A common symptom found in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - and one long believed to be a main hindrance to a child's development - actually could be a learning trigger.
In a study published April 12 in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, researcher Dr. Dustin Sarver and colleagues discovered the hyperactive movements associated with the disorder may allow children with ADHD to enhance their cognitive abilities.
Sarver, who studied the issue while completing his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of Central Florida, now works at the Center for Advancement of Youth (CAY) at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The findings he helped unearth are ones he said could have an impact on how children with ADHD are taught in classrooms here in Mississippi and the treatments they receive - two of the main goals of the CAY.
"Previous research with my mentor and our colleagues shows that when kids with ADHD are given very demanding cognitive tasks involving working memory, they become more hyperactive. But when we don't put demands on their working memory, they're no more active than kids without ADHD," said Sarver, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UMMC.
"This new research asked the next question — does that movement help or hurt their working memory?"
Working memory, unlike the more commonly known short-term memory, is a higher-level executive function employed when a person must manipulate and process information to arrive at a conclusion, explained Sarver. Working memory is critical for completing complex tasks and learning.
"If I gave you my telephone number, you would use short-term memory to recall it," he said. "If I had you rearrange those same numbers in order, then you're using working memory."
Those were the kinds of tasks children in the UCF study were asked to complete, while researchers observed their movements using high-speed video, he said. For the majority of kids with ADHD, the more they moved the better their working memory performance. In contrast, children without ADHD typically did worse when they moved more.
By allowing the hyperactive behaviors to continue, children with ADHD are able to increase their arousal and remain alert in the classroom. Yet conventional teaching and treatment methods demand ADHD children remain still, and the ability to focus on the lesson is lost in the child's struggle to focus on not squirming or fidgeting, said Sarver.
"This movement has a positive purpose," said Sarver. "As long as they are engaged and not disrupting others, we facilitate it, because it helps maintain alertness. The moment we stop them from moving, I find that they concentrate more on stopping their movement instead of using their cognitive abilities to pay attention for learning."