Many a parent of a child who’s been diagnosed with ADHD has stared in bewilderment as their child sits dead still for hours watching a movie. No wiggling, no chatting, no getting up and down every few minutes – just total focus and concentration.
Put that child in a classroom environment and you would think they were a completely different kid, however.
They can’t seem to sit still for more than a few seconds, fidget constantly, and barely focus on the teacher at all.
So, why the difference? Is it simply that the movie is intriguing while the teacher is boring?
An interesting new study out of the University of Central Florida, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, may finally have solved the mystery.
Instead, the study found that these behaviors are exhibited whenever children who are generally labeled “ADHD” are “triggered by cognitively demanding tasks” – in other words, when the kids are required to think hard as they grapple to understand something.
Of course, the natural reaction of a parent or teacher observing such behavior is to assume that the child is just misbehaving. After all, if they can sit still for a movie, surely they can sit quietly in class if they just try hard enough?
Unfortunately, for these kids it just doesn’t work that way.
When children whose brains operate in this way are expected to use executive functions like working memory – the system involved with learning, reasoning, comprehension and the storing of information – they will automatically start fidgeting.
The research team included 62 boys between the ages of 8 and 12 in their study. The participants were divided into two groups: The first group of 32 boys had all been diagnosed with ADHD, while the remaining 30 were a control group who had not been given that diagnosis.
All the participants were then asked to watch two short videos – one a scene from Star Wars Episode 1, the other an instructional video with a teacher giving a math lesson.
As they watched, the kids were observed by a researcher and wore devices that registered even the smallest movements.
Interestingly, while they sat virtually perfectly still during the Star Wars scene, the kids who had received the ADHD diagnosis all swiveled in their chairs and were generally fidgety during the math lesson tutorial.
“We have shown that what’s really going on is that it depends on the cognitive demands of the task,” explained Mark Rapport, director of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, who has been studying ADHD for 36 years.
“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.”
In other words, certain children simply need to move while they are learning – that’s just how their brains are wired. (Related: Learn more about the incredible human mind at Psychiatry.news.)
Perhaps that explains why children who are labeled as ADHD and put on mind-altering drugs like Ritalin and Adderall actually do worse at school than their unmedicated peers. A 2015 study conducted by researchers from Princeton, Cornell and the University of Toronto, found that children placed on these drugs had a far greater chance of having to repeat a grade, indicating that their learning was impaired.
“We find little evidence of improvement in either the medium or the long run” from the use of ADHD drugs in children, wrote the authors. “Our results … suggest that expanding medication in a community setting had little positive benefit and may have had harmful effects given the average way these drugs are used in the community.”
The take-away? Instead of medicating your wiggly, fidgety kids, take this article to their teachers and help them to understand that these are bright children whose brains just work differently.
If they are given the freedom to be themselves they might just surprise everybody.