Hyperactivity in kids with ADHD may not be what hurts their ability to learn, but rather what helps them cope. A new study from the University of Central Florida has found that when kids are free to fidget and squirm, they see a marked increase in the memory skills necessary for learning.

The research validates what occupational therapists have been doing for some time, namely, allowing kids with ADHD to express their hyperactivity, rather than suppress it, with small toys that can keep them busy. Typically, these toys offer a stimulating tactile experience, such as the squish of Silly Putty or the pointiness of spiky balls. The function of the toys is to let the kids’ brains idly enjoy the sensation while their executive functions focus on the task at hand.

Dr. Mark Rapport, study co-author and head of the Children's Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, says these toys already do a sufficient job. “Many children manage without medication if they are allowed to use non-disruptive mechanisms that facilitate movement,” he told Medical Daily. Unfortunately, acknowledging the needs of kids with ADHD isn’t the standard. Some 11 percent of children between 4 and 17 years old have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011, and prevalence is rising year over year. For many of these kids, the sentiment they hear most often is to sit still and be quiet.

“The typical interventions target reducing hyperactivity,” Rapport said. “It's exactly the opposite of what we should be doing for a majority of children with ADHD.”

Rapport and his colleagues wanted to see how well fidgeting actually enabled kids to perform better on certain tasks. They brought in 52 boys, between 8 and 12 years old. Twenty-nine of the boys had ADHD and 23 did not. Each boy underwent the same test: They saw a scrambled list of numbers along with one letter, and they were told to put the numbers in order followed by the letter. A high-speed camera recorded their movements while they performed the task.

The results showed kids with ADHD performed significantly better on the task when they were free to engage in extraneous activities: tapping their feet, moving their hands, playing with the objects around them. The test was designed to measure the boys’ working memory, a component of executive function that relies on short-term memory to process and store information temporarily. Kids who had ADHD didn’t show working memory scores typical of non-disordered children, but the improvements were clear.

“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.”

Meanwhile, kids without ADHD showed equal or worse performance when they were hyperactive. Tapping their feet, moving their hands, and playing with nearby objects actually distracted them, rather than enhanced their focus.

Rapport’s prior work has found that, contrary to popular belief, hyperactivity isn’t omnipresent in kids with ADHD. It only seems to crop up when they need to use their executive functions, such as when they’re making plans, solving problems, moving between tasks, and remembering lists or facts. In light of the new research, hyperactivity appears to aid kids in performing those tasks. Telling them to sit still, in other words, would only make things worse.

In their future work, team hopes to take a closer look at what’s really going on in the brain. “Our research is moving into neuroimaging that we hope will allow us to identify executive function in children with ADHD on an individual basis,” Rapport told Medical Daily, “and to design cognitive interventions that pinpoint and strengthen affected areas.”

Source: Sarver D, Rapport M, Kofler M, Raiker J, Friedman L. Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 2015.