The constant movement of young people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may seem distracting to others—but all that motion may actually improve their cognitive performance.
A new study of pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD looked at how movement—its intensity and frequency—correlated with accuracy on cognitively demanding tasks requiring good attention. Participants who moved more intensely exhibited substantially better cognitive performance.
The research is the first to assess the relationship between activity and task performance on a trial-by-trial basis in ADHD, the authors say.
“It turns out that physical movement during cognitive tasks may be a good thing for them,” says Julie Schweitzer, professor of psychiatry and director of the ADHD Program at University of California, Davis.
“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.”
For the study, published online in the journal Child Neuropsychology, researchers recruited 26 children with validated ADHD diagnoses and 18 who were developing typically and served as controls. The research was conducted at the MIND Institute in Sacramento, California. Participants were between the ages of 10 and 17 years when the study took place.
The participants’ 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.
Let Them Fidget
In the test, the child is asked to focus on the direction in which the middle arrow in a series of arrows is pointing, limiting their attention to other arrows on either side. On some of the trials the middle arrow is pointing in the same direction as the flankers; in others it is pointing in the opposite direction. Arrows pointing in the opposite direction cause more errors in performance.
The accuracy of the participants with ADHD was significantly improved when they were moving. In other words, correct answers were associated with more motion than incorrect answers.
“This finding suggests that accuracy in ADHD may be enhanced by more intense activity or that when a child with ADHD is using more cognitive resources they are more likely to be engaging in physical activity.” the researchers write.
“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,” says lead author Arthur Hartanto, a study coordinator with the ADHD. “Instead, they should seek activities that are not disruptive that allow their students with ADHD to use movement, because it assists them with thinking.”
The National Institute of Mental Health, a UC Davis MIND Institute Pilot Grant; and a MIND Institute Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center grant funded the work.