5 Keys to Help Kids Achieve Success

By Eve Kessler, Esq.

At a Glance

Leading ADHD expert Dr. Ned Hallowell proposes a 5-step plan to enhance your child’s chances for a joyful, meaningful life • Key elements include connectedness, play, practice, mastery, and recognition • It’s a self-perpetuating cycle where one step leads naturally to the next

2.6.8-5-KeysHow do adults get kids with LD and ADHD to love life and feel optimistic about their future? Dr. Edward Hallowell may have the answer. Hallowell, a leading expert on ADHD and co-author of Driven to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction, offers a five-step plan for promoting successful learning and lifelong joy that parents, teachers, and other adults can use to guide their actions.

The essence of Hallowell’s plan is a continuing cycle composed of five components—connect, play, practice, gain mastery, and receive recognition—each one serving as a foundation for the subsequent step. As Hallowell explains in The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy, these fundamental concepts hold the key to raising children with healthy self-esteem, moral awareness, and spiritual values, no matter what type of learners they are.


The process begins with establishing a sense of connectedness in your child’s life—the first and most important step in the cycle. A connected childhood provides a youngster with a force field of positive energy that encourages resiliency and inoculates him against despair.

Hallowell maintains that connectedness occurs on many levels—with family, friends, neighborhoods, activities, schools, teachers, nature, pets, spiritual practices, rituals, and within individuals.

For children with LD, connectedness is particularly critical to their wellbeing. They must feel comfortable with themselves and who they are in order to bounce back from disappointments.

Feeling rooted and connected to school, family, and friends serves as a secure foundation upon which to build. Research shows that for kids with LD, loving and supportive parents and caring teachers increase their sense of self-worth and help to improve their academic performance. School, therefore, must be a safe and nurturing place and not a place associated with fear and shame. Understanding and empathetic teachers who embrace differences help a child raise his hopes and expectations and allow him to shine despite his learning challenges.


Knowing how to play is an essential key to happiness. But don’t take play for granted or think that children automatically know how to do it. As video games proliferate, and programmed activities become a mainstay, fewer kids today learn fundamental play skills. Open-ended, free play, in which kids invent scenarios and solve problems, allows them to discover their talents and use their own resources.

Play is the most important “work” that children do. Parents are well advised to let them do it. Encourage free play by allowing your child time with friends and time alone to entertain himself, away from computers, TVs, and programmed activities. If at first he looks to you for how to play, he’ll figure it out soon enough if you offer minimal guidance then step back and let nature take its course.


To create a bridge between play and mastery, parents should enthusiastically encourage practice and discipline. As adults, we understand the “practice-makes-perfect” connection. Children, who may not understand it intellectually, still experience it as they see themselves improving.

When kids figure out what they’re good at, they want to do it again and again. Sometimes you may have to gently nudge them to ensure that they stick with an activity until they reach a sense of accomplishment. But the best approach is simply to set the process in motion.

Let your child connect with others and play, find something he likes, practice it, taste mastery, and receive recognition. As the process repeats itself, the roots of practice and discipline will grow.

Mastery: The Great Motivator

Success breeds success. Find areas in which your child can experience mastery and make it possible for him to become motivated by it. The feeling of mastery and the wish to experience it again transform a child from a reluctant, fearful learner into a self-motivated player with a can-do attitude.

When kids achieve a skill through practice—whether it’s learning to tie their shoes, play the piano, draw a flower, or complete a math problem—they become further motivated to tackle new challenges.


Show your child that you value and support him. Recognition—the feeling of being valued by others, especially by those whose opinions you respect—reinforces mastery and leads to a greater feeling of connectedness.

Approval from parents, teachers, and peers for a job well done reconnects children to the wider world. When kids think that what they do affects their family, classmates, and team, they’re more likely to exhibit moral behavior and, ultimately, to feel good about themselves, gain self-confidence, and grow up to be happy, successful adults.

Take Action
Dr. Hallowell’s five-step plan to help your child build self-esteem, achieve success, and develop into a happy, healthy adult includes:
  1. Connect: Ensure safe, secure, supportive environments at school and home
  2. Play: Encourage free, creative play
  3. Practice: Offer opportunities for practice and discipline
  4. Mastery: Discover areas that allow for success
  5. Recognition: Provide support and approval

This article is based on the keynote address, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, given by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. at the Minds in Motion event co-sponsored by Smart Kids with LD. Eve Kessler, Esq., an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is President of SPED*NET Wilton, CT and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

Hallowell’s book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy, was published by Ballantine in 2002.

Related Smart Kids Topics