Why Fidgeting Can Help Students with ADHD

Modified on by Kaitlin Goodrich



Why Fidgeting in Class Actually Helps Students with ADHD

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, maybe that teacher had it wrong. A new study has revealed that fidgeting in class can actually help students with ADHD. Let’s break down the study and its findings.

Why Fidgeting in Class Helps 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.

How ADHD Affects 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.

Making Fidgeting Foster Concentration, Not Distraction

Although no one study is conclusive, this research 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.

For more interesting information on this topic, check out this post about the relationship between ADHD and posture. And if you need a learning tool that is fast-paced, and therefore that can be helpful for students with ADHD, check out Brainscape.



Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .

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