by Ian Rogers
Educators at various schools around Australia have long claimed that one of the best ways to deal with disruptive children is to send them to the chess club.
The theory goes that impetuous children, including children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), gradually learn to concentrate and to realise that thinking before making a move can be advantageous.
The film Brooklyn Castle followed an ADHD child, Patrick, whose slow road to success, on and off the board, was one of the most inspiring parts of the documentary.
Chess schools have claimed plenty of success stories like Patrick but support for chess as a treatment remained purely anecdotal, even as evidence for the success of non-pharmacalogical approaches to ADHD had been growing.
According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, the brains of children with ADHD mature in a normal pattern but are delayed, on average, by about 3 years. (As many as 10% of US children are diagnosed with ADHD.) The NIMH consider that the delay in brain maturity is most pronounced in regions involved in thinking, paying attention, and planning, so intuitively one might have expected chess training to have some effect as a therapy.
Now a recent study in Spain has provided the first firm support for the theory that chess can help treat ADHD.
The Spanish researchers followed 44 children with ADHD, measuring them before and after an 11 week chess training programme. They found that the severity of ADHD was significantly lower for most of the children at the end of the trial, with an incidental and somewhat unexpected rise in IQ as well. (The IQ rise had been anticipated by Dr Veena Doss, head of psychology at Chennai Women’s Christian College, who surmised from some case studies in 2013 that “Chess looks at the intellectual capability and not academics. So even children with learning disorders have shown an improvement in their cognitive skills.”)
The Spanish researchers warn that their results much be treated with caution due to the size and design of the trial, with no control group and no direct comparison with a group on traditional drug therapies for ADHD such as Ritalin. (Ironically, Ritalin has been tested by some ‘normal’ chessplayers as a chemical aide to better chess!)
Also, due to ethical considerations, the study was an open label trial, meaning that the researchers, the participants and their parents were aware of the therapy being administered. Of course parents who agreed for their child to participate in the trial would be keen for their child to benefit, whereas results could be different for children involuntarily enrolled in a chess course.
Nonetheless, the results of the Spanish study were so impressive that the researchers have called for further trials, with an expectation that if their results are replicated chess could be included as a recognised treatment option for children with ADHD.