Let ADHD students fidget, research says

New research shows that students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) perform better on cognitive tasks when allowed to fidget or move freely about the classroom.

The research from the University of California Davis MIND Institute was published on 4 June in the online journal Child Neuropsychology and suggests a new way of approaching the many challenges associated with restless students.

Dr Julie Schweitzer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the MIND Institute at the University of California, was senior author of one of the studies.

“Parents and teachers need to stop telling children with ADHD to sit still,” Schweitzer told The Wall Street Journal, adding teachers need to explore ways to ensure that these students’ freedom of movement doesn’t interfere with the learning of others.

“We know that some activity can be disruptive to others, but we need to find ways to make it less conspicuous and to integrate socially appropriate ways of moving.”

An interesting finding in the study showed that students with typical behaviours experienced a decline in academic performance when allowed to move freely about the classroom.

Schweitzer suggested that the encouragement of free movement in class may allow students with ADHD to reduce, or even discontinue, their medication altogether, depending on the child’s medical circumstances.

The report stated that other children, whose parents don’t want their child taking medications, might benefit from such adjustments, which might also be used in conjunction with other behavioural therapies.

Other experts are sceptical. Russell Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina, rejected the idea but said a bit of movement during class would be good exercise for the students.

“It’s not going to be an alternative to medical treatment,” Barkley said.

“But as a coping device and as something that teachers might wish to consider in the classroom it’s very consistent with an emerging body of work showing that physical exercise in general is beneficial.”

Another study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in April, found that children with ADHD who performed a working-memory task while seated in a chair that could swivel performed better on average the more they moved.

However, as shown in the most recent study, children with typical behaviours performed worse the more they moved in the chair.

“We didn’t put any constraints or constrictions on them,” said Dustin Sarver, an assistant professor of paediatrics at University of Mississippi Medical Center and first author of the study.

“We think a lot of this movement has to do with kids’ arousal levels in their brain.”

Physical movement is believed to increase neural activity, helping to boost cognitive performance. However, allowing typical children to fidget may push their arousal levels outside of an optimal range, Sarver said.