Should ADHD Students Sit Still? New Research on Movement and Learning

Posted by Erica Warren on

Can you imagine trying to learn in a classroom all day while being bound in a straitjacket? For many kinesthetic learners as well as kids with ADHD, requiring them to sit still during instruction is quite similar to binding them in their chairs. Although some learners do benefit from sitting motionless, for others it is almost impossible to learn while their bodies remain idle.

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Why Do Most Middle School and High school Teachers Require Their Students to “Sit Still?”

It makes sense that one would teach in a way that they, themselves, learn. As a result, most teachers reflect upon their own ways of processing information when they create their lesson plans. I have found in my many years of conducting workshops with teachers, that very few teachers personally find movement helpful with the learning process. In fact, I have my own theory that teacher education does not attract many kinesthetic learners, as the process to become a teacher requires little to no movement.

Executive Functioning Coaching

This hypothesis was tested when I conducted a workshop at a private middle school and high school. When I assessed the learning preferences of the entire 200+ faculty, I was amazed to learn that only one of the teachers reported that they were a kinesthetic learner and that movement helped them to learn. When I asked them what subject that they taught, they replied, “Gym.” Because the majority of subject-based teachers in middle school and high school don’t find movement helpful in the learning process, and often find it distracting, one can understand how difficult it can be to find teachers that are comfortable accommodating students that need to move around while learning.

What Does the Research Suggest About Movement in the Classroom?

Research that was recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology indicates that physical motion is critical to the way that students with ADHD encode and retrieve information and solve problems. Dr. Mark Rapport, a psychologist at the University of Central Florida conducted this study entitled, Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior? It indicates that movement aids working memory and attention for boys ages 8-12 with ADHD, while these higher levels of activity resulted in lower working memory for typically developing students. This suggests that the hyperactivity for students with ADHD has a functional role. It would be nice to see more research that looks at the needs of other kinesthetic learners that don't have ADHD. They do exist, as I have worked with quite a few of them myself.

How Can We Accommodate These Kinesthetic Learners in the Classroom?

Clearly, motor activity is a compensatory mechanism that facilitates neurocognitive functioning for kinesthetic students as well as those with ADHD. Therefore, instead of requiring students to sit motionless in their chairs, schools need to offer students the option of sitting on ball chairs, integrating adjustable desks with foot swings that give the students the option of standing, and integrating desks with exercise equipment. In addition, these students need to be coached on appropriate and non-disruptive ways that they can move in the classroom, and teachers need to be educated about the benefits of movement for many students.

Personally, I love to integrate movement into my lessons for those that need it. It's amazing to see how engaged and motivated students can become when they learn in a way that nurtures their best ways of processing. Here are some links to some of my favorite kinesthetic tools for the classroom!

If you would like to assess the learning preferences of your students and uncover the kinesthetic learners in your classroom, consider learning more about the Student Processing Inventory. This publication also comes with an assessment that will help you define the unique ways of learning for each of your students, so that it is easy to accommodate and empower them.

Cheers, Erica

Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.

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