By Dan Lawler, PhD and Bev Bachman, M.Ed.

“Schools can be an excruciating experience for kids with ADHD,” notes John Ratey, MD, of Harvard Medical School and author of SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It’s not that students with ADHD can’t focus, but that they can’t focus on command. They are wired differently and working with that physiology can allow their potential for high energy and creativity to flourish. Unfortunately, too often that is not the case.

Russell Barkley, PhD, of the Medical University of South Carolina, details some of the expressions of ADHD and how they manifest in real life:

  • 50% have listening problems, which contribute to gaps in classroom instruction.
  • 33% have learning problems in one or more areas:  language deficits, poor organization skills, poor memory, and/or poor fine motor skills.  This often evolves into 65% of them repeatedly displaying defiance and/or non-compliance.
  • 30% fail or repeat a year of school.
  • 21% end up frequently skipping school.
  • It’s no surprise that the combination of difficult learning experiences and working at fairly high frustration levels result in 35% of students with ADHD giving up and dropping out.

If you question this data, take the time to ask someone you know who has ADHD what his/her school experience was like. You’ll likely find responses such as: I was disciplined a lot; my relationship with teachers and other kids was challenging; it was hard to stay focused on any lesson that went beyond several minutes; but, most importantly, I felt isolated.

The adults (parents and educators) also have a perspective as they attempt to meet the needs of kids with ADHD. They see the kids’ lack of organization and observe their inability to focus. Because most of these students present emotional and behavioral issues that interfere with classroom success, they often receive special education services. Despite best efforts, educators’ perseverance and energy levels often begin to diminish. Sometimes that gives rise to a lack of patience that results in negativity, criticism, and fractured relationships.

There are other kids who do not have ADHD but do have emotional/behavioral issues that create the same problems and frustration for themselves and others. They also end up being served in special education because of their inability to have success in the regular classroom. They are often non-compliant, quick to anger, lack social skills, have learning gaps, and are unmotivated. Not surprisingly, the percentage of these kids who opt out is also high.

When you combine all of these components, it’s like a perfect storm for frustration and disappointment for all involved. It is no wonder that teachers in these special education programs burn out so quickly and look for an assignment without so much stress.

What’s puzzling is that we know so much about how exercise can serve as a remedy or partial remedy for this student population, and yet this intervention is seldom utilized as an educational tool. Studies by Chuck Hillman, PhD, Matthew Pontifex, PhD, and others have shown that exercise improves focus and learning. We also know that exercise lowers aggression and improves mood. A study by Anthony Folino, PhD, showed that pro-social benefits can last up to 90 minutes. Studies have also shown that muscle cells stressed during exercise produce chemicals that cause the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that not only activate the attention system, but also increase focus and modulate mood, preparing the brain for learning.

Another factor to consider is stress. While occasional stress can be beneficial, chronic stress can be detrimental to learning as well as other things. Brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is one of the neurotransmitters released in hippocampus of the brain as a result of exercise. The hippocampus is the way-station for learning and memory, and BDNF strengthens and builds those neurological connections needed for the executive functioning necessary in learning. Cortisol from chronic stress – be it fallout from COVID, poverty, dysfunctional family, bullying, etc. – not only can contribute to anxiety and depression but also breaks down the BDNF needed for learning. The serotonin created from exercise breaks down the cortisol, protecting the BDNF as well as modulating mood.

Even though it’s not a cure-all, the research is clear that exercise can improve the student’s chance of success, improve the student’s self-esteem, and enhance relationships. It can also be important for staff who have experienced increased stress – particularly these last few years.

An important thing to consider is that many kids with emotional/behavioral issues have not had success in a sports-oriented PE program, with countless numbers of them being averse to physical activity. They also haven’t been educated to understand how their bodies work and the benefits that exercise could provide them. On the contrary, these kids are often been put in “Time Out” or miss recess as a strategy to correct their behavior and/or do assignments. We end up doing just the opposite for what these kids need. It’s not a matter of “burning off energy”; it’s a matter of working with their unique physiology to optimize their ability to focus and learn. (see video on the Behavior page of Exercise 4 Learning: http://exercise4learning.com)

Knowing that kids with focus and/or behavioral issues are often reluctant to exercise yet they need it to function, it can be challenging to find ways to engage them in physical activity. In her studies, Michele Tine, PhD, of Dartmouth concluded: “If aerobic exercise is perceived as drudgery, people of all ages tend to avoid it. Therefore, whenever aerobic exercise is included in the school day, it should be framed as fun, playful, and rewarding.” This is where exergaming can be a powerful tool. In a very successful experience, one school set up a morning and afternoon exercise times for students who have been impacted by ADHD. The students and faculty at that school raved about the motivation for physical activity that exergaming created. Another school created an Exercise Learning Center where exergaming equipment is used as a behavioral intervention in students’ IEPs. Just 10 minutes in a student’s target zone can make a difference. It’s a quick and easy intervention, independent of outside conditions. As Dr. Ratey noted: If you aren’t seeing the changes you seek, increase the timing, frequency, and/or intensity of the exercise. The key is to help kids discover what works best for their unique physiology.

Importantly, the educators’ actions demonstrated their willingness to apply the research showing that exercise can improve the very things that interfere with school success. Knowing exercise for students with ADHD and other behavioral issues can help with focus, mood, and the ability to access one’s education should motivate all educators to tap into this under-utilized strategy. One student from the program utilizing exergaming to motivate physical activity said it best, “I didn’t know that you cared about us that much.” This truly is an idea that can improve a school’s ability to reach these kids that have found school so challenging.

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