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Focusing — Hyperactivity

Hyperactivity in Children

Very excited, young girl.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 16 Jan 2022

What is Hyperactivity in Children?

Hyperactivity in children is excessive activity and movement. 

Toys and activities may not maintain your child’s interest for very long. They may say, “I just need to get my energy out.” Hyperactive kids can be exhausting. As a parent, you may think, “We have already been swimming and to the park, and my child is still wanting to go play soccer? I’m beat!” Parents may start to wonder if their child’s behavior is normal or if this excessive movement is problematic.

If your child is hyperactive, they may seem like a buzzing little bee, with a constant, almost boundless supply of energy or constant motion. Perhaps they talk excessively, move constantly, and never sit still. 

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Symptoms of Hyperactivity in Children

  • Acts wound up: seems to have boundless energy
  • Moves constantly: seems to be out of their seat in school, at the dinner table, and when reading a book with parents
  • Fidgets more than other children: seems to be constantly moving, tapping, playing with something, drawing, chewing, or bouncing
  • Gets in trouble at school: seems to talk when the teacher is talking, moves around the room, disrupts other children
  • Bumps into other kids: seems to have trouble staying in their own space in the classroom, or on the playground
  • Makes a mess: seems to leave stuff everywhere. When your child exits the room, the toys, activities and household items are all over the place

Causes of Hyperactivity in Children

Hyperactivity can have a variety of causes. It is important for parents to have compassion for hyperactive kids. Oftentimes, this excessive movement is the child’s natural body state. Sitting for 5 minutes in a classroom may feel to your child like being stuck in an elevator for hours would feel for you.

Traditional psychology, in particular the behaviorist approach, was a reinforcement model. They thought that pretty much any behavior could be explained by responses from the environment. Essentially, if a behavior is reinforced it will continue. If it is not, the behavior will go away.

Newer models of child psychology see a behavior like hyperactivity differently. 

“Researchers now see many childhood behaviors as the result of an unregulated nervous system. Hyperactivity, in this model, would be explained by a true neurological difference. The child’s body is having a true challenge with settling down.”

Listed below are some reasons why hyperactivity may be an issue for your child.

Excess energy

Some children have a higher energy level than others. They need more opportunities to move and release energy in order to be happy and successful. As explained previously, this excess energy may be due to a true difference in the ability to regulate the nervous system.

Poor diet and exercise

Children need to eat a healthy diet and get regular movement and exercise. Some kids will have extreme difficulties acting calm and sitting still when they haven’t had a chance to exercise. Kids may be more hyper when they haven’t eaten well. Each child is different so parents will want to watch for patterns. If you notice your child is really wound up on a snow day, while stuck at home, it may be that exercise is very important to staying calm and regulated.

Sensory processing differences

Children who are more sensory seeking may be hyperactive. Sometimes these sensory issues and hyperactivity are associated with ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Mood difficulties 

Children who have mood or anxiety disorders may exhibit hyperactivity or restlessness. Although this may look like a sign of ADHD or another disorder, often kids with intense feelings will act hyperactive as a way of expressing their emotional disturbance.

Poor sleep 

Children who don’t sleep well can be hyperactive. Sleep issues are actually a very common cause of hyperactivity and other behavioral issues. For this reason, parents will want to be mindful of keeping a consistent schedule and a regular bedtime. Sometimes just tightly adhering to a schedule can be enough to curb hyperactivity.

Sudden life changes 

Children may act hyper or wound up when experiencing a major event. For example, if you are moving across town or across the country, expect that this change will impact your child’s behavior. A life change may include a death in the family, a divorce, or a sudden illness of a caregiver. All of these events can cause hyperactivity. If this is the case for your child, stay patient and compassionate with your child. Over time, with consistent support, these behaviors are likely to improve.

Other medical causes 

Children who have other medical issues may be hyperactive. Although the specific medical issues that cause hyperactivity go beyond the scope of this article, parents do need to be aware of potential physical and biological differences. It’s always a good idea to check in with your child’s pediatrician when you notice new behaviors.

ADHD is a potential cause of hyperactivity

Hyperactivity is one of three symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a common diagnosis for children, especially boys, in the United States. The other symptoms are inattention and impulsivity (acting without thinking). For a diagnosis of ADHD, children must have all three symptoms present across several settings. 

It is important to recognize hyperactivity. Sometimes, hyperactivity is the real issue, not a behavior problem. Recognizing and treating hyperactivity can help your child avoid getting in trouble for things they cannot help. You can help your family function better by understanding ADHD and related symptoms. Parents can work to their child’s strengths and better understand any weaknesses. To learn more about hyperactivity, see this course that walks you through helping your child step-by-step. 

