Current Research Projects

Enhancing Educational Achievement: Reducing Effects of ADHD and Learning Differences with Exercise

The Health and Optimism Provided with Exercise (HOPE) Study

The Final Report is Now Available!

There continues to be a strong need for non-medication alternatives for the treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and enhancing educational achievement for children and adolescents with different types of learning disabilities/differences (LD). Recent research suggests that aerobic exercise may be a potential such treatment based on the increased release of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) and brain neurotransmitters that accompanies vigorous exercise. 

Studies have been conducted showing positive relationships between physical exercise and many aspects of ADHD behavior related to school performance. Studies suggest a positive effect of aerobic exercise on academic performance.

We propose to conduct a randomized control trial (RCT) using aerobic exercise as a non-medication intervention for children with ADHD and/or Learning Differences (LD). This study will attempt to improve key symptoms of ADHD and LD related to attention, inhibition, and memory; all components of executive function. These functions are known to be impaired in children with ADHD and LD, yet are essential for school performance and successful psychosocial functioning. Offering an intervention targeting executive functioning is critical, particularly in the young school age group, who may benefit most from early intervention. Using an intervention that optimizes the immediate benefit of physical exercise and exertion combined with challenging mental activity while academically engaged in the classroom will be a novel, innovative approach not previously tested. It is important to demonstrate that intervention is as effective for females as males.


Joyce Pickering, M.A., Hum. D, SLP/CC, CALT, QI, LDT – The CEO emerita of Shelton School and expert in children and adolescents with learning differences. She has implemented many innovative approaches to the education of students with learning differences. She and Dr. Hughes worked as research collaborators on the CAARTE project to develop non-medication interventions for children with ADHD. She will be responsible for all aspects of testing related to academic and cognitive performance.

Carroll W. Hughes, Ph.D., ABPP – Former director of research at Shelton School and Professor of Psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center – Dallas will serve as the research design, methods and statistical consultant for the project. He has been the Principal Investigator on National Institutes Mental Health grants and most recently completed a project successfully treating non-medicated depressed adolescents with exercise.

Jennifer Davis, B.A., Certified Physical Education Teacher, Athletic Certified Trainer ACT – Has been involved with innovative approaches to physical education for youth for a number of years at Shelton and will oversee the exercise intervention and training related to the use of equipment for monitoring physical outcomes. She has been teaching Physical Education for 15 years and previously coached basketball, softball, volleyball, track and soccer.

Steve McBride, M.S., Certified Physical Education Teacher – Has been involved in the field of physical education for 25 years and currently is a coach of strength and conditioning, football, track, and cross county. In addition, Coach McBride teaches several Health courses to Shelton high school students

Jeff Wigley, B.S., Certified Physical Education Teacher – Has been involved in the field of physical education for over 15 years. In addition, Coach Wigley has coached: volleyball football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf softball and track and field.

This study addresses the potential role of a non-medication alternative – aerobic exercise in the classroom. The innovation is to exercise while doing class work to get maximal benefit of brain related neurotransmitter release in reducing ADHD and LD symptoms without medication. Both females and males will be compared and assessed for academic achievement, cognitive functional outcomes, and improved physiological measures of good health. In sum, recent studies indicate an increase in brain neuroplasticity and a process of neurogenesis that is a direct consequent of intense exercise, which is well summarized in John Ratey, M.D.’s recent book “SPARK: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain” (2008). However, no studies exist that directly assess the impact of immediate interaction of exercise induced brain activation and academic study on increased academic and cognitive performance.

Subjects: Over 100 students, ages 15 – 18 years old, will be recruited over the next two years. All subjects and parents/guardians will receive IRB approved consent and assent. Half of the children will be randomized initially to the exercise group (EXER) or to the wait list control group (WL) in the Fall semester. The waitlist group will them be crossed over to the EXER group beginning the Spring semester. As a result of the cross-over nature of the design indicated below, the WL will also participate in EXER. At the end of Phase II, all children will have had at least a one semester exposure to EXER. This will allow for both the repeated measures of longitudinal effects on the first semester EXER group by within subject analyses at end of Phase II, as well as the Phase I between group comparisons with the original WL. Primary outcomes will be statistically analyzed at end of Phase I and again at the end of Phase II (see statistical analyses below) for both years and then combined.

The primary recruitment sources will be Shelton School. Dr. Pickering will be in charge of recruitment of students for the intervention at the Shelton School. Jennifer Davis and Steve McBride will oversee instruction related to the exercise intervention, training and use of the monitoring equipment. The two classes will be Health taught by Steve McBride and Foundations of Personal Fitness taught by Jeff Wigley who will integrate the exercise as part of the course curriculum. All classroom resources, staff and equipment will reside at Shelton.

Shelton is committed to this research and is demonstrating this by providing a coordinator who is on a staff salary. To be successful, other High School staff, PE staff and researchers must be hired through funds from a grant.

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