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How Physically Active Learning Helps Pupils with ADHD Succeed

Young Boy Sitting on a Swing

There is much evidence to support the positive impact of physical activity on children's cognitive performance and learning outcomes. This strong link between movement and learning comprehension raises interesting questions about pupils with ADHD and other similar attention deficit disorders. Is the era of sitting still in class now over? And will we see pupils with ADHD flourish in dynamic, physically active learning environments?

What You Should Know

- ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders for children.

- Learning challenges faced by children with ADHD include poor memory recall, time management, focusing and organisational skills.

- Traditionally, classroom environments have proved difficult for kids with ADHD because many find it hard to remain still for prolonged periods.

- ADHD can, to some degree, be managed and even improved with exercise, diet and lifestyle changes.

As far as we know, children with ADHD have the same learning capabilities as those without the disorder. There's no reason to think they aren't capable of achieving at the same levels and performing just as well academically. The problem is the symptoms of ADHD are in direct conflict with traditional classroom rules and their focus on stillness and memorisation.

Children with ADHD average lower academic scores, not because they aren't clever, but because traditional learning structures do not suit them. 

What Makes Children with ADHD Different?

According to neuroscientists, children with ADHD have brains which demonstrate some important structural irregularities. Most of these differences occur in the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for managing executive control, active memory, planning capabilities, selective and divided attention and attention transference. Some studies suggest ADHD also affects the rewards centres of the brain causing significant changes to reward based decision making.

Differences to executive control systems are especially critical. This area of the brain is highly relevant for daily life activities, behaviour awareness and academic and social success. It plays a huge role in everything from self-monitoring to initiating tasks and prioritising instructions. In the classroom, executive control is used to process new information, maintain attentions on a central point and link actions to learning outcomes.

It's not hard to see why pupils with ADHD often struggle to reach their full potential at school. Yet, as academic performance is key to helping a child prepare for adult life, a greater understanding of ADHD and a willingness to try new forms of learning is crucial.

The Positive Effects of Physical Activity on ADHD Symptoms

Researchers say physical activity has a positive impact on many of the neurobiological indicators of ADHD. For one thing, it increases blood flow to the brain which is powerful because children with the disorder show a reduced supply to the prefrontal cortex where all those critical executive control functions are managed.

There is compelling evidence to suggest the neurobiological changes brought about by increased movement can positively influence cognitive abilities. In a study of year five pupils (9-10 years), repeated bursts of physical activity (10-minutes) throughout the school day improved on task behaviours. In other studies, pupils who are more physically active demonstrate increases brain activity in areas responsible for attention and behaviour management.

Studies conducted as early as the 1980s show pupils with attention deficient disorders become markedly less disruptive in lessons and better able to focus on learning aims if encouraged to jog for five minutes at various points throughout the school day. The results show a 50% reduction in disruptive behaviours on physically active days compared with non-physically active days.

Similar studies have noted the positive effects of physical activity usually diminish if the active habits are suspended

Physically Active Learning As ADHD Management 

While there's still a lot we don't understand about the ADHD brain, it seems physical activity can have a positive impact on behavioural symptoms and cognitive performance and, when used as an alternative to traditional modes of learning, can improve academic outcomes and give children a better chance at success.

There is reason to believe exercise, both in school and at home, is an effective way to reduce impulsive behaviours and rewrite the disruptive responses that interfere with learning and personal progress.