The constant movement seen in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may just be their way of trying to learn, cope and otherwise perform better cognitively. This in a nutshell is what a recent research study from UC Davis Mind Institute suggests. The hyperactivity may be compensatory behavior on the part of children with ADHD to help them focus their thinking. They move in order to remain alert to the task at hand.
The study, titled “A trial-by-trial analysis reveals more intense physical activity is associated with better cognitive control performance in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,” published last month in Child Neuropsychology “is the first to assess the relationship between activity and task performance on a trial-by-trial basis in ADHD,” the authors said.
For the study, the authors recruited 26 children with validated ADHD diagnoses and 18 who were developing typically and served as controls. The participants were between the ages of 10 years and 17 years. The pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD were examined to determine how movement — its intensity and frequency — correlated with accuracy on cognitively demanding tasks requiring good attention. Their movements were measured 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. It found that participants who moved more intensely exhibited substantially better cognitive 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 professor Julie Schweitzer, 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. 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.”
“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,” adds Arthur Hartanto, a study coordinator with the ADHD Program and the lead author of the study. “Instead, they should seek activities that are not disruptive that allow their students with ADHD to use movement, because it assists them with thinking.”