ADHD kids can be still—If they're not straining their brains

September 19, 2017, University of Central Florida

How's this for exasperating: Your ADHD child fidgets and squirms his way through school and homework, but seems laser-focused and motionless sitting in front of the TV watching an action thriller.

Well, fret not, because new research shows lack of motivation or boredom with school isn't to blame for the differing behavior. It turns out that symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder such as fidgeting, foot-tapping and chair-swiveling are triggered by cognitively demanding tasks - like school and homework. But movies and video games don't typically require brain strain, so the excessive movement doesn't manifest.

"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,'" said Mark Rapport, director of the Children's Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida. "But kids with ADHD only need to move when they are accessing their brain's executive functions. That movement helps them maintain alertness."

Scientists once thought that ADHD symptoms were always present. But previous research from Rapport, who has been studying ADHD for more than 36 years, has shown the fidgeting was most often present when children were using their brains' executive functions, particularly "working memory." That's the system we use for temporarily storing and managing information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension.

As recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Professor Rapport's senior doctoral student Sarah Orban and research team tested 62 boys ages 8 to 12. Of those, 32 had ADHD. Thirty did not have ADHD and acted as a control group.

During separate sessions, the children watched two short videos, each about 10 minutes long. One was a scene from "Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace" in which a young Anakin Skywalker competes in a dramatic pod-race. The other was an instructional video featuring an instructor verbally and visually presenting multistep solutions to addition, subtraction and multiplication problems.

While watching, the participants were observed by a researcher, recorded and outfitted with wearable actigraphs that tracked their slightest movements. The children with ADHD were largely motionless while watching the Start Wars clip, but during the math video they swiveled in their chairs, frequently changed positions and tapped their feet.

That may not seem surprising. After all, weren't the children absorbed by the sci-fi movie and bored by the math lesson? Not so, Rapport said.

"That's just using the outcome to explain the cause," he said. "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."

The takeaway: Parents and teachers of children with ADHD should avoid labeling them as unmotivated slackers when they're working on tasks that require working memory and cognitive processing, researchers said.

The study builds on Rapport's earlier research, including a 2015 study that found that with ADHD must be allowed to squirm to learn.

Explore further: Kids with ADHD must squirm to learn, study says

More information: Sarah A. Orban et al, Inattentive Behavior in Boys with ADHD during Classroom Instruction: the Mediating Role of Working Memory Processes, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s10802-017-0338-x

Related Stories

Kids with ADHD must squirm to learn, study says

April 17, 2015
For decades, frustrated parents and teachers have barked at fidgety children with ADHD to "Sit still and concentrate!"

ADHD study: Expensive training programs don't help kids' grades, behavior

November 25, 2013
Many parents spend thousands of dollars on computer-based training programs that claim to help children with ADHD succeed in the classroom and in peer relationships while reducing hyperactivity and inattentiveness. But a ...

Squirm with purpose: Research shows fidgeting is helpful for ADHD patients

February 22, 2016
Teachers have long struggled to get children to sit still at their desks. But for children with ADHD, those orders might be counterproductive.

Study finds children with ADHD have questions for their doctor but don't ask them

April 20, 2017
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder want to ask their physicians about their condition and medications but often don't, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The ...

Recommended for you

Global study finds youngest in class more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD

October 15, 2018
A new global study involving the University of Adelaide has found that children who are the youngest in their classroom are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than their older ...

Much still unclear about relationship between screen media use and ADHD in children

October 5, 2018
There is a statistically small relationship between children's screen media use and ADHD-related behaviours. This is the finding of an extensive literature review on this subject carried out by researchers from the UvA's ...

Brain scans reveal common patterns can predict variations in ADHD

September 24, 2018
Distinct brain patterns can help explain variations in the way children present with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), paving a course towards improved treatment and support for the common neurodevelopmental ...

ADHD may increase risk of Parkinson's disease and similar disorders

September 12, 2018
While about 11 percent of children (4-17 years old) nationwide have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the long-term health effects of having ADHD and of common ADHD medications remains understudied. ...

Over past 20 years, percentage of children with ADHD nearly doubles

September 3, 2018
The number of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has reached more than 10 percent, a significant increase during the past 20 years, according to a study released Friday.

ADHD rates rising sharply in US kids

August 31, 2018
(HealthDay)—The number of ADHD diagnoses among children has risen dramatically in the past two decades, going from 6 percent to 10 percent, a new report shows.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.