ADHD Kids Can Be Still – If They’re Not Straining Their Brains

How’s this for exasperating: Your ADHD child 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.

Well, fret not, because new research shows lack of motivation or
boredom with school isn’t to blame for the differing behavior. It turns
out that symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder 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

“When a parent or a teacher sees a child who can sit perfectly still
in one condition and yet over here they’re all over the place, the first
thing they say is, ‘Well, they could sit still if they wanted to,’”
said Mark Rapport,
director of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central
Florida. “But kids with ADHD only need to move when they are accessing
their brain’s executive functions. That movement helps them maintain

Scientists once thought that ADHD symptoms were always present. But
previous research from Rapport, who has been 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.” That’s the system we use for temporarily storing and managing
information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as
learning, reasoning and comprehension.

As recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology,
Professor Rapport’s senior doctoral student Sarah Orban and research
team 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 instructional video featuring an instructor
verbally and visually presenting multistep solutions to addition,
subtraction and multiplication problems.

While watching, the participants were observed by a researcher,
recorded and outfitted with wearable actigraphs that tracked their
slightest movements. The children with ADHD were largely motionless
while watching the Start Wars clip, but during the math video they
swiveled in their chairs, frequently changed positions and tapped their

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,
Rapport said.

“That’s just using the outcome to explain the cause,” he said. “We
have shown that what’s really going on is that it depends on 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 are using their working memory, and in that condition
movement helps them to be more focused.”

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, researchers said.

The study builds on Rapport’s earlier research, including a 2015 study that found that children with ADHD must be allowed to squirm to learn.

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