“My kid just won’t sit still — what should I do?”
This is a comment I hear often from parents (and teachers as well!) who have children with attentional difficulties. When you are dealing with a child who is constantly moving, it can be very challenging to manage her behavior while keeping your cool. Parents and teachers worry about several things:
As a coach and expert in the field of ADHD, before I look to solve any problem, I recognize that I must first check my own assumptions about both the cause of the issue and the potential success of a proposed solution. This approach typically involves a little research (coupled with a bit of trial and error) to arrive at a resolution that addresses a child’s behavioral issues and supports her learning.
When you look at the problem of movement among children with ADHD, you have to consider the purpose it may serve, the concerns it raises, and the options available to satisfy its purpose.
Consistent excessive movement is typically associated with a child who has ADHD-Hyperactive Type. And while many parents and educators consider this behavior to be a negative symptom of the disorder, researchers are learning that movement can help stimulate the networks of the brain that control attention. Individuals with ADHD generally don’t produce enough dopamine in their brains to keep them alert during normal day-to-day activities. The brain actually struggles to make connections and remain focused when it is not intrinsically interested and motivated. This attentional difficulty prompts many people to move — just to stay alert.
When a child is struggling to “sit still and pay attention,” before we judge her or expect that she stop moving completely, it may be more helpful to consider whether her fidgeting serves a positive function. The difficulty she is having could be attributed to a number of possible explanations, but chief among them is her effort to contend with the neurological effects of ADHD.
If you understand movement not as a problem, but rather as a tool to cope with losing focus, you can help your child develop strategies to rely on it without causing disruption. The important issue may not be that your child is moving — it may be the impact her movement has on others and the ways in which it might negatively affect her learning or behavior.
When I work with parents and teachers who have a child in constant motion, I recommend using small objects to help channel her movement productively. I begin with two foundational rules that she needs to follow with these tools:
When a child is holding something, say a stress ball, if she were to simply manipulate the ball passively, this object would be considered a “fidget” — that is, a small object that she can hold in her hand and move discreetly. As she squeezes it, her attention on the ball is secondary to her primary focus on the activity or topic. If, by contrast, she were to start really focusing on the fidget and doing something active with it, this would require her primary focus, and the ball would no longer be considered a fidget — it would now be a toy.
If your child holds a pencil and perhaps feels its texture or rolls it in her hands, this activity may go unnoticed by her classmates. But if she begins tapping the pencil on the table, even if it is still her secondary focus, the noise and movement might become distracting to others. Likewise, if she starts swinging or waving this fidget around, it would become disruptive in her classroom.
Once you have established these ground rules for movement, you can help your child understand the ways in which movement can help the attentional needs associated with ADHD. Decide on a timeframe — perhaps two weeks — during which you keep a log recording how well she is able to concentrate and get work done when she uses a variety of strategies to serve as a secondary focus. In the beginning, it will be helpful to experiment with both full-body and fine-motor movement.
Some people find that they enjoy standing as they work, while others discover that sitting on a rocking chair or exercise ball chair can provide them with the right stimulation to remain engaged in an activity. There are even desks made with stationary bike pedals — this may be an effective alternative for your child.
For fine motor movement, a trip to a novelty or party store can provide some great, inexpensive options for her fidgets, such as squeeze balls, pencil toppers, felt, and putty. It’s a good idea to stock up on several different choices since these tools may need to be switched up from time to time to meet the need for novelty that is often a component of ADHD.
Sometimes a little investigating, open-mindedness, creativity, and patience can go a long way in helping children with attentional issues understand how they learn best. Once your child is more aware of what truly helps, you can speak with her teacher about ways of incorporating these strategies in the classroom.
Movement may be part of what helps her succeed after all.
Bright, R. (n.d.). Kids Who Can’t Sit Still. Retrieved August 9, 2015, from National Education Association.
Hartanto, T., Krafft, C., Iosif, A., & Schweitzer, J. (2015, June 10). A trial-by-trial analysis reveals more intense physical activity is associated with better cognitive control performance in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved August 9, 2015, from Taylor & Francis.
Ratey, J. (n.d.). ADHD & Kids. Retrieved August 9, 2015, from Sparking Life.
The constant movement in ADHD may help children think, perform in school. (2015, June 10). Retrieved August 9, 2015, from UC Davis Health System.