Benefits of Hyperactive Movement for ADHD Students

Interventions that target reducing hyperactivity may be negatively impacting students with ADHD. Research suggests that hyperactivity plays a functional role – children with ADHD move around in order to maintain alertness necessary for cognitive activities. Photo © PhotoAltoSigrid Olsson

Hyperactive Movement Serves a Constructive Purpose in the Learning Process

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a complex, chronic, neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by problems with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity. Each of these core features of ADHD is thought to impede learning. There is a growing body of research, however, that challenges the view of gross motor activity – or hyperactivity – as detrimental to learning.

Recent research conducted at the University of Central Florida finds that gross motor movement – squirming, fidgeting, foot tapping and chair scooting – helps facilitate and improve rather than impair learning in students with ADHD. The study, “Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?” (published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology) is the first to test competing views regarding the relationship and interplay between activity level, working memory, and attention in children with ADHD and typically developing children.

The Study

Participants included 52 boys ages 8 to 12 years. Twenty-nine of the children met the current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ADHD-Combined Presentation, while 23 had typical development. All of the children participated in four consecutive Saturday assessment sessions at 1-week intervals following diagnostic evaluation, psychoeducational assessment, and group assignment.

Researchers examined the children’s accuracy and visual attention-to-task during activities that required the use of working memory, the system for temporarily storing and managing information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks. Participants were presented with a series of jumbled numbers and a capital letter on a computer monitor and were instructed to recall the numbers in order from smallest to largest and to say the letter last.

A high-speed digital video camera was used to record gross motor activity and attentive behavior while the children completed tasks.

Findings: Hyperactivity Serves a Purpose

Overall, the children with ADHD exhibited higher rates of gross motor activity and lower rates of attentive behavior relative to the control group of children without ADHD. Interestingly, when investigators examined the relationship between gross motor activity and working memory performance, they found that children with ADHD performed better on cognitive tests when they moved around. Results showed a positive link between hyperactivity and task performance in the children with ADHD. In contrast, the children without ADHD who moved around during the cognitive tests performed worse.

These findings are consistent with views that attribute a functional role to hyperactivity in ADHD. Study results also have important behavioral treatment implications for students with ADHD.  “The typical interventions target reducing hyperactivity.

It’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing for a majority of children with ADHD,” said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Mark Rapport, head of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, in the university’s press release. “The message isn’t ‘Let them run around the room,’ but you need to be able to facilitate their movement so they can maintain the level of alertness necessary for cognitive activities.”

Neuroimaging and cognitive science literature have shown that there is less activity in the frontal/prefrontal cortical regions of the brain in children with ADHD while they are involved in activities that place demands on working memory and other executive functions. Study authors suggest that the hyperactivity these children exhibit during demanding cognitive activities serves to increase arousal during tasks. “What we’ve found is that when they’re moving the most, the majority of them perform better,” Rapport said. “They have to move to maintain alertness.”

Take Away from Study

Knowing that motor movement does serve a purpose in children with ADHD – to facilitate task relevant arousal necessary to support working memory – it is important for parents and teachers to allow for and plan in productive physical movement, especially during academic tasks that rely on working memory. Study authors also suggest incorporating devices or techniques into classrooms that accommodate movement yet minimize disruptions. Possibilities include the use of activity balls or stationary bikes while reading or studying.

Related Reading: ADHD in School


Dustin E. Sarver, Mark D. Rapport, Michael J. Kofler, Joseph S. Raiker, Lauren M. Friedman, Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Published online - 12 Apr 2015. 

Mark Schlueb, “Kids with ADHD Must Squirm to Learn, UCF Study Says,” University of Central Florida Today, April 17, 2015.

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