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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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