Coming back to in-person learning has students, parents, and teachers contending with many of the pressures they haven’t faced in over a year- whether it is keeping track of assignments, listening intently without a recording to fall back on, or being without the barrier of a screen to hide any distractions from the teacher. Especially these days, school is hard to get through successfully. While school can be a challenge for students for a wide variety of reasons, having Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD can make it even tougher to get by. As any parent who has a child with ADHD knows, the symptoms of ADHD can make it hard for kids to get through a normal school day, therefore complicating their future not only in academics, but in their life.
Children with ADHD have an interest-driven nervous system, which means that they are motivated primarily by things that interest them, and not by what logically makes the most sense. As a person with ADHD, I can relate. I remember as a child forgetting to do my homework for the next day, but being able to read entire books and summarize them for my parents at the dinner table. The difference? I was interested in books, not so much math problems. The reason that people motivated in this way are labeled by having a diagnosed disorder is because “they have different needs, and are of a different neurotype,” according to Elsa Moeller, LMSW, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore at the Institute for Innovation and Implementation. “In schools, we have expectations that children can sit and listen, can interact well with peers, and follow instructions easily. Kids with ADHD, especially those who struggle with hyperactivity, tend to be labeled as disruptive because of how their behavior is perceived in specific environments” (Moeller).
Self-regulation, emotional release, along with physical and mental engagement are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be gained from dance classes for children with ADHD.
While it’s not classified as a learning disability, ADHD can often make being in school and learning new things challenging. While it may be hard to see your child, or a child that you love, struggle socially and academically, dance might be an activity that would benefit a child with ADHD, therapeutically or socially/recreationally.
Children with ADHD get lots of benefits from movement in general because it increases dopamine circulation. This helps kids connect with others, but not only that- moving together with people, such as in a dance class, can build a sense of trust and belonging, something that many children with ADHD struggle to do on their own. Why choose dance over a traditional sport? Dance is an excellent activity for people with ADHD because it can foster emotional development and facilitate social interactions in a safe, appropriate way. In dance classes, there are clear behavioral expectations, so a kid will quickly learn what is and isn’t acceptable in that social setting. Additionally, performance and exploring different roles can help dancers with ADHD develop self-awareness, consideration for others, and sensitivity. These experiences can help some children compensate for having poor social skills related to ADHD. Through character exploration and performance, dancers can also develop sensitivity, awareness and consideration for others, which could help with working through a lack of social skills caused by ADHD. In my case, dance really helped me make friends. As a child I found it very difficult to connect to other kids, due to my specific hyperfixations and my unwillingness to do things that didn’t interest me, but through dance, I learned how to work with a group, and found people that, years later, I still consider to be close friends.
Clinically speaking, dance therapy uses movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration, as well as coping skills and an improved relationship with one’s body. For children with ADHD, movement or dance therapy may be extremely beneficial in helping them transform their impulsive behaviors, or angry emotions into something positive. It is clear to children with ADHD that they are different from other children. Things that seem easy for everyone else seem so much harder to a neurodivergent person, especially to a child. In my own life, I remember feeling this way when the people around me seemed to be able to understand things and execute them more quickly than I could. It was disheartening and frustrating. Living with these experiences can lead to feeling shame, resentment, and low self-esteem. In a strictly therapeutic setting, engaging in guided movement with a dance therapist can facilitate children to let go of their negative emotions and freely express themselves. While not as intentionally, children taking lessons at a positive, accepting studio can feel the same release and joy in their movement.
Dance is also a highly stimulating activity, both mentally and physically, which could help children with ADHD stay focused. Following the beats in the music alone is beneficial due to its heavy reliance on timing, but coordinating arms and legs and attaching emotion to the movement also helps hold a child with ADHD’s attention for longer in a productive way. Memorizing combinations is very challenging for someone who is a ‘space cadet’, but constantly working towards staying in the moment in class or in auditions helps dancers with ADHD take those skills into ‘real-life’ situations. It applies in any situation, from paying attention at school or staying focused on the road to driving a car. Having the knowledge and expectation of what comes next can stimulate and excite children with ADHD by the need to stay focused on floor patterns and executing the proper movements.
Dance classes, or dance therapy, should be considered more than an activity for children with ADHD, but a tool.
Dance as an activity for a child with ADHD teaches the importance of routine and scheduling, and helps develop this life skill. Not only are dance classes repetitive, but they are consistent. Having a set routine, and following it within the structure of class weekly and monthly accustoms kids with ADHD to create and follow their own routines. Having consistently enforced routines is especially important for those with ADHD because of their struggle with behavior regulation. Having external controls, or structure, helps manage symptoms, and allows children with ADHD to succeed in multiple areas of their life. For example, knowing that I had dance class at the same time every day helped me focus on getting my homework done. I knew my schedule, and thrived on it. When dance was cancelled, or even in college when my days were more loosely structured, I really struggled with motivation and executive dysfunction in all aspects of life.
Many children with ADHD also experience hyperfocus, an intense fixation on an interest or activity for an extended period of time. Hyperfocus with ADHD has been identified as a coping mechanism for dealing with distractions, and can lead to success in certain fields. Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist and writer with ADHD, writes that “many scientists, writers, and artists with ADHD have had very successful careers, in large part, because of their ability to focus on what they’re doing for hours on end.” Hyperfocus on activities a child is passionate about can lead to developing skills and a positive sense of self-worth and accomplishment. If dance is someone’s ‘special interest’, their dedication and immersion in that area may be beneficial to their pursuit of it beyond an after-school activity. A study done on professional dancers at Ballet West found that many of their brains worked at the same frequency as a brain with ADHD. Well-known dancers, such as Jared Grimes and Karina Smirnoff have spoken candidly about their experiences with ADHD, and how it has been a hurdle to overcome, but also a superpower. Dame Gillian Lynne, dancer and original choreographer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera, credits her career success to her ADHD, because of her inclination towards movement and her dedication to the art of dance.
Children with ADHD face many struggles, but dance can lend a hand in navigating the neurotypical world we live in. Dance classes, or dance therapy, should be considered more than an activity for children with ADHD, but a tool. It can be an escape from school, a place where children can be themselves, and an excellent place to learn. Self-regulation, emotional release, along with physical and mental engagement are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be gained from dance classes for children with ADHD. I am grateful to have had dance classes as a child, because I truly believe that I am the woman I am today because of it. Not only did I find a career that could never bore me, but I learned to keep my head on my shoulders and be present with the people around me. Just because people struggle in some areas of their life doesn’t disqualify their strengths. Why not see what dance can do for your child?