Many people believe that children with ADHD are fidgety when bored or unmotivated but a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in August 2017 found the opposite — that fidgeting increased when cognitive functioning was higher than when sitting and watching a movie.
Working memory deficits can contribute to inattentive behaviors
In the 2017, study, researchers divided boys into two groups — one with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), one without. The groups were shown two different movies. One movie was in line with the children’s interests and one was a math instruction video. Researchers noted that during the interest movie, there was little difference in attention behaviors between the two groups. During the math instruction movie, the boys with ADHD showed significantly more attention behaviors, such as fidgeting.
Based on their observations, the researchers theorized that tasks that place demands on working memory were more likely to result in inattention and fidgeting and believed this was caused by underdeveloped working memory abilities. Fidgeting, they observed, occurred when the child was trying to solve difficult problems and that movement helps working memory. The fidgeting was not a result of inattention but was useful in that it allowed them to better use their working memory skills.
Dr. Mark Rapport and Dr. Michael J. Kofler, authors of the study, have done previous research regarding working memory. In 2015, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that children with ADHD moved more often when given tasks that were mentally challenging and required memory. Interestingly, the children in the study who didn’t have ADHD performed worse when they were fidgeting; playing with small objects or tapping their feet caused a distraction and limited their attention. For children with ADHD, these movements increased their attention.
The researchers believe that hyperactivity, or fidgeting, becomes apparent when children need to use their executive functions, such as making plans, solving problems, or remembering lists.
What is working memory?
Working memory is an executive function. It is keeping “something in mind” in order to complete a task — for example, remembering a phone number, recalling directions, writing an essay, or applying math concepts. Long-term memory stays with you even when you aren’t thinking about it. It allows you to quickly recall something that happened in the distant past. Working memory, on the other hand, stays in your mind for a short amount of time — long enough for you to use it during a task.
Linda Hecker, from Landmark College, explains in an article on Childmind.org that it is similar to a table. You only have a finite amount of space to hold information on the table. When you overload it, something falls off. Imagine you are going to the store to pick up bread, milk, and cheese. You place those three things on your table. But once you get to the store and remember that you also need eggs, your table fills up and one item drops off. You forget the cheese because it no longer is on your table.
For children with ADHD, spots on the table are already used. They have to consciously think about staying focused and more organized. Their working memory might only have room for a couple items. Once those spots are taken up, any distractions cause something to fall off the table. The researchers believe that fidgeting or movement helps children with ADHD better juggle the items on their working memory table.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.