Controlled movement versus hyperactivity/ADHD

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By Dr Melodie de Jager

The human body was designed to move. It is the early movement experiences that lay the foundation of what follows – Krebbs


  • is a change in the position of your body
  • is a particular way of moving your body
  • is to begin ‘doing’ using muscles
  • leads to change and development.

In a nutshell movement is to use your muscles to do something. There are many different kinds of movement – there is reflexive movement to make sure you stay alive (breathing, heart beat etc.); there are also primitive movements to guide the child through the developmental phases (Moro reflex, Rooting and Sucking reflex etc.); there is also postural reactions to keep you upright (Parachute, Ocular Head Righting, etc.); basic movement (rolling, sitting, crawling, walking, etc.); skilled movement (holding an implement, tying a shoe lace, skipping with a rope, writing, etc.); expressive or creative movement (communicating ideas and concepts, dance, mime, etc.) and other functional movements that fulfill a specific purpose at home, in school or on the sports field.

In the video The real reason for brains on TEDGlobal (2011), the neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert gets directly to the heart of movement when he asks: “Why do we and other animals have brains? We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements. Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you”.

But what does he mean by ‘movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you’? He is saying that the only way you can make an impact is by moving. It also means that you cannot show that you have learned without moving. It is by tying a shoelace or cutting on a line, or reciting a poem, or writing a test that you can show what has been learned.

‘Knowing’ is not evidence that learning has taken place, only output through doing and moving provides evidence that learning has taken place.

Learning has occurred when a person can do something he was incapable of before – Honey and Mumford


Muscles cannot think, but they can rest or move. When muscles move they either:

  • react reflexively without thinking – uncontrolled movement (hyperactivity) or
  • respond, by thinking before acting – controlled, planned and skilled movement.

Uncontrolled movement can clearly be seen when a child is clumsy; battles to sit still; can’t wait to answer a question and shouts the answer out; finds it difficult to work with others and finds sharing a desk close to impossible. When a child still has limited control over his muscles, concentration is very difficult and it often gives rise to ADHD, bullying and poor social skills, to name a few. It is not as if the child plans to be disruptive or awkward, it just happens all on its own. Such a child moves without thinking.

Controlled and skilled movement on the other hand can be seen when a child moves and acts in a coordinated and controlled manner. He can line up without standing too close or bumping into others; he can kick and catch a ball without moving his jaw or biting his tongue. Such a child has learned through many repetitions to control his instinctive need to move freely. He has practiced his movements many times over the years to become so refined, that he can now act in a skillful and planned manner by coordinating thought with planning the order and timing of movement.


Movement not only refers to gross motor movements such as running and jumping and skipping, but also to fine motor movement. Fine motor movement are more skilled movements usually involving the mouth, fingers, toes and eyes. Fine motor movement can only develop fully, once the gross or big motor muscles have developed. That is why children under the age of six need to spend so much time outside running, climbing, jumping, pushing, hanging, kicking, throwing and catching to develop the big muscles in their shoulders, hips, trunk, arms and legs way before they are able to sit upright and still on a chair. It is only once these gross motor skills have developed enough that they can keep their bodies still without thinking about sitting still. It is only now that they can develop and coordinate the fine motor muscles of the hands, eyes and mouth to cut on a straight line or color in between the lines or a bit later to read and write with ease. That means that rhythm, speech, writing and reading are skilled physical movements, based on the development of -firstly the gross motor muscles, and secondly the fine motor muscles.


A child is not born with fully developed muscles due to the limited space in utero. Muscles need to develop, but they do not develop in isolation. Muscles develop alongside the development of the three layers of the brain.

