Music’s ability to instill inner peace has been noted since ancient times. Over 3000 years ago, Chinese philosophers first developed the theory that music could “purify the mind.” This belief has endured through the ages, and children in East Asia are still encouraged to develop musical skills in order to hone their patience and concentration. Today, this ancient wisdom is being revisited in order to help kids with ADHD, too. Initial research indicates that having access to background music in an academic environment can increase ADHD kids’ test scores by 38 percent.
How Music Helps the ADHD Mind
Children with ADHD are believed to be deficient in certain neurotransmitters that assist the brain in creating new neural connections. This makes it more difficult for them to form new habits, memorize new information, and stay on track. Though many kids with ADHD are of average or high intelligence, their minds lack the “fuel” they need to complete specific tasks, and this slows down the learning process. Music can, in effect, create more of the mental fuel kids with ADHD lack by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters present throughout the brain. Music has also been shown to encourage communication between the different hemispheres of the brain. Music simultaneously engages spatial thinking, logical thinking, creative thinking, structural thinking, and the emotional centres of the brain.
The way in which music affects the emotional centres of the brain may be of particular importance to helping kids with ADHD. Not only does music activate these regions, it regulates them and fosters a connection between them and the thinking (rational) regions of the brain. Kids with ADHD usually struggle profoundly with both impulsivity and a low stress tolerance. This makes it harder for them to behave appropriately, store and use new information, and express themselves in productive ways (that is, through verbalization rather than acting out). As such, anything that can calm their emotional reactions and reroute them through the mediating centres of the mind is practically invaluable. Music can accomplish this simply and easily, without side effects.
How to Make the Most Out of Music’s Potential Benefits
Once you’ve obtained permission for your child to listen to music (when appropriate) in class, there are a few additional steps you should take to ensure your child reaps the most reward from his new study aid:
1. Know what kind of music will help your child learn.
Music that places a heavy emphasis on lyrics (like rap music and pop music) can actually distract kids. Our brains have a tendency to automatically focus on the words in songs, which takes attention away from the task at hand. In general, research shows that upbeat (but not overly fast-paced) music with few lyrics or no lyrics works best to help kids concentrate.
Understand that if you see your child moving while listening to music, this does not mean that he’s distracted. On the contrary, tapping a foot or pencil to the beat of a song can help ADHD kids focus their energy and concentrate better on the task at hand.
2. Allow your child to have a say in the kind of music he listens to while studying.
You might think that complex classical music is the best choice for stimulating your child’s brain, but if he doesn’t agree, you won’t achieve your objectives. If your child is bored or annoyed by the music he’s listening to, his feelings of frustration will overcome his ability to focus on anything else—and this is the last thing you want to happen. While it’s okay to guide your child’s choice of music (i.e., you should explain to him why lyric-heavy music might not help him study), you should listen to his input and take his ideas on board. Remember: The more excited he is about being allowed to listen to music while studying, the more eager he will be to start studying.
3. Monitor your child to make sure he’s using music as a study aid consistently.
While preteens and teens are usually more than happy to be allowed to listen to their favourite tunes while learning, younger children might not pick up the habit as automatically. Kids with ADHD tend to be very absent-minded, so it’s important to watch over them to make sure they’re using music in situations where it will benefit them.
4. Make music a part of everyday life, not just something used for academic purposes.
Music can help kids with ADHD stay on track in a wide variety of different situations. Putting music on in the background while your child is doing chores, for instance, can help him synchronize his activities and prevent his mind from wandering. Additionally, putting on calming music after your child has had a hard day can help reduce the levels of stress hormones in his body and prevent meltdowns.
Encouraging your child to pick up an instrument of his choice and practice it regularly can also be immensely helpful. Research shows that learning an instrument can improve executive functioning skills, along with boosting memory, imagination, and coordination. It can even activate areas of the brain necessary for developing mathematical and verbal abilities.
Mastering an instrument will improve your child’s sense of competence and self-esteem, too. Kids with ADHD have a particular need for this feeling of mastery because they’re apt to feel less capable, overall, than their neurotypical peers.
When all of the evidence is weighed, it quickly becomes clear that music—one of our most abundant resources in the digital age—can greatly improve an ADHD child’s quality of life. Few other study aids can produce such profound results while still being affordable, easily accessible, and free of risks.