While adults might find the squirming and fidgeting associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) frustrating to deal with, two recent studies show that constant movement in children with ADHD may improve their cognitive performance.
A study conducted at the University of Central Florida shows that if you want kids with ADHD to learn, you have to let them squirm. The foot-tapping, leg-swinging, and chair-scooting movements of children with the disorder are actually vital to how they remember information and work out complex cognitive tasks, according to a study published in an early online release of the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
The study included 52 boys ages 8 to 12. Twenty-nine of the children had been diagnosed with ADHD and the other 23 had no clinical disorders and showed normal development.
Each child was asked to perform a series of standardized tasks designed to gauge “working memory,” the system for temporarily storing and managing information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension.
The children were shown a series of jumbled numbers and a letter that flashed onto a computer screen, then were asked to put the numbers in order, followed by the letter. A high-speed camera recorded the kids, and observers recorded their every movement and gauged their attention to the task.
One of the study’s authors, Mark Rapport, head of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, said previous research had already shown that the excessive movement that’s a trademark of hyperactive children – previously thought to be ever-present – is actually apparent only when they need to use the brain’s executive brain functions, especially their working memory.
The new study goes an important step further, proving the movement serves a purpose.
“What we’ve found is that when they’re moving the most, the majority of them perform better,” Rapport said. “They have to move to maintain alertness.”
By contrast, the children in the study without ADHD also moved more during the cognitive tests, but it had the opposite effect: They performed worse.
The methods currently used to help children with ADHD may be misguided. According to Rapport, “The typical interventions target reducing hyperactivity. 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.”
A study from the University of California – Davis Health System found that pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD who moved more intensely exhibited substantially better cognitive performance.
For the study, researchers recruited 26 children with validated ADHD diagnoses and 18 who were developing “typically” and served as study controls. The participants were between the ages of 10 and 17 years when the study was conducted.
Researchers measured the movements of of children by affixing a device to their ankles that measured their level of activity while completing a “flanker test” that requires good attention and the ability to inhibit paying attention to distractions.
For the test, the child is asked to focus on the direction in which the middle arrow in a series of arrows is pointing, inhibiting their attendance at other arrows flanking the arrow in question. On some of the trials the middle arrow is pointing in the same direction as the flankers; in others it is pointing in the opposite direction. Arrows pointing in the opposite direction cause more errors in performance.
The accuracy of the participants with ADHD was significantly improved when they were moving, the study found. In other words, correct answers were associated with more motion than incorrect answers.
“It turns out that physical movement during cognitive tasks may be a good thing for them,” said Julie Schweitzer, professor of psychiatry, director of the UC Davis ADHD Program and study senior author.
“Parents and teachers shouldn’t try to keep them still. Let them move while they are doing their work or other challenging cognitive tasks, Schweitzer said. “It may be that the hyperactivity we see in ADHD may actually be beneficial at times. Perhaps the movement increases their arousal level, which leads to better attention.”
“This finding suggests that accuracy in ADHD may be enhanced by more intense activity or that when a child with ADHD is using more cognitive resources they are more likely to be engaging in physical activity,” the study says.
“Maybe teachers shouldn’t punish kids for movement, and should allow them to fidget as long as it doesn’t disturb the rest of the class,” said Arthur Hartanto, a study coordinator with the ADHD Program and the study’s first author. “Instead, they should seek activities that are not disruptive that allow their students with ADHD to use movement, because it assists them with thinking.”