ADHD and fidgeting go hand-in-hand. The question is, whilst it may drive other people like your school teacher crazy, is it – as many of us ADHDer’s suspect – necessary for us to concentrate?
I was excited to find an article “State of Unrest” in New Scientist recently by psychologist Christian Jarrett regarding this very question. It was about fidget spinners, and whether fidgeting could be an aid to concentration. And even more excited to find that it was taking a look at ADHD and fidgeting. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630262-200-let-them-fidget-squirming-around-helps-children-with-adhd-focus/
Finding this article was so exciting because I have always maintained that fidgeting in ADHDer’s is a natural way to compensate for boredom and lack of stimulation. Better still, as I delved into this research even deeper, it became clear that the implications of this for the education and attitude toward ADHD children is profound.
The time has come when it is being recognised that the need for “fidgeting” and movement in our ADHD children is, in fact, something that needs to be embraced versus some teacher commanding: “Sit still, pay attention!” Which never worked anyway…
The Science of Fidgeting
Early in 2017 variants of fidget spinners made up every one of the top 10 bestselling toys on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Toys-Games-Fidget-Spinners/zgbs/toys-and-games/17238450011
Claims have been made that they can help with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, or anxiety. They say fidgeting aids focus, but does the science support this notion?
In the 1950s, hyperkinetic disorder – later known as ADHD – came to prominence and fidgeting was seen as a pathological symptom of that disorder. It is commonly believed that children and adults with ADHD have low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with arousal. Therefore, as they are chronically under-aroused, they move a lot more to compensate and stimulate the necessary arousal.
Julie Schweitzer, of the MIND Institute at the University of California, wondered if this might be the case and published a research paper about this in 2016. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09297049.2015.1044511?journalCode=ncny20&
Her research compared children with ADHD versus those without, and measured how much movement was displayed when given a complicated mental task to perform.
The result? Not surprisingly, they found that there was more movement within the ADHD group (but not the non-ADHD group) when they got the answer correct. In other words, if they were forced to keep still, it is possible that they may not have gotten the correct answer!
In research by Paul Morris and Amy Warne at the University of Plymouth, UK, looking at fidgeting and responses to personality tests, those with high neuroticism or extroversion scores tended to fidget the most. To quote New Scientist:
“This makes sense because neuroticism is associated with greater anxiety, and extroverts are thought to have a lower baseline level of physiological arousal when resting, which makes them want to seek out stimulation.”
In other words, neurotics fidget because of anxiety, and extraverts (and, even more so, those with ADHD) struggle due to the boredom of under-arousal.
This ties in nicely with the paradox of the “slow (ADHD) brain equals more activity” phenomenon. Contrary to the popular belief that hyperactives have “too much energy”, it appears to be that the hyperactive individual’s brain is running – even more – slowly than someone with ADD. Thus, motor-activity in terms of movement, and talking fast, etc., will increase even more so, in an attempt to stimulate or “speed up” the brain. Another way of putting this? The hyperactive needs to move more to stimulate their brain.
In another study, this time by Dustin Sarver of the University of Mississipi, it was found that fidgeting helped ADHD children improve their working memory, and Sarver suggests that we should therefore see fidgeting not as pathological but rather “compensatory”. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10802-015-0011-1
The Verdict on Fidget Spinners
Meanwhile, however, there exists no scientific evidence that fidget spinners actually work to help ADHDer’s and those with ASD concentrate. Whilst they may make great little toys to play with, I have to agree with James Farley of the University of Alberta in Canada, who pointed out the problem with “fidget spinners.” To quote New Scientist:
“he warns that fidget spinners or other forms of ‘complicated fidgeting’ might boost our cognitive load, which would make it harder to focus on the task at hand.” [ibid]
Translated into layman terms, this means that Fidget Spinners may be too complicated to use during study and may themselves become yet another distraction.
The bottom line is: The natural strategy of fidgeting using your own body is likely superior to Fidget Spinners, because fidgeting with your own body is simple enough not to distract you from the task at hand, whereas a fidget spinner may overload you or your child during study.
