ORLANDO, Fla. — Squirming kids labeled as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have been validated. New research shows that they wiggle not because they find school boring, but because they really do need to move more than other children when their brains are engaged in learning new concepts.
A University of Central Florida study helps explain why Johnny can sit perfectly still in front of the TV, but cannot seem to keep himself from squirming in his chair at school. Movies and video games do not stress his brain, but when he takes on cognitive challenges like school and homework, it triggers his need to fidget.
It is simply a symptom of ADHD and not a behavior issue.
“When a parent or a teacher sees a child who can sit perfectly still in one condition and yet over here they’re all over the place, the first thing they say is, ‘Well, they could sit still if they wanted to,’” says study co-author Mark Rapport, director of UCF’s Children’s Learning Clinic, in a news release. “But kids with ADHD only need to move when they are accessing their brain’s executive functions. That movement helps them maintain alertness.”
Scientists used to think ADHD symptoms were a constant. But Rapport, who has been studying ADHD for more 36 years, found that children fidgeted most when they were grappling with learning that involves the part of the brain involved in executive functions, especially “working memory.” When brains work on complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension, they are tasked with finding temporary storage space and managing information.
Researchers tested 62 boys ages 8 to 12. About half of them, 32, had been diagnosed with ADHD. The other 30 did not have ADHD and served as the control group.
The children watched two short videos in different sessions. Each video was about 10 minutes long. One clip showed a young Anakin Skywalker competing in a pod-race in “Star Wars Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” In the other video, an instructor verbally and visually presented several processes for solving addition, subtraction and multiplication problems.
Participants wore actigraphs while watching the videos. With these devices, researchers were able to track even their slightest movements. Researchers found that children with ADHD were barely moving during the Star Wars video, but swiveled in their chairs, tapped their feet and kept changing positions during the math video.
It makes sense, right? Children tune in for the fun stuff and tune out for math? “Not so,” says Rapport.
“That’s just using the outcome to explain the cause,” he says. “We have shown that what’s really going on is that it depends on the cognitive demands of the task. With the action movie, there’s no thinking involved – you’re just viewing it, using your senses. You don’t have to hold anything in your brain and analyze it. With the math video, they are using their working memory, and in that condition movement helps them to be more focused.”
Researchers say parents and teachers of children with ADHD should be aware that it is not lack of motivation that causes these kids to wiggle. Their bodies are simply moving most when their brains are working hardest.
The study’s results were published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.