Most of us know that there's at least a link between ADHD and fidgeting. But did you know that it could be a positive link?

Popular wisdom tells us that when we are doodling, playing with our pencil, or twisting around in our chairs that we’re not paying attention, and thus not learning well. A good teacher, according to this theory, should nip fidgeting in the bud so students can stay focused and learn better.

We’ve probably all had at least one teacher in our lives who told us to sit down and stop fidgeting. As it turns out, that teacher might've had it wrong. Our teachers may have also been wrong about asking us to stop chewing gum—gum might actually help improve your studying.

So, how do we know these teachers may have been wrong? There's been a recent study that has revealed that fidgeting in class can actually help students with ADHD. Let’s break down the findings.

[See also: How to study with ADHD]

Fidgeting can help students with ADHD

A new study conducted at the University of Mississippi Medical Center has revealed that fidgeting behavior actually serves as a means of focusing on learning for students with ADHD. The researchers gave a small group of elementary-aged boys a sequence of random letters and numbers to repeat while sitting in a swiveling chair.

For those boys with ADHD, swiveling or spinning in the chair correlated with higher performance on the task. Importantly, boys not diagnosed with ADHD tended to perform worse when fidgeting, on average.

[See also: 12 Natural alternatives to Adderall]

Here's how ADHD and fidgeting affect learning

According to lead researcher and ADHD expert Dustin Sarver, this result was expected.

“…When they’re moving more, they’re increasing their alertness,” Sarver says of students with ADHD.

While it may seem counter-intuitive that fidgeting would increase alertness and concentration, it is supported by the science.

Prevailing theories on ADHD hold that attention deficit disorders are caused by chronic under-arousal of the brain. That’s why stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed for these students; the added alertness from the drugs bring the brain into a more normal zone for learning. Fidgeting—and physical movement in general—during learning seems to trigger the nervous system in a similar way.

Sarver hypothesizes that this is why hyperactive movements may lead to better performance on tasks that require concentration. Cognitive performance is improved by an increased level of mental alertness, which is itself triggered by the fidgeting behavior.

Make fidgeting foster concentration, not distraction

Although no one study is conclusive, the research on ADHD and fidgeting nonetheless has some important practical applications for teachers. Science has been pointing out again and again that movement in the classroom can be a good thing. Sarver’s research has supported that theory. Incorporating more active learning opportunities into classrooms (especially at younger ages) can help the learning process.

While students with ADHD can’t be allowed to constantly leave their desks or distract other students, it may be time to cut them some slack if they are fidgeting at their desks. After all, it defeats the purpose to have these students spend all their mental energy concentrating on the “no fidgeting in class” rule. Instead, it’s time to embrace fidgeting in the classroom—at least a little bit.

If you want to learn more about this topic, we'd highly recommend our full guide on staying focused for alleviating ADHD and learning.

And if you need a learning tool that is fast-paced, and therefore that can be helpful for students with ADHD, check out Brainscape's adaptive online flashcards, where you can find, make, share, and study flashcards using the latest in spaced repetition techniques.

Sources

Pellegrini, A. D. & Bohn, C. M. (2005). The role of recess in children's cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher, 34(1), 13-19. https://doi.org/10.3102%2F0013189X034001013

Sarver, D. E., Rapport, M. D., Kofler, M. J., Raiker, J. S., & Friedman, L. M. (2015). Hyperactivity in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Impairing deficit or compensatory behavior? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(7), 1219-1232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-015-0011-1

Van Praag, H., Shubert, T., Zhao, C., & Gage, F. H. (2005). Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(38), 8680-8685. https://dx.doi.org/10.1523%2FJNEUROSCI.1731-05.2005