Why Your ADHD Child Should Be Allowed to Move Around at School

I’ve worked with many children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) over the years, and there’s no question that kids with ADHD need to move. They move when they’re thinking, they move when they’re talking, and they even move when they appear to be sitting still. That foot that just won’t stop shaking or that incessant tapping on the desk? It brings focus to an ADHD child.

Sadly, many children with ADHD are frequently reprimanded for constantly being in motion. Teachers worry that these kids can’t access the curriculum if they can’t sit still, so they spend time and resources finding ways to help these kids sit and focus. Notes and e-mails go home with updates about sitting still. Behavior charts appear on desks with the hope that dangling the possibility of a reward will somehow inspire increased focus. I worked in a school for many years. I understand why sitting seems so important. A child in motion can disrupt other students.  

The problem is that movement comes naturally to these kids. They need to shake a foot, tap a pencil, or stand up and walk. Moving helps them focus and access the curriculum. Telling an ADHD child to just stop moving is a setup for failure. Every reprimand, every unmet behavioral goal, and every phone call home chips away at the self-esteem of the child who can’t stop moving.  

A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology sheds some much-needed light on this topic. Researchers at the Center for Advancement of Youth at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson studied 52 boys ages 8 to 12; 29 of those boys had ADHD, while the other 23 had no clinical disorders. The research concluded that ADHD kids performed better on cognitive tests when they were moving around. 

So, how do we let ADHD kids move in the classroom without disrupting other students? While some schools might already have resources in place, it’s important for parents to advocate for their ADHD kids. Finding the right balance of movement might be the key to helping your child perform better in the classroom; these strategies, done with the help of your child’s teacher, could help:

1. Have her sit on an exercise ball. My daughter’s second grade classroom lets students sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair during class, if the parents provide the ball. Many students brought exercise balls into the classroom and the kids do appear alert and engaged while at their desks. Some bounce more than others and some roll back and forth, but they all respect the personal space of their “neighbors” while subtly moving around. The stability ball allows kids to fidget without disrupting the class. It gives her some wiggle room.

2. Let him use a Thera-Band. This rubber stretchy band is used for resistance exercise. The teacher can wrap the band around the foot of the desk and have your child place one foot in the band. He can stretch and wiggle without much fuss! With one on each side of the desk, he can get some good stretching and moving in during classwork.

3. Have her use a wiggle cushion. Wiggly kids need to get their wiggles out, and a wiggle cushion helps kids move and wiggle in their own seats — without asking to get up every five minutes! The cushion acts as shock absorber for the movement and some come with textures.

4. Give him a squeeze ball. A stress ball, or squeeze ball as kids like to call them, is a great tool for most kids (whether they have ADHD or not). Sitting is hard work and kids are asked to sit for long periods of time when engaged in learning. Stash a few squeeze balls in your child’s desk. They are small and discreet and they give him the opportunity to work his arm muscles while sitting and listening.

5.  Ask for standing room. Standing desks boast health benefits for adults, so it makes good sense that they would help some kids as well. If these desks aren’t available, that’s okay. With the teacher’s permission, your ADHD child can find an area of the classroom where she can stand while listening and working. Sometimes standing and moving from one foot to the other helps provide focus for kids. I once worked with a child who spent a lot of time standing at a counter in the back of the classroom. When he needed to move, he did a few “wall push ups” to get his energy out.  

I find that many teachers welcome movement in the classroom as long as the student has a plan in place. Moving around without permission and distracting other students is a problem, but moving to redirect energy and maintain focus is a good thing.