Have We Taken The Wrong Approach To Treating Kids With ADHD?

04/22/2015 12:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often told to be quiet and sit still in the classroom. But new research suggests that letting them move around may actually be a more effective way to help them learn.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, suggests that physical motion is critical to the way that children with ADHD recall information and solve problems.

"Our research indicates that targeting reduced movement in children with ADHD may not be in their best interest," Dr. Mark Rapport, a psychologist at the University of Central Florida and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "They need to move more than other children when engaged in learning tasks that require the use of critical executive functions such as working memory."

The study's findings suggest that traditional behavioral methods of treating kids with ADHD -- which emphasize reining in impulsivity and hyperactivity -- may be misguided. It appears that allowing children to move around (within reason) actually helps them maintain a certain level of alertness.

Roughly 11 percent of school-age children in the U.S. have ADHD, along with as many as 19 percent of high school boys. The majority of children who have been diagnosed are treated with medications like Adderall and Ritalin, either in place of or in addition to behavioral therapy, which is recommended as the first line of treatment.

For the study, the researchers recruited 52 boys between the ages of 8 and 12, roughly half of whom had been diagnosed with ADHD. The boys were asked to perform a series of tasks designed to measure working memory, an important aspect of learning and intelligence. During the study, cameras recorded the children's movement and their attention to the task.

The boys with ADHD who moved more during the test performed better than the boys with ADHD who did not move around. They also performed better than the boys who moved around but who did not have ADHD.

Rapport has shown in previous research that kids with ADHD only show excessive movement when they're using executive functions like working memory, reasoning and problem-solving. The new study appears to show that physical movement not only occurs alongside these important brain functions, but seems to facilitate them.

Instead of encouraging children to sit quietly in their chairs, we should consider allowing them to sit on activity balls or at exercise bikes while they work, according to Rapport.

"Movement is functional rather than purposeless," Rapport told HuffPost.

Children with ADHD, he said, should be given "the necessary means by which to engage in controlled, non-disruptive movement while they work on classroom or home activities that require executive control."

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