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FocusingHyperactivity

Is Your Child Acting Hyper or Wound Up?

Very excited, young girl.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 24 May 2022
Published 16 Jan 2022

What is Hyperactivity in Childhood?

Hyperactivity in childhood is excessive activity and movement. 

Toys and activities may not maintain your child’s interest 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. 

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, etc.
  • 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, on the playground
  • Makes a mess: seems to leave everything a mess. When your child leaves the room, the toys and activities and household items are everywhere, like a tornado
  • Too loud: seems to use especially loud voices, or is constantly singing, talking, banging, jumping

Causes of Hyperactivity in Children

Hyperactivity can have a variety of causes.

  • Excess energy: some children have a higher energy level than others. They need more opportunities to move and release energy to pay attention and be successful
  • Poor diet and exercise: children need to eat a healthy diet and get regular movement and exercise. It can increase hyperactivity if a child is not provided these outlets.
  • Low birth weight: children with a history of low birth weight sometimes have a tendency to be more hyperactive in childhood. A low birth weight could be influenced by the use of substances like cigarette smoking during pregnancy.
  • Sensory processing differences: children who are more sensory seeking, which is sometimes related to ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder, can be hyperactive
  • Mood difficulties: children who have mood or anxiety disorders may exhibit hyperactivity or restlessness
  • Poor sleep: children who have a lack of appropriate sleep habits can be more hyperactive during the day 
  • Other medical causes: children who have other medical issues may be hyperactive. Talking with your child’s pediatrician to rule out any other medical causes for hyperactivity is a good idea. 

ADHD is a potential cause of hyperactivity

Hyperactivity is one of 3 symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. ADHD is a common diagnosis for children, especially boys in the United States. The other symptoms are inattention and impulsivity or 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. Understanding that your child’s behavioral health profile includes hyperactivity can help the family. Parents can work to their child’s strengths and better understand any weaknesses.

Hyperactivity tends to be a problem when it is ‘getting in the way.’ You probably have a reason for concern if your child is constantly in trouble for being out of their seat, displays poor social skills due to their excessive activity level, accidentally hurts peers or breaks things often, or is unable to sit still for a fifteen-minute dinner conversation. If your child is also easily distracted, has trouble concentrating, or has difficulty focusing, they might be showing signs of ADHD.

What to Do About Hyperactivity in Children

Parents can try strategies at home to help with hyperactivity. Here are a few ideas.

  • Provide 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 tea party, movie theater, library, story time at the bookstore, or adult birthday party. Your child may not be able to maintain his or her composure in quiet places. 
  • 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. It is recommended that parents be proactive when they have concerns about their child’s attention and hyperactivity. Psychologists cannot prescribe medications. Even if your child’s doctor recommends medication, you always make the final decision. Whether or not you pursue medication, support at school and behavioral or psychological therapy can benefit your child.

Sometimes, parents wonder if the amount of movement and fidgeting exhibited by their children is normal. Often in young children, parents question how their child’s behavior is different from a typical 3, 4, or 5-year-old. They may worry about oppositional defiant disorder if their child cannot always follow directions. They may have concerns about self-esteem if their child is often in trouble in preschool.

If you have any of these concerns, it can be helpful to reach out to a professional.

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.

Hyperactivity books 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.

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