Why Children Fidget in The Classroom
One of the most challenging aspect of our school-age years is that everyone is obligated to do the same thing. Everyone must sit in a classroom. Everyone must study language, math, and science. Everyone has the same homework.
This is so different than the rest of our lives. One could talk about three parts of the modern person’s life: their life before they enroll in school, the school years, and their life after they leave school.
Life before entering the world of school is the one in which learning is the most geared to the particular child. Toddlers and pre-schoolers get to do pretty much what interests them at the moment. A roomful of 20 three-year-olds will often show a room of 20 different activities going on.
Much the same is true of us adults once out of school. Some of us become teachers, or painters, or lawyers, even doctors. But a randomly sampled group of 20 adults will likely yield a wide range of what constitutes their daily activity.
Not so for school. There, all children are asked to do what the school requires, not what they are interested in.
This fact has created a rather huge amount of trouble for kids across the country, so it was quite interesting to read that two studies published recently seem to suggest that some children’s minds actually think better when they fidget.
What New Studies Tell Us About Fidgeting
Two studies were reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The findings were actually very straighforward: if you take kids with ADHD and let them move or fidget during school work, their ability to think is improved. If you have kids who do not have ADHD fidget, it offers no benefit to their thinking.
One of the papers’ authors was Dr. Julie Schweitzer of the MIND Institute of University of California at Davis. She notes that children with the primary form of ADHD (that is, their inattention is not due to a problem other than being unable to attend), often have evidence of less brain activity in the cognitive parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex. But these children, even at rest, have higher levels of activity in parts of the brain that run muscle action, such as the cerebellum and basal ganglia.
I found this work fascinating for a number of reasons.
First, it presents science-based evidence for what we have all known all along. People learn the same facts in quite different ways from person to person. In this example, clearly some kids need to move to learn, and for some kids moving offers not help at all.
Second, there is a fascinating connection between thinking and moving. The basal ganglia are structures of neurons deep inside the brain that are known to be very important in making sure our muscle motions are smooth, well-planned, and effective. They do a lot of programming of motion, like walking, picking up items, catching things, etc. But it turns out the basal ganglia are also the centers of dopamine-run nerve networks that are the source of much of our senses of pleasure. We also know these same dopamine networks are involved in effective thinking. So the nerves that make pleasure happen also coordinate our muscles so that we get tasks done, like writing this post.
We tend, culturally, to split great athletic prowess and bright thinking. But the brain does both, and in many instances, using the same pathways. This is yet another reason exercise is so good for you. Purposeful, well-executed motion helps the mind create purposeful, well-executed thoughts.
- The chief take away is that every person learns in their own way. School typically offers only one approach to learning. This works for many, but not many others.
- So, the ideal school, the school of tomorrow, will be based on good neuroscience. I will know how every student learns, and use the right approach for each student.
- In the meantime, we now know that some subsets of kids really do learn subjects better if they can fidget and move. Just think of how many of our children get in trouble for moving in class, and how many of them would have been much better students had they been allowed to.
For more on this topic, please visit our podcast episodes on the subject, beginning with, Talking to Your Doctor About ADHD. Share your stories in the form below to join the conversation.