Is Hyperactive Behavior the Real Problem?

This article by SERC Consultant Ruth Kirsch, Ph.D., LCSW discusses ADD/ADHD in the classroom.


Ruth D. Kirsch, Ph.D., LCSW

In any space where teachers congregate, a frequent topic of discussion is the distracting behavior of students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Typically the statement "If he would only sit still!" elicits compassion and war stories about similar students. No one challenges the statement, or even inquires about what might happen if Johnny did sit still. What would happen?

Obviously, one source of annoyance for teacher and peers would be eliminated. It would be a pleasant change for the classroom climate! But would Johnny's learning challenges disappear? Would he suddenly become an outstanding student?

Current understanding of ADHD points to structural (size, shape) and functional (neurotransmitters) differences in the brain as underlying the disruptions to behavior and learning. The theory states that those differences are responsible for diminished stimulation, or arousal, in the brain. Less arousal equals less attention. It is ironic that a hyperactive child is actually under-stimulated! To understand this seeming contradiction, let us consider an analogy.

Think about a time when you were driving late at night and felt sleepy. Your brain was under-stimulated. You were at risk of falling asleep at the wheel! Consider what you did to avert such a disaster. Most adults energize, or arouse, themselves by opening windows, turning up the radio, singing out loud, or turning the air conditioning to high. Furthermore, those protective measures are taken automatically, instinctually; it is not a deliberate, premeditated plan to self-arouse. Adults do not say to themselves "my brain in under-aroused, as a self-organizing system I can self-stimulate to compensate."

For another example considers the last time you were with a group of adults in a learning situation. How do you listen (attend) best? Do you need to "doodle?" Have you ever noticed how many other people doodle? One might consider doodling as serving the same purpose as the windows, radio, and singing. It is a way for an individual to increase their ability to attend. Similarly, some students arouse themselves through their hyperactivity. In fact, it is said that these youngsters move in order to learn. This may work well for the individual students but what about the classmates and teachers who find the behavior a distraction to learning? There are contradictory needs: the student with ADHD needs to move, the world around her needs fewer distractions.

It is possible to meet both sets of needs with a bit of creative thinking. The desired goal is to increase stimulation for the student with ADHD that is not distracting to others. There are strategies that accomplish this goal and simultaneously benefit all students.

  • Engage students by providing work at their appropriate academic level relative to the task (instructional vs. independent levels); allow for student choice to accommodate interests; introduce novelty and provide opportunities for novel repetition; provide on-going feedback; use visual and auditory cues;
  • Appeal to students visual and creative strengths to support student attending to the content, for example graphic organizers, webs, computer software, color coding for organization;
  • Create opportunities for movement that are part of the classroom/school routines;
  • Channel or focus movement – activate fine motor motion through small manipulables; consult with an Occupational Therapist (OT) or Physical Therapist (PT) to request large elastic bands to stretch across the front desk legs for students to kick, or sensory enriching pillows, vests, etc.
Let us return for a moment to the driving and doodling analogies. Recall that these coping strategies are typically not operating at a conscious or deliberate level. Similarly we noted that hyperactive behavior is unintentional. If it is not under conscious control, the student may be totally unaware of what she is doing, and the effect of the behavior on others. While there are exceptions, if the student says, “I didn’t do nothing,” aside from the grammatical error, he may be telling you the truth from his perspective. The student may not know that he has committed an infraction! The challenge becomes how to help him become more self-aware. A Student must develop self-awareness or self-monitoring skills before he is capable of self-regulation. These skills also underlie being a self-reflective learner.

The next time that you overhear teachers talking about the distracting behavior… join the discussion! Let them know that the problem is not hyperactivity. The real problem is that the student is under-aroused. (And then duck quickly to avoid being hit by the flying objects that they might throw at you.)

Additional Info

  • Resource Topic: Support Services
  • Source: SERC
  • Year of Publication: 2005
  • Resource Type: Article (web page)