Instant Gratification and the ADHD Brain: How to Navigate a Culture of Immediacy
In the first of a series exploring how Social Work research impacts our coaching, Hampton Tutors coach and candidate on UW's Master of Social Work Program, Gina Nepa, explains how an ADHD student can manage their learning.
We live in a culture in which we are repeatedly indoctrinated with expectations of instantaneous delivery. Because we’re able to send and receive messages with a click, our brains remain constantly activated and on “alert.” That nagging feeling of never quite feeling caught up inadvertently seeps into school performance and, ironically, prevents students from accessing the emotional regulation necessary to efficiently complete schoolwork.
We have come to associate many personality markers with ADHD: executive function challenges, easy distractibility, a harried response to a highly-detailed assignment. Although ADHD clearly has a physiological basis, the diagnostic markers are also a somewhat normal response to a culture of immediacy and unrelenting social and academic pressures. Jackson and MacKillop (2016) found that individuals with ADHD tended to face more challenges delaying gratification than their non-ADHD peers. This ADHD sample, in fact, derived significant pleasure from short-term rewards, and subsequently funneled more energy into obtaining short-term rather than long-term benefits. We see these results come into play when our students neglect planning for a project or keeping up with textbook notes, but can always be relied on to answer that text message from a friend.
So what can be done? There are several methods of appeasing instant gratification urges while simultaneously orienting the brain to long-term needs. Creating a homework space that incorporates “background” rewards, such as music or snacks, can aid students in satisfying immediate pleasures while staying task-directed. Maintaining a rewards or “points” system with your student can also incentivize the brain to reorient. Just as stimulants produce a seemingly opposite effect on those with ADHD, so too can the intentional implementation of “distractors” in your student’s space.
Pelham, William E., Waschbusch, Daniel A., Hoza, Betsy, Gnagy, Elizabeth M., Greiner, Andrew R., Sams, Susan E., Carter, Randy L. (2011). Music and Video as Distractors for Boys with ADHD in the Classroom: Comparison with Controls, Individual Differences, and Medication Effects. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology,39(8), 1085-1098.
 Pelham et al., “Music and Video as Distractors,” p. 1085.