Children not paying attention? Get them moving!
There is a reason why some children are so restless in class. They are showing a need to move. While this need may be rooted in some irregularities in the functioning of their nervous systems, it may also be a sign that they need to move in order to focus better on their teacher and schoolwork. What is this connection between moving and attention?
There isn’t any single part of the brain that controls our attention. Instead, attention happens as a result of a web of neural connections that transports signals throughout the brain to wake it up and cue our attention. This network includes areas such as the reward centre, the limbic (emotional) system, the cerebral cortex (the highest level of the brain where learning and thought takes place) and the cerebellum (the ‘small brain’ responsible for our coordinated movements, amongst other things). It turns out that there is a lot of overlap between consciousness (i.e. being awake), attention and movement.
The neural pathways that enable us to pay attention are regulated by two neurotransmitters: norephinephrine and dopamine. These are the chemicals targeted by ADHD medications, which stimulate the release of more chemicals being released into the brain synapses. According to Dr John Ratey the problem for people with attentional challenges (‘ADHD’) is that their attention system is patchy, discontinuous, fragmented and uncoordinated. The reason might be that the neurotransmitters responsible for efficient transport of impulses through the attention circuits are dysfunctional. Another reason is that there can be irregular functioning in any one of the brain areas that form part of the attention circuits. The trouble with the medications is that they are mind-altering drugs with as yet unknown long-term effects and some serious side-effects. Don’t we have an alternative?
ILT tries to identify the problematic areas and work on enhancing their functionality but before this, it may help to understand why movement seems to help children.
The attention system ties in with movement and thus exercise: the areas of the brain that control physical movement also coordinate the flow of information. One important area of the brain that does this is the cerebellum. This vital brain area regulates certain brain systems so they run smoothly, updating and managing the flow of information to keep it moving seamlessly. In children who struggle to pay attention, parts of the cerebellum can be smaller or not functioning properly so it makes sense that this could cause disjointed attention.
Leading from the cerebellum are neural pathways conducting impulses to the higher level centres for thinking and movement. Along the route, these pass through the basal ganglia, which acts like a gearbox, shifting attention resources as the higher brain demands. This brain area needs dopamine to function. If there isn’t enough dopamine, attention can’t easily be shifted (i.e. sluggish attention) or can only be shifted all the way into high gear (i.e. overfocus).
We all know about Parkinson’s disease. This condition is caused by too little dopamine in this brain area and leads to the person’s inability to coordinate not only motor movements but also complex cognitive tasks. Significantly, neurologists are now recommending daily exercise in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease to stave off symptoms.
In the same way, exercise can help to regulate the attention system and it does this by increasing the production of neurotransmitters. With regular exercise, we can raise the baseline levels of dopamine and norephinephrine and the result is immediate.
So let’s rethink the schools’ curriculum which demands long periods of sitting still in classrooms. Some young children have only a single 15 minute break in their school day, which is hardly long enough to eat a snack and engage in sufficient exercise. Teachers could benefit quite markedly if they were encouraged to allow children little episodes of movement during lessons. I firmly believe that they would be able to get through more of the learning content as a result, without having to constantly call children to attention, repeat instructions and generally waste time through managing restless youngsters.
At home make sure children have plenty of opportunity to move and engage in exercise that raises their heartrate. Doing some really energetic movements before homework time, for example, might make it easier for them to focus when having to sit at a desk and work.
Rather than giving children psychotropic drugs, just imagine if we could put exercise in capsules and hand these out during the day!
 Dr John Ratey, author of ‘Spark – The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain’