we actually saw was that both typically developing children and children with ADHD developed a preference — what we call ‘bias’ — for the less ‘punishing’ game. Both groups played the less punishing game more often. But over time, the children with ADHD found losing points and the laughter more punishing than typically developing children.
During the first 100 trials, there was no difference between the two groups of children. But later on, the preference for the less punishing alternative increased substantially in the children with ADHD, while the choices of the typically developing children were stable for the duration of the task. By the 200th trial, the children with ADHD were much less likely to play the more punishing game. The typically developing children seemed less distracted by punishment and kept their focus on winning.
This finding has important implications, Tripp says:
If a child with ADHD is reluctant in doing a task, or if the child gives up easily, it might be important for the parent or the teacher to check if the task has the appropriate balance of reward and punishment.
We are not saying that the task has punishment built in, rather that the effort needed to do the task might be perceived as punishing by the child. The more effortful a task is, the more incentives a child is going to need to keep persisting, and simple but frequent rewards, such as smiles or words of encouragements, can help children with ADHD to stay on the task.
The same could be said for typically developing children, but this is especially important for children with ADHD, as they seem more sensitive to repeated experiences of punishment or failure, and are more likely to miss opportunities for success.
This is an edited version of a report that appeared on the website of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University