Academic journal article The Journal of Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention

Rule-Governed Behavior and Self-Control in Children with ADHD: A Theoretical Interpretation

Academic journal article The Journal of Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention

Rule-Governed Behavior and Self-Control in Children with ADHD: A Theoretical Interpretation

Article excerpt


Three theoretical models of ADHD are reviewed and interpreted in light of educational and behavioral research findings specifically in respect to interventions using self-management to address a deficit in rule-governed behavior. The perspectives considered in this paper are (a) the unified theory of behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and EF (Barkley, 1997), (b) the cognitive-energetic model (Sergeant, Oosterlaan, & van der Meere, 1999), and (c) the dynamic developmental theory (Sagvolden, Johansen, Aase, & Russell, 2005). The perspectives are discussed in terms of the continued development of increasingly comprehensive models and the need to pursue theoretically driven behavioral and educational interventions in the future.

Keyword descriptors: ADHD, Theory, Self-Control, Self-management.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is arguably the most prevalent neurobehavioral disorder diagnosed in children today (Fazier & Merrell, 1997; Root and Resnick, 2003; "Treat ADHD," 2002). Researchers have explored multiple aspects of the disorder including etiology, ontogenesis, and treatment options for the child population. Considering the abundance of research on ADHD, it is surprising how little of the literature on educational and/or behavioral treatment options is theoretically driven (Zentall, 2005). Historically, theories of ADHD focused on isolated, singular constructs. In the past decade, however, researchers have made significant contributions towards a comprehensive model (Nigg, 2005). As increasingly comprehensive models are developed, it will be important for behavior therapists, educators, and applied researchers to make attempts to interpret applied research findings in light of these possible perspectives to provide support for or refute these ideas.

ADHD literature focusing on educational and/or behavioral interventions typically addresses skill deficits and/or lack of motivation. The resultant research often indicates limited effects, failure to maintain effects, and little or no generalization of skills (Barry & Haraway, 2005b; Mather & Goldstein, 2001). There is little consideration of variations in etiology of the presenting behaviors or alternative explanations for the limited effects, failure to maintain effects, and failure to generalize effects that are so often reported in the literature (Barkley, 2000). Relatively recent developments in theoretical models of ADHD focusing on neurobiology and behavior provide increased possibilities for interpreting and understanding the processes that may contribute to these research findings (Sagvolden et al., 2005).

As research in the field of ADHD advances, the disorder is more often considered a deficit of self-regulation than a problem of limited attention (Nigg, 2005). Of particular interest to behavior therapists and educators is the limited acquisition of rule-governed behavior and self-control in children diagnosed with ADHD. Rule-governed behavior is behavior that is controlled by verbally mediated rules that describe the contingency between a behavior and consequence without the actual behavior or consequence necessarily being present (Mather & Goldstein, 2001). Once behaviors are produced, they are shaped by actual contingencies that occur in practice. Behaviorally, deficits in rule-governed behavior are implicated in children with ADHD because the children exhibit appropriate behaviors when external consequences are present but fail to exhibit appropriate behaviors when external consequences are removed (Brown & La Rosa, 2002; Carlson & Tamm, 2000; Mather & Goldstein, 2001; Slusarek, Velling, Bunk, & Eggers, 2001). Thus, children with ADHD appear to be unable to follow the rules of rule-governed behavior without the consequence being immediately present. Interventions reported in educational and behavioral literature have utilized self-management strategies in which educators explicitly teach language-mediated rules designed to govern behavior to address a presumed skill deficit (Barry & Haraway, 2005a; Barry & Messer, 2003; Hinshaw & Melnick, 1992; Shapiro, DuPaul, & Bradley-Klug, 1998). …

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