What do you do when you have a challenging or boring task to do? Do you get distracted? Do you find other things to do? Do you sometimes find that when you are reconciling your finances, you suddenly get the urge to clean the house? When you should be tidying your house do you get distracted by checking your emails? When you have a challenging task to do at work do you find yourself chewing your pen or maybe getting up more often for a coffee, or find yourself sorting your desk? When you are talking on the phone do you feel the need to pace the floor? Or when listening in a meeting do you doodle? Do you listen to music when you are working or cleaning to alleviate the boredom?
In Chris Chandler’s book, ‘The Science of ADHD’, he describes how we all find ways to increase our level of arousal when “engaged in cognitive tasks”. He gives the example of “people when they are engaged in cognitive tasks in everyday life: when people try to solve crossword puzzles, for example, may rock their legs or shake their pencil”. He quotes a study by Rapport et al in which all children that were given working memory tasks engaged in “increased concurrent motor activity”. Children without ADHD move around but generally stay on task, probably because of their increased executive functioning and being able to keep the final goal in mind. Those with ADHD are more likely to engage in escape and avoidance behaviours. I have observed that at times we can all engage in ‘procrastination’ and can be distracted from the task in hand, but for those with ADHD and their associated working memory deficits, this may happen more frequently, and as Chandler writes, that they may be using their hyperactivity to obtain stimulation.
He says that in people with ADHD, “working memory becomes overloaded by environmental stimuli… those with ADHD will seek to escape (and eventually avoid) situations involved with this aversive state”. Rapport’s study supports this, in Chandler’s words “redirecting attention to other stimuli can alleviate monotonous or difficult tasks (academic school work!), which can be observed as impulsivity and/or hyperactivity, i.e. the child gets out of his seat at school”.
In my experience and observations, it is not always movement that they seek. Some children may seek other forms of stimulation, tactile, visual or auditory. Professor Barkley, leading ADHD researcher states that at school, “more vibrant, enthusiastic teachers who move about more, engage children frequently while teaching and allow greater participation of children in the teaching activity may increase sustained attention to the task at hand.” He also encourages the use of multisensory stimuli. It is commonly reported that many children with ADHD may struggle to concentrate on schoolwork, but find it easy to pay attention to computer games, music or television. As Barkley says the use of pictures, video, computer technology, colour, texture, hands-on kinaesthetic and other increased stimulation can engage them and enable them to learn.
I believe that the key to engaging a child with ADHD is to find their preferred means of stimulation and tap into it.
References and further reading