Hyperactivity tends to be a problem when it is ‘getting in the way’ of your child’s happiness. Parents may be concerned if their children are constantly in trouble for being out of their seat. There also may be issues with social skills, resulting in lots of peer conflict. They may have trouble controlling their bodies, constantly getting hurt or breaking things. These are all signs that hyperactivity is a significant issue for your child. 

What to Do About Hyperactivity in Children

You can try strategies at home to help with hyperactivity. In fact, parents are the primary interventionists who can truly make a difference with their child. Creating structure, consistency, and routine can truly change some of these behaviors, and those changes can come quickly. Here are a few ideas.

  • Provide and follow a schedule. Perhaps the most important strategy of all is to provide a clear and consistent schedule for your child. Schedules can help your child sleep better, eat better, and ultimately regulate their nervous system better. It takes a bit to get used to, but if you are consistent with your schedule, you will likely see much improvement in your child’s behavior.
  • Allow many outlets for your child’s energy. Activities like swimming, horseback riding, and gymnastics can be therapeutic for a very active child. 
  • Think carefully before taking your child to a quiet venue. A tea party, movie theater, library, story time at the bookstore, or adult birthday party may not be a good idea. Your child may not be able to maintain their composure in such quiet places. 
  • Read with your child about hyperactivity. A list of kids’ books, such as Personal Space Camp [5] and Ms. Gorski, I Think I Have The Wiggle Fidgets [6], is provided below. Reading these books with your child can help ‘put a name on’ their challenges. They can learn that many children have the same struggles [5,6,7,8,9].

When to Seek Help for Hyperactivity in Children

You may want to seek help when hyperactivity is getting in the way of your child’s success at school, in social endeavors, in sports, or at home. If you are wondering about your child’s levels of hyperactivity, you could seek out an assessment for ADHD from a medical doctor or psychologist. 

  • Behavioral therapy can help your child with attention and focus. This therapy provides meaningful reinforcement for on-task behavior and task completion.
  • A tutor or executive functioning coach can help your child learn how to get started on homework and to finish assignments.
  • School supports help children who have hyperactivity, attention challenges, and poor working memory. Examples of school supports include extra time, reminders for tasks, and movement breaks. Also, teachers can break assignments into manageable chunks. 

Many parents are hesitant to seek a diagnosis of ADHD for fear that their child will be prescribed stimulant medication. Of course, this can be an intimidating process. However, parents need to know that any decisions regarding medication are in their own hands. There are other interventions that may be helpful as noted in the resources below. The most important step a parent can take is to learn more about ADHD. Parent education is right up there with medication as the most effective treatment for ADHD. If parents are educated and engaged, kids get better. 

Further Resources on Hyperactivity in Children

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to help with an evaluation for diagnostic clarification
  • Developmental pediatrician: to help guide behavioral and medical treatment. These doctors specialize in children with developmental concerns. They can be a helpful resource for diagnosis or treatment.
  • ABA therapist (applied behavior analysis): to help increase desired behaviors, such as appropriate motor activities, and to decrease undesired behaviors, such as excessive running at the wrong times. Uses the principles of reinforcement
  • Executive functioning tutor or coach: to help your child focus and organize school work and keep up with study skills 
  • School psychologist: to help you pursue a Section 504 plan at school or work with you and your child’s teacher to make a plan for success
  • Child psychiatrist: to help you learn more about medications that can help with hyperactivity

Similar Conditions to Hyperactivity in Children

  • Attention challenges: children who are hyperactive may also have difficulty with attention, which may lead to challenges remembering things like names, following directions, and completing tasks at school
  • Executive functioning challenges: children who are hyperactive may also have difficulties related to planning, sequencing, and organizing information
  • Cognitive processing challenges: children who are hyperactive may have trouble with fluency in cognitive processing. A child may not encode information if they are a visual learner and may not be good at auditory learning
  • Impulsivity: children who are hyperactive may also have issues with impulsivity (acting without thinking) 
  • Social skills challenges: children who are hyperactive may have poor social skills due to excessive activity level, failure to read social cues, and the tendency to violate personal space

References for Hyperactivity in Children

[1] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.

[2] Zeigler Dendy, Chris A. (2011). Teaching teens with ADD, ADHD & executive function deficits: A quick reference guide for teachers and parents.

[3] Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.

[4] Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

For kids

[5] Cook, Julia (2012). Personal space camp.

[6] Esham, Barbara (2015). Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the wiggle fidgets. (New edition) (Adventures of everyday geniuses.)

[7] Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).

[8] Cook, Julia (2006). My mouth is a volcano.

[9] Stein, David Ezra (2011). Interrupting chicken.