Have you noticed that many kids with ADHD seem to move and fidget constantly when they are doing their homework or are sitting at a desk in their classroom, no matter how many times they’ve been told to sit still or stay in their seat? Have you also noticed that these same kids seem to have no problem sitting still when they’re watching a movie or playing a videogame? This stark contrast in behavior perplexes and frustrates many teachers and parents. It gives the impression that kids with ADHD are able to sit still “when they want to” and only move constantly at other times because they’re trying to avoid doing their schoolwork or escape a boring situation, or because they are simply being defiant.
A team of researchers had a different idea. What if the fidgeting and constant movement actually serves a purpose? What if moving actually helps kids with ADHD focus on their work, think more clearly, and stay alert and engaged when they are doing something that is not particularly interesting to them? To test this theory Dr. Rapport and his students developed a series of studies that precisely measured the movements of elementary school-aged boys with ADHD in two different scenarios. In the first scenario, the boys sat and watched a movie, which is an activity that most people can focus on fairly effortlessly. In the second scenario, the boys completed computer-based tasks that required them to concentrate and use their “working memory” – working memory is what allows us to store information in our mind for short periods of time and use the stored information to do things like calculate math problems in our head. During the movie there was very little movement from the boys with ADHD, but as soon as they switched gears and started their working memory computer tasks the amount of movement increased dramatically. The boys without ADHD moved a bit more during the working memory tasks than they did during the movie, but not nearly as much as their ADHD counterparts. In a follow-up study, the researchers looked more closely at how movement impacted the boys’ level of accuracy on the working memory tasks. Sure enough, for most of the boys with ADHD, the more they moved the more accurately they performed! The opposite was true for the boys without ADHD. Their accuracy actually decreased the more that they moved.
Why does movement helps kids with ADHD perform better? It’s probably tied to the fact that the brains of kids with ADHD need more stimulation in order to “click into gear” and focus than the brains of kids without ADHD. So, when an activity isn’t very interesting or stimulating, kids with ADHD need an extra push to get their brains working, and moving their bodies gives their brains the push that they need. Everyone actually experiences this sometimes. Next time you’re in a boring meeting or are really feeling like you need another cup of coffee, pay attention to your body. You’ll probably find yourself fidgeting or moving around in an effort to stay alert and engaged. The difference for kids with ADHD is that they feel like this on a daily basis.
So, does this mean that we should stop telling kids with ADHD to stay in their seat and sit still? If a child is in a situation where their movement isn’t distracting to other kids around them, and they’re staying on task and getting their work done, then I would recommend allowing them to keep moving. If the child is in a classroom and other kids are getting distracted, or the child’s desk has to be moved away from his peers because of his movement, then the answer isn’t as straightforward. In classroom situations it can be helpful to find tools that allow kids to move or fidget without disrupting the group. Different tools work for different kids, so finding the right option might take some trial and error. In general I recommend fidget tools that can be attached to desks or chairs rather than loose fidget objects that can be lost or turn into distracting toys. Bouncy Bands attach to chairs and desk legs and can help facilitate quiet feet and leg movement (http://bouncybands.com/). Or, if a standing desk is an option at your child’s school, many come with a fidget bar already installed that is similar to a swinging footrest. For kids who fidget with their hands a simple strip of Velcro attached to the bottom of the desk can be a good sensory fidget tool.
Next time you see your child fidgeting or moving during homework time, spend some time observing him before you decide whether or not you should tell him to sit still. The movement might just be helping him build up the brain power he needs in order to concentrate and do his work well.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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