Let them fidget! Squirming around helps children with ADHD focus

Children with ADHD are more likely to succeed in cognitive tasks when they are fidgeting. Rather than telling them to stop, is it time to let them squirm in class?

The results, from a small study of teens and pre-teens, add to growing evidence that movement may help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to think.

One of the theories about ADHD is that the brain is somehow under-aroused. Physical movements could help wake it up or maintain alertness, perhaps by stimulating the release of brain-signalling chemicals like dopamine or norepinephrine.

Fidget britches

In the latest study, Julie Schweitzer of the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues asked 44 children with ADHD and 29 kids without to describe an arrangement of arrows. The children with ADHD were more likely to focus on the task and answer correctly if the test coincided with them fidgeting, as tracked by an ankle monitor.

Intriguingly, Schwietzer found that it is the vigour of movements, rather than how often children make them, that seems to be related to improvements in test scores. This might mean, for example, that it helps children to swing their legs in longer arcs, but not to swing them faster.

“I think we need to consider that fidgeting is helpful,” says Schweitzer. “We need to find ways that children with ADHD can move without being disruptive to others.”

Dustin Sarver at the University of Mississippi, who recently found a link between fidgeting and improved working memory, agrees. “We should revisit the targets we want for these children, such as improving the work they complete and paying attention, rather than focusing on sitting still.” He suggests that movements that are not disruptive to other schoolchildren, such as squirming, bouncing and leg movements, as opposed to getting up in the middle of lessons, could be encouraged in classrooms.

Wakey wakey

“It might be interesting to think about developing treatments that work in the same way as physical activity, or perhaps think about combining exercise with medication to reduce the dose,” says Schweitzer. The ADHD drug Ritalin likely acts by having the same effect as physical movement, only more pronounced, Sarver says, serving to “wake up” the brain.

Not everyone is convinced. Of the study’s 44 children with ADHD, nearly half were girls, but in reality boys with ADHD outnumber girls with the condition by 3 to 1. “The sample of the study was small and somewhat unusual,” says James Swanson at the University of California, Irvine, who also notes that the effects detected, though significant, were subtle. “I am not sure this finding should be the basis for recommendations for the school or classroom setting,” he says.

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