Is your child getting into trouble at school because he can't sit still? Are his teachers constantly telling him to keep his hands to himself and to stay seated?
A new research study, led by Dr. Mark D. Rapport at the University of Central Florida has figured out why children with ADHD can be so hyperactive: it helps them stay alert while working through complex tasks.
The first of two studies, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, followed 23 eight to twelve year old boys. Twelve of the boys were diagnosed with ADHD; the rest were not and served as the control group. Both groups were able to sit fairly still while watching Star Wars and again, while playing a computer generated painting program. But when they were required to participate in a computer program that involved memory and manipulation of computer-generated letters, shapes and numbers for a brief time, all of the children became more active. However, the children with ADHD were significantly more physically active and were found swiveling in their chairs and moving their hands and feet.
In order for the children with ADHD to stay alert and access their working memory, they simply had to be moving. The tasks that required more mental work forced the children to be more active in order to pay attention and attend to the exercises. Unlike the other activities that were highly stimulating (watching a movie) or engaging in play, the children needed physical activity in order to manage higher levels of working memory. An example of tasks that require high levels of working memory would be performing math problems mentally and remembering multi-step directions, as they involve manipulating information and using short term memory strategies.
In terms of working memory, the research team found that the children with ADHD had specific deficits in visual and verbal working memory compared to the non ADHD control group. For example, one of the tests required the children to reorder and recall the locations of dots on a computer screen and to reorder and recall sequences of numbers and letters. They fared much worse than the control groups on these tasks.
The group of 23 boys met on four consecutive Saturdays. To measure their activity level, actigraph devices were placed on each child's ankles and non-dominant hand. The Actigraph measures the frequency and intensity of each child's movement 16 times per second.
"We've known for years that children with ADHD are more active than their peers. What we haven't known is why", said Rapport.
He concluded that stimulant medications work for children with ADHD because they temporarily improve working memory and improve alertness and physiological arousal.
Dr. Rapport's findings show that children with ADHD should not be deterred from physical movement while working on difficult mental tasks.