Why Sitting Is Bad For Learning If You Have ADHD

Don’t wiggle – sit still!

Posted Dec 09, 2015

We typically have the notion that in order to learn we have to sit still – we spend a lot of time in classrooms inculcating the importance of focused attention WHILE being still and not moving.

But now that traditional view is being turned on its head with a recent study of school children. Researchers found that for students with ADHD they learn best when they squirm.

They took a group of 8-12 year old boys and observed them in a classroom with a high-speed camera. They found that for the boys with ADHD – the more activity they showed (like foot-tapping, leg-swinging and chair-scooting) – the better their working memory.

But here is the interesting thing – the same pattern isn’t true for the student without ADHD. The more activity they showed – the WORSE their working memory.

WHY? For the student with ADHD – the movement has a purpose – it helps them focus and stay attentive to a task. In the student with ADHD, certain parts of the brain are less active  - like the prefrontal cortex – which is responsible for working memory and attention. The extra physical movement can increase activity and result in improved learning.

So it’s not about reducing movement in those with ADHD but about how to channel it.

What can you do?

It’s not a “let them run around crazily” attitude but allowing them to have movement.

  • Let your children learn while on an exercise bike
  • Walk around and read.
  • Use a wobble board

A related topic is the importance of Recess at School – schools across the US are either reducing recess to just a few minutes or removing it altogether.

But what do we lose when we trade the playground for the classroom?

First there is no evidence supporting the idea that reducing recess leads to more productivity or improved concentration and attention.

In fact, research shows the opposite –

  • They behave better in the classroom (less fidgeting & more on task behaviors)
  • Better social skills
  • They show more cooperative behaviors
  • Better conflict resolution
  • Higher grades

But the type of play makes a difference - when children engage in unstructured free play, where they are self-directed - we see the most benefit in the classroom.

  • And recess/playtime should not just be for kids – in our research we found climbing a tree is good for the brain and working memory in adults too!

When adults spent time doing proprioceptively dynamic activities, like climbing a tree, it improved their working memory by 50%. Working Memory, the active processing of information, is linked to performance in a wide variety of contexts from grades to sports.

Find out more in The Working Memory Advantage (Simon & Schuster)