Perhaps everyone knows that kids with ADHD can’t sit still – after all, that’s the hyperactivity in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children with ADHD frequently shake their legs, fidget with small objects and change their seating position. This constant moving can be frustrating for parents or teachers, but it might be vital to how kids with the disorder learn.
The study’s findings
A recent study by University of Central Florida published in Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology sought to determine how fidgeting influences cognitive performance in children with ADHD. Specifically, they looked at how fidgeting affects working memory, the ability to temporarily store information to carry out a future task. An example of working memory would be silently repeating a phone number to avoid forgetting it. Working memory is essential for maintaining focus and is known to be disrupted in people with ADHD.
Fifty-two boys between age 8 and 12 participated in this study. Twenty-nine of the boys had ADHD, whereas the remaining 23 had no known mental health or developmental issues. The boys were given a task, during which each child was briefly shown a scrambled list of numbers and one letter. Participants had to remember the numbers and then rearrange them into their proper order. They also had to remember the letter. During this task, researchers observed how much the children moved and whether or not they were engaged in the task. The participants were also recorded on a high-speed camera so that these observations could be verified.
Researchers found that the more kids with ADHD moved, the better they performed. It seemed as though constant movement was required for them to maintain attention.
“What we’ve found is that when they’re moving the most, the majority of them perform better,” said Mark Rapport, head of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, in a press release. “They have to move to maintain alertness.”
Conversely, the children without ADHD performed worse when they were moving.
What does this mean for treating ADHD?
Children – or adults – with ADHD might benefit from fidgeting during complex tasks. Although it seems like fidgeting is a sign of distraction, it might actually be a compensatory measure designed to halt distraction. Another study by the same research group found that children with ADHD don’t fidget all the time – in fact, they fidget considerably more during tasks that engage executive functions, especially when using working memory.
“The typical interventions target reducing hyperactivity,” Rapport said. “It’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing for a majority of children with ADHD. 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.”
It seems clear, then, that children with ADHD should be allowed to fidget in the classroom. But how can they fidget in a way that does not disrupt anyone else’s learning?
Fidget objects – also known as fidgets – are silent, unobtrusive and tactile objects that a child can hold onto in the classroom. Fidgets should be small enough to fit inside the palm of the hand, yet interesting enough to inspire the child with ADHD to manipulate with his or her fingers. Fidgets should also be inexpensive, since children with ADHD are likely to lose track of them. A wide variety of fidgets are available in the Therapy Shoppe, an online store with a focus on helping children with developmental disabilities. Multiple fidget types are available – some stretch, some feel interesting and some encourage chewing, to name a few examples.
Activity balls are another excellent way to help kids with ADHD. Activity balls are large, plastic balls that kids can sit on in lieu of a chair. Unlike chairs, activity balls require constant movement and adjustment to maintain balance. Although they were originally designed for exercise, a 2003 study published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy found that students with ADHD benefit from sitting on these activity balls while studying. Children with ADHD who sat on activity balls instead of chairs could sit still, focus and write more words clearly than they would have otherwise.
These are only a few ways in which productive fidgeting can be brought into the classroom – millions of people with ADHD have developed their own coping mechanisms to help them study and focus. As researchers grow more familiar with the disorder, it becomes more and more obvious that simply telling a person with ADHD to “sit still” is not the answer. Parents and educators must take steps to ensure that people with ADHD can focus as well as possible.