Trying to keep children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) from fidgeting in their seats is not only ineffectual, but may actually be causing them academic harm, according to a new study by researchers at the Children’s Learning Clinic at Florida State University (FSU).
The findings show that fidgeting often occurs when the child is trying to solve difficult problems and that this movement exerts a positive effect on their working memory, the aspect of cognition that continually updates and rearranges information.
“It’s another piece of evidence that the hyperactive behavior more and more seems to be purposeful for them. This movement is how they get the juices flowing,” said lead researcher Dr. Michael Kofler, assistant professor of psychology at FSU. Kofler is developing new, non-medication treatments for ADHD.
Children with ADHD often have difficulty with working memory. Earlier work by Kofler and researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center showed that kids with ADHD did better on working memory tests when they were able to move around, suggesting that these kids may benefit cognitively from behaviors like squirming or fidgeting.
In the new study, the researchers wanted to determine whether fidgeting specifically enhances working memory.
The study involved 25 boys and girls with ADHD, ages eight to 12. Kofler devised two types of tests. The first test required students to remember where a series of dots appeared on a screen and mentally reorder them based on color. The other test involved remembering a series of numbers and letters, and mentally reordering them, numbers first from smallest to biggest, then the letter. There were between three and six items to remember and reorder throughout the tests.
The participants were given each test multiple times and the predictability of difficulty differed each time. In the less difficult version, they were told how many items they had to remember, and took the test in order; in the difficult version, the amount of information to remember in working memory was random.
While the children fidgeted and moved around during all the tests — which was expected because all the tests were mentally challenging — they moved up to 25 percent more when they couldn’t predict how many items they had to remember.
Since the tests were identical in every way except for that key difference, this is the first study that shows a cause-and-effect relationship between working memory demands and hyperactivity in ADHD. Kofler also said the study is directly informing the new ADHD treatment they’re developing.
“Our work keeps pointing to working memory,” he said. “It affects their attention, their impulse control, their school success, their social interactions, and now their hyperactivity. So we’re going to try and improve working memory.
“This is a challenge, but if we’re successful, we should see better attention and impulse control, and they shouldn’t have to move as much.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Attention Disorders.