ADHD Research Studies with Powerful, Practical Insights

ADHD: New Research with Powerful, Practical Insights

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) affects children, adolescents and adults. Symptoms include difficulties controlling impulses and temper, maintaining concentration, sitting still, waiting or paying attention for longer periods.

ADHD research is ever growing. We know that ADHD is related to impairments in the executive functions of the brain – the ability to think and plan ahead, impulse control, organisation, and staying with a task through to completion. It has nothing to do with intelligence or personality.  People with ADHD can be as intelligent, charming, capable and likeable as anyone. It’s also not about ‘bad behaviour’.  Kids with ADHD want to do the right thing. They want to be able to sit quietly, be still and do as they’re asked, but their brains won’t let them. 

The more that research is able to add to our understanding of ADHD, the greater our capacity to provide more effective forms of treatment and support. Here are some important practical insights.

The ADHD Research.

  1. Let them move! (It’s good for them.)

    People with ADHD tend to move, a lot, and we’re now discovering that there’s a very good reason for this – movement aids their cognitive function. Those who move more intensely perform better on cognitively demanding tasks that demand greater attention.

    In a study of pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD, researchers at the University of California found that greater movement – both in terms of intensity and frequency – was correlated with significantly better cognitive performance.

    A second study from the University of Florida found similar results, demonstrating that excessive movement plays a critical role in the way people with ADHD remember information and process complex cognitive tasks. There is something about that excessive movement that enhances their working memory – the important brain system that temporarily stores and manages the information needed to perform complex cognitive functions such as learning, reasoning and comprehending.

    This adds to previous research by the study’s author which found that children with ADHD showed excessive movement only when they were using the brain’s executive functions, particularly working memory. This challenges previous beliefs that excessive movement was always there in children with ADHD. It’s not always there, only when they need it to be to maximize their cognitive function.

  2. Stopping kids with ADHD from moving is detrimental.

    Traditionally, interventions have aimed to decrease hyperactivity, but this undermines their capacity to perform and achieve well.

    Children with ADHD need to be able to move to maintain alertness and to maximise cognitive function. In contrast, when children without ADHD move during cognitive tasks, their performance is worse.

    This research strongly suggests that it’s detrimental to try to keep ADHD kids still, particularly in the classroom. If we want them to learn, which we do – they are bright, creative and capable – we need to find a way to let them move. This doesn’t mean letting them run around the classroom, but rather letting them do what they need to, provided it’s not intrusive. Feet tapping, leg swinging, squirming in their seat – let them go. Research is telling us that the bulk of students with ADHD will perform better at exams, homework and class work if the, say, are allowed to work while sitting on activity balls or exercise bikes.

    Of course, this has to be measured with the disruptiveness to the rest of the class, but the more a balance is able to be achieved between maximizing opportunities for people with ADHD to move, while at the same time minimizing the chance of distraction to the rest of the class, this will allow people with ADHD the opportunity to participate and achieve on a more level playing field as more with their peers.

    [irp posts=”141″ name=”ADHD Diagnosis: Finally A Foolproof, Accurate Measure”]

  3. Omega 3 and 6 improves symptoms.

    35% of children and adolescents who are diagnosed with ADHD have a subtype called ADD – inattention without hyperactivity. Research has found that for these children Omega 3 and 6 supplements improve symptoms.

  4. Inability to recognise angry facial expressions. 

    Researchers have found a difference between the way children with ADHD and without ADHD respond to angry facial expressions. When children were shown happy faces, there was a measurable response in the brains of those children with ADHD and those without ADHD. There was a difference though, between the two groups of when they were shown angry faces. Unlike their non-ADHD peers, children with ADHD did not show any neural response when they were shown faces with angry expressions. 

    Recognition of emotion is important to the establishment and maintenance of social relationships. The inability of children with ADHD to identify when someone is angry may be the reason they tend to struggle with peer relationships. That’s the bad news. The good news is that by being aware of this deficit, support can be tailored towards this to increase their capacity to respond more effectively in social situations. Try working towards increasing their awareness around the way people change – in facial expression, voice, body language etc when they become angry. Role play might be one way to do this. 

  5. Aerobic exercise before school can ease ADHD symptoms.

    Aerobic exercise before school can help to ease the symptoms of ADHD in the classroom and at home. We know that children generally show improved brain function and better maths and reading skills following physical activity. In a study of 200 students ranging from kindergarten to second grade, half the group participated in moderate to vigorous physical activity each day before school while the other half completed more sedentary classroom based activities. All students showed improvements, but with children who showed early symptoms of ADHD, those who participated in the exercise group showed a wider range of improvements than those who were in the sedentary group.

