How do we help wiggly learners stay focused? It’s totally counterintuitive, says this researcher.

 In Grade-schooler, Tween

hula sharpSome kids squirm at school and wiggle their way through homework. They jiggle their pencils. They scoot their chairs. They’re perpetual motion machines.

“Sit still!” we grown-ups say.

Maybe we shouldn’t. New research suggests that for kids with ADHD, all that fidgety movement might be just what their brain needs.

Call it learning by squirming.

A growing body of research suggests that the hyperactive part of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder isn’t just a quirk that randomly revs kids up while annoying the heck out of parents and teachers.

It seems to have a purpose.

“We think movement might be a coping mechanism,” says psychologist Michael Kofler of Florida State University’s Children’s Learning Clinic. “It’s a way of stepping on the gas, revving the engine to work at its top level.”

Kofler’s latest study, in The Journal of Attention Disorders, is the first to show a cause-and-effect relationship between hyperactivity in ADHD and a key thinking skill called working memory. Earlier work by Kofler and Mark Rapport of the University of Central Florida showed a relationship between doing complicated mental tasks and the need to move around.

For the new study, 8- to 12-year-old boys and girls with ADHD did certain tests while their movements were measured. The more the tests required them to use working memory—an important part of executive function—the more they fidgeted and moved.

About 80 percent of kids with ADHD struggle with impaired working memory.

Lots of movement seems to help kids stay alert and focus. “The hyperactivity is helping rather than hurting,” Kofler told me. “That’s a very different way of looking at it.”

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Why “Sit still!” isn’t helpful

The conventional thinking is that stillness equals attention. For two big reasons, this is a mistake, Kofler told me:

1) Sitting still deprives a child with ADHD of the benefit of that revving —“getting the juices flowing to give an optimal performance.”

2) At the same time, it asks the child to divide his attention. That’s something nearly impossible for even the most mature and neuro-normative of us to do because multitasking is a myth. Humans can only focus on one thing at a time, Kofler says.

“If a child knows he’ll get in trouble if he doesn’t keep his butt in the chair and his feet on the floor, he’s going to focus on that—which means he can’t focus on the lesson the teacher is presenting or his math worksheet.”

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Wait, why should we care about working memory?

Most kids with ADHD have little trouble with holding something in their mind for a couple of seconds— long enough, say, to copy a phone number. That’s basic short-term memory. But working memory is involved when we have to do things with that information (“work” with it), like mentally rearrange numbers or update them.

Kids use working memory all the time when doing mental math, taking notes, or following multi-step directions, for example.

Interestingly, it’s only when kids with ADHD are being mentally challenged that they tend to move so much. In studies where they did things that required little working memory—drawing, painting, watching a “Star Wars” pod race scene—they didn’t move more, Kofler says.

It’s not just hyperactivity that’s affected by working memory. It’s already been shown to be connected to other ADHD symptoms, like attention, impulse control, and social interactions. Kids with ADHD often blurt out the answers in class, for example, which might be seen as impulsive, but is also the result of not being able to hang onto a thought long enough to wait their turn and pay attention to everything else going on in the classroom.

A better way

Kids with ADHD want to do well and please their parents and teachers, Kofler says. All that blurting out and fidgeting is actually showing us how hard they’re trying.

Just knowing that working memory is a struggle for kids with ADHD can help parents in how we frame our requests and expectations, Kofler told me.

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What helps:

Don’t overload the directions. Break them down into one step at a time, rather than asking a child to “Go upstairs, get your PJs on, brush your teeth, pick out a book, and get into bed to wait for me.” One directive at a time is better, with lots of prompts and follow-through. “If he gets off track, give reminders,” Kofler says. “You have to reward effort in order to encourage success, rather than setting the child up not to be successful in the first place.”

Make sure schoolwork is at the right level. When kids with ADHD are asked to do way more than they’re capable of, they may move around too much as a way to escape. They literally get up to find a way to avoid the demands. “The movement is always purposeful, but the purpose can vary,” Kofler says.

The goal for teachers should be to keep students engaged and challenged without leaving them frustrated. Math word problems, for example, often hinder kids with ADHD because they have trouble keeping track of all the irrelevant details in order to pick out and remember what they need to solve the actual problem.

Care more about learning than how they learn. Is your child engaged? Is he listening? Those are more important indicators of learning than sitting calmly.

Don’t just allow kids to move around more—encourage it. “That doesn’t mean we give free rein to run around the classroom bopping other kids on the head,” Kofler says. “But we shouldn’t worry if they’re sitting, standing, or squirming.”

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More ways to work WITH the wiggles

Educators and parents are coming up with clever ways to accommodate kids’ need to be “active” learners. Some examples:

  • Give them chairs that move. Examples: swivel chairs, Wobble chairs, Hokki stools, and even yoga balls used as seating. A less expensive option, stability cushions, can be used on top of ordinary chair seats.
  • Make flexible footrests out of inner-tubes wrapped around chair legs. This lets kids bounce their legs against something, quietly. A commercial example: Bouncy Bands.
  • Introduce knitting lessons. This idea has long been used by some Waldorf schools to keep busy bodies occupied.
  • Provide fidget toys. Objects that keep the hands busy include Koosh balls, squeeze balls, fidget pencil toppers, and lots more. Google “fidget toy”—it’s a genre of its own.
  • Let them stand. Kids don’t need to be “butt in the chair” to study. Standing desks aren’t just for Silicon Valley types. Or let your child read while using a treadmill.

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Dancing all the way to success

Ultimately, researchers like Kofler hope that figuring out how to boost the working memory of kids with ADHD will make it easier for them to function in school and at home.

Until then, it’s nice to know that kids’ own bodies seem to know what they need to help them out—by squirming, bouncing, tapping, and rocking.

All we have to do is roll with it.

Photos from top: Stephanie Sicore/Flickr, Stephanie Sicore/Flickr, jenny cu/Flickr, Stephanie Sicore/Flickr, Kim Love/Flickr

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