In recent ADHD news, Florida State University has conducted research on the act of fidgeting in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and its positive effect on working memory. Among the FSU staff involved in the research was Michael Kofler, an assistant professor of psychology at the school and founder of its Children’s Learning Clinic, who involved students in a study using computer games to determine how effective they are in improving memory. Because approximately 80-percent of children with ADHD suffer from a deficit in working memory, a team of researchers made up of Kofler and others have been studying treatment for students with the disorder, their work published online in the Journal of Attention Disorders.
According to Kofler, hyperactivity is helpful and purposeful to help ADHD kids “rev their engines” and “get their juices flowing,” with this movement increasing what he calls “physiological arousal.” Nationwide, around 6.4 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 suffer from ADHD, but the scenario isn’t limited to a classroom environment. Consider a business meeting situation wherein attendees, after some time, begin fidgeting or squirming in their seats, looking to reach for the coffee machine just outside the conference room. Experts like Kofler believe this behavior of fidgeting/squirming keeps arousal levels up to the point individuals remain engaged for longer periods of time, their research flying in the face of the idea that hyperactivity is a negative connotation. Instead, says Kofler, teachers should allow these types of students in class to fidget or stand up.
In a released statement from FSU, this approach benefits students in two ways: It stimulates them mentally in the fashion of exercise, and helps them concentrate one scenario at a time. What’s more, children with ADHD, according to the FSU report and data gathered by Kofler and staff, are able to retain information which they use on an everyday basis, but often have difficulty with what’s known as working memory – the updating or mental rearranging of information in the brain.
What the Tests Showed About Fidgeting and ADHD
Working with 25 girls and boys with ADHD aged eight to 12, the Florida State University staff ran two kinds of tests, the first requiring students to recall where a series of dots appeared on a screen to mentally reorder them based on color. The second involved remembering a series of letters and numbers to mentally reorder them in the form of numbers first – from smallest to largest – then the letters, with between three and six items to remember and reorder throughout the tests.
The students were presented each test several times, with the predictability of difficulty differing with each variant. In the “easier” version, they were told how many items they had to remember, and took the test in order; in the “harder” version, the amount of information to remember in working memory was completely random in nature. Those exhibiting ADHD symptoms fidgeted and moved during all the tests, which was, according to FSU representatives, expected because all the tests were “mentally challenging,” but this jumped to 25-percent more when the students couldn’t predict how many items they had to remember.
Save for that key difference, the tests were identical in every way, the resulting study becoming the first to show a cause-and-effect relationship between hyperactivity and working memory demands in the ADHD sector. According to Kofler, this is yet further evidence that suggests hyperactive behavior seems to be “more and more purposeful” for students with ADHD, and that educational institutions (i.e. schools) need to modify their “classroom management” as it relates to these students.
Beyond the Research: “Stimulant Medication” and More
Interestingly, these types of studies have been helpful for researchers observing non-prescription treatment for ADHD, some even suggesting some of what the hyperactivity is affecting is akin to the result of medication. In this case, students moving to increase arousal are basically stimulating themselves – yielding what individuals such as Kofler call “stimulant medication.” In other words, kids with ADHD move and stimulate themselves without the need for medication, leading those like Kofler to deduce that perhaps medication lessens hyperactivity because both achieve the same goal; to look at it from a conversely-oriented perspective, when medicine is providing the stimulation, the kids don’t need to do it themselves.
Into this foray have come other experts with their take on the situation, such as Robyn Rennick, program director at the Dyslexia Research Institute/Woodland Hall Academy, who says such research is indeed essential in finding new ways of helping students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder succeed. For too long, she says, there’s been a perception suggesting the activity levels of these students are the problem and medication is the solution, citing Woodland Hall Academy’s 1975 medication-free ADHD program, incidentally responsible for coaching students on ways to develop their learning skills.
Anyone suffering with ADHD that has struggled to concentrate at work or focus at school has undoubtedly heard these kids of exhortations: “Focus!” “Mind over matter!” “You can do anything you really want to!” or “Just try harder!” But we know that relying on the brain can be frustrating and, often times, demoralizing – the ADHD brain isn’t the most reliable asset for those in possession of one, and distractions routinely break the focus. There are a multitude of strategies that prime these brains beyond “just trying harder,” with the aforementioned type of research showing that physical activity increases neurotransmitter (i.e. dopamine, norepinephrine) levels in the way ADHD medications do. Both of these chemicals, incidentally, play a key role in sharpening focus and increasing attention.
Multitasking for ADHDers
While for most of us doing one thing at a time is usually the best recipe for success, the opposite has been found to be true for adults and children with ADHD. We need to respect the fact that there is neural diversity and that people have different ways of doing things – not out of preference or contrariness, but from sheer need. That said, fidgeting works for many ADHD children but it must be deliberate to be effective; intentional fidgets allow you and your child to self-regulate ADHD symptoms in a controlled, constructive fashion, and an effective fidget doesn’t distract you from your primary task because it’s not something you need to think about.
Here are eight fidgets worth trying:
1. Walk and talk
3. Use multi-colored pens and pencils
4. Keep the hands busy
5. Tune in
6. Chew gum
7. Implement “beat the clock” style games
8. Stand up or move around
Managing ADHD encompasses recognizing choices and then taking action, and understanding what is happening in our brains followed by proactively choosing an appropriate strategy is at the core of the “fidget approach.”