  6. Playing outdoors in natural green settings reduces symptoms.

    Children with ADHD who regularly play outdoors in natural settings where there are lots of trees and grass have milder symptoms than those who play inside or in built outdoor environments. This is in line with previous research that has found that even for people without ADHD, brief exposure to green outdoors improves concentration and impulse control. Children who were high in hyperactivity (ADHD rather than ADD) benefitted more if they played in an environment that was green and open, such as a soccer field, or an expansive lawn, than if it was just green, such as a green space with plenty of trees or a built setting, indoors or outdoors.

Parenting a Child with ADHD.

As with any child, parenting a child with ADHD will have it’s great days, it’s challenging days and lots of days in between. Over time, a child with ADHD will increasingly be able to step back and think about whether or not a course of action or a behaviour is a good idea, but this will take time. Here are some things to try in the meantime. (And if you’re already doing some of them or all of them, well it’s always good to know you’re on the right track.):

  • Decide what you will ignore and what you won’t accept. Nobody is perfect and one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is showing them that they don’t have to be. One way to do this is by tolerating or ignoring the things they do that don’t really do any harm.
  • Be gentle with yourself. If you lose your temper now and then, have the odd day that’s a parenting disaster, or get it wrong sometimes, you won’t break your child forever. Adults aren’t perfect either.
  • Have clear, consistent rules so everyone knows where they stand.
  • Have a predictable routine, but be flexible enough to bend a little when it’s needed.
  • Whenever you can, let them move – and if it’s in a green, open space, even better.
  • Connect them to as many things as you can – special places, things they love to do, pets, nature, the family, rituals (e.g. a family bike ride on a Sunday/ walking the dog with you on a Wednesday). Most importantly, make sure they’re connected to you – they just want to be your hero too, remember- eat meals with them, talk to them, read to them (they’re never too old for that).
  • Play with them – let them take the lead, make suggestions and sometimes decide the rules. Play is the opposite of doing as you’re told and is a way for them to learn about themselves and experiment with the way they are in the world and in relationships. By playing with you, they can learn what works and what doesn’t in a gentle, loving environment and they can take that learning into their own peer relationships. 
  • Provide opportunities for them to achieve mastery and recognition. It doesn’t matter what it is – if it’s something they can be successful at, and recognise their ability to do something well, it will do amazing things for their confidence and self esteem.  

ADHD has its challenges, but all kids do. With ADHD, the challenges are just more obvious. Like anything, if it’s managed well over time it can be an asset and kids who are diagnosed and supported will go on to be superstars. There’s no reason for them not to be.

ADHD has been likened to having a Ferrari for a brain. It’s fast, powerful and in many situations, when it’s handled effectively, it will be a winner. The problem is that this Ferrari engine has feet through the floor for breaks. Not being able to go slow, stop or pause when you need to can cause a bit of trouble, but with the right support, knowledge and treatment, and given time, children ADHD can thrive.

12 Comments

Kate

Thanks for this great article. I like the Ferrari analogy to describe an ADHD brain. Using the same analogy, how would medication fit in? Break fluid?

Reply
Belinda

Good article, but apart from the tiny aside about Omega 3 and 6 being helpful for children with non-hyperactive ADHD everything here relates to the hyperactive and combined types. It is so difficult and frustrating trying to find anything that is actually useful for the management or understanding of non-hyperactive ADHD when the conditions have the same names and it means trawling through countless articles about over-lively children. I always feel we are just a little ‘after thought’ and somehow, because our children are quiet and cause no trouble, we’re fine. That is until they begin to implode, or self-harm or self-medicate, and are misdiagnosed with depression, etc., etc. A new name for the condition would help (and ADD was a misnomer if ever there was one. Focus deficit disorder might be better.) Sorry, rant over. Frustrated mum.

Reply
Mark

As a 40-something with ADHD who once was a child with ADHD, the parent of a hyperactive child needs to first ask themselves: are they ADHD too?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Absolutely. ADHD seems to have a strong genetic basis. Children who have ADHD are more likely to have a parent or sibling with ADHD, although we’re still not completely sure what causes it.

Reply
Ann

Thank you for the wonderful article and support. My child has been diagnosed with ADHD for 4 years now and it has been a very difficult road. Home is OK but school has been his nightmare. Much of what you have mentioned works for my son as well. If we could only get the education system to understand how to work with them….his life would be so much happier.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I have the greatest respect for teachers but when it comes to the education system, you’re so right – there is often a ‘one size fits all’ approach that doesn’t work for so many children. There are kids with such enormous potential who are being limited because of the way the school system is structured. It has nothing to do with how clever or capable they are and everything to do with the constraints in which they are asked to learn. The world needs the potential that’s there in all of them.

Reply
Sally Barrable

Thank you for a very practical informative article. As a speech language pathologist I shall be sharing this with the parents of many of my clients.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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