Years ago I spoke with Ellen, a mother of a son with ADHD. At the time, her son was an adult and had managed to get through the difficult years of high school and college. She told me that when he was little she had discovered a secret about how he learned. When he was just a toddler, she would turn on the television show, Sesame Street each day. Her son never seemed to pay attention, he was busy dancing, moving around the room, playing with toys. He was always "doing" something. Even so, he seemed to remember the lessons taught on that day’s episode. On days when she had him sit quietly and watch he didn’t remember as much. Throughout his school years, she tried to use that formula. She had him dance while they practiced spelling words. She had him build with blocks while she explained concepts he didn’t understand. While he wasn’t an "A" student and still struggled with losing things, not handing in work and having a hard time with tests, he made it through and went on to college.
A study released this week might help explain what Ellen saw all those years ago: that fidgeting can help children with ADHD access and use executive functioning skills. Researchers at the University of Central Florida found that movement helps children with ADHD retain information and work out complex cognitive tasks.
Participants in the study included 52 boys between the ages of 8 and 12 years old. Twenty-nine of the children had been diagnosed with ADHD. Each child was shown a series of numbers and a letter on a computer screen. They were then asked to sequence the numbers in order and then give the letter. Their performance, including movements, were captured by camera. The researchers found that the children with ADHD performed significantly better when they were moving during the task.
Although it was a small study, the researchers believe that hyperactivity might play a vital role for children with ADHD. Often, this symptom is seen as a nuisance by parents, caregivers and teachers and strategies to control constant movement are used at home and in the classroom. The researchers suggest that this might not be the best approach.Mark Rapport, one of the study’s authors and head of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, states, "The message isn’t ‘Let them run around the room’ but you need to be able to facilitate their movement so they can maintain the level of alertness necessary for cognitive activities." In comparison, children without ADHD performed worse when they moved around during the tasks.
While we describe hyperactivity as "being in constant motion," Rapport’s previous research has shown that children are hyperactive when they need to use executive functioning skills, especially working memory. Rather than see hyperactivity as a distraction, it might be better to see it as necessary, for children with ADHD. Quiet movement, such as swinging a leg or tapping a pencil might help improve children’s performance in school.
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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.