Lack of Motivation with School Isn’t to Blame for Squirming by Children with ADHD

Kids with ADHD

Lack of Motivation with School Isn’t to Blame for Squirming by Children with ADHD

Sound familiar? Your child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) fidgets and squirms his way through school and homework, but seems laser-focused and motionless sitting in front of the TV watching an action thriller. When a parent or a teacher sees a child who can sit perfectly still in one condition and yet in another they’re all over the place, the first thing they say is, “well, they could sit still if they wanted to.”

But a series of studies conducted at the University of Central Florida show that kids with ADHD only need to move when they are accessing their brain’s executive functions. That movement helps them maintain alertness.

Symptoms such as fidgeting, foot-tapping and chair-swiveling are triggered by cognitively demanding tasks – like school and homework. But movies and video games don’t typically require brain strain, so the excessive movement doesn’t manifest.

Scientists once thought that ADHD symptoms were always present. But previous research from psychologists studying ADHD for more than 36 years has shown the fidgeting was most often present when children were using their brains’ executive functions, particularly “working memory.” Working memory is the system we use for temporarily storing and managing information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension.

A study recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology tested 62 boys ages 8 to 12. Of those, 32 had ADHD. Thirty did not have ADHD and acted as a control group. During separate sessions, the children watched two short videos, each about 10 minutes long. One was a scene from “Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace” in which a young Anakin Skywalker competes in a dramatic pod-race. The other was an educational video featuring an instructor verbally and visually presenting multi-step solutions to addition, subtraction and multiplication problems.

While watching, the boys were observed by a researcher. They were recorded and outfitted with wearable actigraphs that tracked their slightest movements. The children with ADHD were largely motionless while watching the Star Wars clip, but during the math video they swiveled in their chairs, frequently changed positions and tapped their feet. That may not seem surprising. After all, weren’t the children absorbed by the sci-fi movie and bored by the math lesson?

Not so, according to researchers. The key factor here (and main difference) is the cognitive demands of the task. 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 were using their working memory, and in that condition movement helps them to be more focused. Movement acts as a conduit for paying attention.

The takeaway? Parents and teachers of children with ADHD should avoid labeling them as unmotivated slackers when they’re working on tasks that require working memory and cognitive processing. Their movements may actually help them succeed.


Authored by:  Kiara Moore, PhD, LCSW

Journal Reference – Sarah A. Orban, Mark D. Rapport, Lauren M. Friedman, Samuel J. Eckrich, Michael J. Kofler. Inattentive Behavior in Boys with ADHD during Classroom Instruction: the Mediating Role of Working Memory Processes. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10802-017-0338-x. –