That said, fidget spinners may be helpful if used to increase arousal before studying, although there is nothing particularly special about fidget spinners (or other gadgets) in achieving this aim. As far as we can tell. Kicking a football or going for a walk are likely to work just as well, if not better, and indeed there is far more evidence for the helpfulness of exercise than there is fidget spinners. Exercise is more likely to boost dopamine (the neurotransmitter said to be low in those with ADHD) than fidget spinner’s, except of course if the child really likes them.
In short, there may be a place for fidget spinners (and similar gadgets) for play and general use, but they are contraindicated when it comes to studying, as they may distract a child – or adult – and make matters worse.
Born to Move: Fidgeting on the Curriculum
So what are the implications of research like this? Well, these researchers have all expressed sentiments about letting children with ADHD fidget. To quote Dustin Sarver:
“We should revisit the targets we want for these children, such as improving the work they complete rather than sitting still.”
I certainly remember throughout my education being told to keep still all the time, and it was also said that my fidgeting was a “distraction” to other children.
So if we know that fidgeting is a by-product of boredom, we need to ask ourselves, ultimately, why are such children bored? Is it all internally generated, or is some of the cause the educational environment itself?
The answer to this lies outside the scope of this report on fidgeting, but in short ties in with the possibility that the educational “style” of ADHD children is not recognised and addressed by our educational establishments.
For example, we know that ADHD children (and adults) are more likely to excel with “project based” or experiential learning versus dry academics. So ADHD and fidgeting could be seen as symptomatic of, literally, education which is not stimulating enough for these children, rather than “children who are not as bright, or academic”.
But implementing the necessary changes within education in this regard would be quite deep and time-consuming. However, a simple way to address fidgeting (for now) is to realise that ADHD and fidgeting go hand-in-hand: ADHD children need to fidget to concentrate, learn and succeed, in a traditional academic environment. I think that is an achievable goal for us in the short term.
How can we put this research into practise? Well I and many other ADHD coaches and experts already advise parents of ADHD children to set up their homework around a table minus chairs to sit on!
The table is set up into different subject areas, with plenty of pencils and a plate of healthy foods to snack on as they work. At first this may sound harsh, but it is in fact helpful for ADHD children as they are not forced to sit in one place in a chair and can expend some physical energy through standing and moving.
This same strategy can also work at school as much as it can at home, although of course Non-ADHD children need to be taken into account. Nonetheless, standing desks are used in some mainstream school settings for ADHD children with great success.
The subject of fidgeting should also bring to our awareness another problem within our schools, and society generally, which is key to the success and health of not just ADHD children, but everyone. The fact that all children, not just ADHDer’s, are born to move.
Sadly, there has been a general trend towards less physical education in our schools. This is not going to help! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/schoolsports/11343801/Alarming-fall-in-school-PE-lessons-casts-doubt-over-governments-commitment-to-tackling-obesity-crisis.html
Physical activity is important to all of us, but in the case of ADHD children (and adults), they cannot live without it. Even as an ADHD adult, I wouldn’t be alone in noticing that my best ideas and performance occur when I am moving, and that I need to exercise in some form on a daily basis otherwise I end up with “foggy brain” and disorganised.
Not only is it time to put fidgeting back on the curriculum and acknowledge that to stop ADHDer’s fidgeting is to condemn them to failure, it is also time for us to broaden this argument and understand that exercise and movement needs to become a major aspect of children’s education, generally.
Indeed, many ADHDer’s have not known they even had ADHD until one day, due to injury, they stopped running or exercising. Then the “symptoms” appeared. Whilst I do not for one moment discount that ADHD is real, it could nonetheless be managed successfully by making physical education a priority within our schools, colleges, and universities, and indeed in our own homes.
The first class or activity of the day should be exercise. This will benefit all children and for those with ADHD, will act as a natural form of ritalin, giving them the all-important “dopamine hit” that they need before settling down to work. In turn, even though we should stop seeing ADHD and fidgeting as a negative thing, we will nevertheless see less fidgeting in our children because they were encouraged to “stock up” on dopamine before engaging their studies. May our new Mantra be: “Healthy Body, Healthy Brain!”
1). New Scientist, State of Unrest: Can Fidgeting Really Help Concentration?, Christian Jarrett, p.33-35, 11 November 2017.
2). Let Them Fidgit: Squirming Around Helps Children With ADHD Focus, New Scientist, online, 17 June 2015: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630262-200-let-them-fidget-squirming-around-helps-children-with-adhd-focus/
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