Fidgeting Is Just How Kids with ADHD Concentrate

Everyone knows that students with ADHD have a hard time sitting still. But telling a child with ADHD to sit still is actually detrimental to their learning. I have found that if I allow students a controlled outlet for their fidgeting, they are better able to concentrate on their schoolwork.

A recent study verified the observations I’ve made in my classroom. The study, Inattentive Behavior in Boys with ADHD during Classroom Instruction: the Mediating Role of Working Memory Processes, was presented in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology by co-authors Sarah A. Orban and Mark Rapport. Speaking of his findings, Rapport said:

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.’ But kids with ADHD need to move when they are accessing their brain’s executive functions. That movement helps them maintain alertness.

The researchers’ subjects were 62 boys ages 8 to 12, 32 of which had an ADHD diagnosis. The children watched two short videos in different sessions. One clip was from Star Wars and in the other video an instructor presented several ways to solve different types of math problems.

While watching the videos participants wore actigraphs, which allowed the researchers to track even the slightest movements. The children with ADHD barely moved during the Star Wars video but squirmed and fidgeted during the math video. Rapport explains these results:

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.

While this outcome may seem obvious to many classroom teachers, it is important to use research to support accommodations that will allow students with ADHD to be able to fidget and, therefore, learn. The research is clear. Students with ADHD who fidget in class are not being willful or disruptive; they are just trying to concentrate on their work.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager