THURSDAY, June 11, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often fidget, but new research suggests intense fidgeting may actually help them focus on the task at hand.
If the research bears out, the traditional advice to encourage these children to sit still may be misguided, said lead researcher Julie Schweitzer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the MIND Institute of the University of California, Davis.
"Traditionally, it's recommended that kids stay still and not be disruptive," Schweitzer said.
But in her small study comparing 26 children with ADHD and 18 without the disorder, she found that when the children with ADHD were moving or fidgeting more intensely, they performed better on a test requiring attention.
Meanwhile, the movements of the children without ADHD did not affect test performance.
The study was published online June 11 in the journal Child Neuropsychology.
Why may fidgeting help the ADHD children?
"What I suspect is that kids with ADHD are moving to increase their attention by activating their arousal system," Schweitzer speculated. "Being aroused does increase attention."
The children all performed the same test, which required them to focus and to dismiss distractions. The children were asked to determine the direction of the middle arrow in a series of arrows. They needed to ignore the arrows surrounding the middle one.
The intensity of movement, but not its frequency, was linked with more correct answers in the children with ADHD. However, the research did not prove cause and effect, only a link or association.
The children in the study ranged in age from 10 to 17, and were 14 on average. Fifteen of the children with ADHD took stimulant medication, but stopped it for 24 hours before the testing.
Nearly 6 million children in the United States have a diagnosis of ADHD, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hyperactivity is a core symptom and one of the most observable hallmarks of the disorder, according to the researchers. The inability to sit still can cause challenges in school settings. Other symptoms include impulsivity and an inability to pay attention.
The theory of how fidgeting might help those with ADHD has been long talked about, said Brandon Korman, chief of neuropsychology at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami. However, he believes the new research is one of the first studies to test the theory.
One limitation of the finding, however, was the small number of children who were involved, he said.
Korman also does not think the findings suggest fidgeting is always acceptable for these kids.
"It doesn't suggest we should let them fidget if it's disturbing the other kids," he said. He added that the researchers should look at the effect of physical activity before classwork, such as scheduling recess before academic tasks that require a lot of concentration.
Schweitzer said she would like to examine larger groups of children, to get a better idea of what is the best amount of movement for kids with ADHD.
"I'd love to tackle that in a future study, as it could guide parents and teachers," she said, "although I suspect it would be different on an individual basis, with some children needing to move more than others for the movement to improve their task performance."
To learn more about ADHD, see U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.