This can best be illustrated by thinking of a child’s physical development in terms of a two-storey building. The ground floor houses the basic workings for survival and that means being aware of his environment and to be aware, he needs wide awake senses. His senses tell him if he is safe or if he needs to fight, run away or freeze and blend with the woodwork. So the ground floor houses all the senses – the sense of touch, smell taste, hearing and sight, but senses without muscles to fight, run away or freeze are no good. The ground floor therefor also houses all the basic muscle movements – reflexive movements (breathing, heartbeat, etc.); basic movements and postural reactions. Thinking is not housed on this floor, nor is caring. This floor is called survival movement.

Once a child has spent enough time on the ground floor making all the different primitive movements, he needs to learn how to control his most primitive movements. He learns control by progressing to rolling over, sitting up and later by getting onto an all fours. When a child has progressed to crawling, he has reached the first floor. The first floor houses confidence, emotions, self-esteem, health and caring. These feelings develop as moms and dads cheer baby on when his movements become more complex. The movements housed on the first floor are typical human movements that call for major celebrations, movements such as crawling, separating the thumbs from the other fingers to grasp and handle objects, making different sounds but not words yet, as well as pulling himself up into an upright posture and later to walk with ease.

Developmentally the first floor links movement to emotional development – a phase that is vital before a child can make friends and get along with others. It is only once a child has had enough of me-time (emotional development), that he is ready for we-time (social development). Basic games like hide and seek are housed here, as is jumping on the bed, chasing each other, swinging, playing on a slide or on a roundabout. This floor is called social movement.

The lift can only reach the second floor if it has been on the ground floor and the first floor for long enough. The second floor is called skilled or controlled movement. These movements take a long time and many different movement opportunities to develop, opportunities to move freely and to move on instruction; with and without music; with and without equipment like scarves, and bean bags, big and small balls, balancing beams, hoops or planted tyres. They develop when involving fantasy and drama and dance. They also develop when spending many hours outside climbing, running, jumping and rolling while converting gross motor movement into fine motor movement. For this conversion to take place, a child first needs to learn to stop moving.


Balance means that a child has developed his gross motor muscles so well, he is now able to remain steady in an upright position while moving or not moving. Once a child has a sense of balance, he is really ready to progress to chair and table, paper, crayons and scissors, but not before.

The scary thing is that more children seem to be diagnosed with hyperactivity every year.


There are many reasons why a child can be labelled hyperactive: a lack of discipline, poor diet, aberrant primitive reflexes, chemical imbalances and many more. Sometimes a child may appear to be hyperactive because he has not moved enough to find his balance. Balance is that perfect spot between left and right; between backwards and forwards; and between lying down and standing up straight; and can only develop through lots of movement.

In a nutshell: a child has to move a lot before he can sit or stand still. Balance is not developed by any kind of movement, the child needs to learn to control his movement before he can develop balance. Reading, writing and reasoning become seriously compromised if a child cannot be still, because a body that moves uncontrollably works just like a GPS that continuously ‘recalculates’ without completing a task.


Learning involves the building of skills, and skills are built through the movement of muscles. According to Goddard (2002):

  • if a child has immature pathways between his senses and muscles (ground floor), it correlates with uncontrolled and inappropriate movements
  • a child needs to consciously compensate for these uncontrolled movements by using mental energy, focus and concentration to control movement and posture, resulting in less mental energy, focus and concentration available with which to think and learn
  • because, like the lift, nerve pathways must pass through the phases of survival movement to reach the higher functional areas of the brain, an immaturity within the survival brain will have detrimental effects on the higher centers of the brain (emotional and cognitive centers).

In a nutshell: a child’s behavior is a direct result of his or her ability or inability to control his or her movement. If the body cannot be still, neither the heart nor the mind can be still and concentrating.

De Jager, M. 2010. Mind Moves – moves that mend the mind. JHB: Mind Moves Institute.

De Jager, M. 2012. What does controlled movement have to do with learning? JHB: Mind Moves Institute.

Goddard, S. 2002. Reflexes, learning and behaviour. Oregon: Fern Ridge Press.

TEDGlobal, 2011. Daniel Wolpert. The real reason for brains, online video, accessed 10 February 2012.


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