'Stop Fidgeting' Is Exactly the Wrong Thing to Say to ADHD Kids

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

ADHD kids learn better when they’re allowed to move freely, says a new study from the University of Central Florida. Researchers studied 52 boys ages eight to 12, 29 of whom had been diagnosed with ADHD; the others had no diagnoses and showed normal development.

The researchers gave the children tasks designed to measure “working memory,” or the system with which we carry out cognitive tasks in order to learn, reason and ultimately comprehend new ideas. The children had to do tasks like look at jumbled numbers and a letter flashed across a screen, put the numbers in order, and tack the letter onto the end. Researchers recorded the children and noted their movements as the kids were performing the tasks.

One of the study’s authors, Mark Rapport, had shown in previous research that hyperactivity in ADHD children, rather than being ever-present, is really only evident when kids use their executive brain functions—in other words, when they’re actively learning. And this, it seems, is the key to their success. Rapport told UCF Today: “”What we’ve found is that when they’re moving the most, the majority of them perform better…They have to move to maintain alertness.”

In other words, forcing ADHD kids to sit still and stop fidgeting actually impedes their learning. (The non-ADHD students moved during the tasks too, but performed worse.) Interventions for ADHD often focus on reducing hyperactivity, but allowing them to fidget, tap their toes, ride a stationary bike, or bounce on an exercise ball might better facilitate their learning. In a school culture that emphasizes testing, this might change how educators structure their classrooms and lessons to accommodate ADHD kids.

Says Rapport, “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.”

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