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The Importance of Rhythmic Coordinative Beat-Based Movement to Engage Executive Functions

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

Research in the past 20 years has shown a meaningful relationship between moving in time to a beat and symptomology in ADHD, Autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and developmental coordination disorder. The ability to temporally coordinate an action with a predictable external event is known to be delayed for some children with neurodevelopmental challenges.

Integrating research across the fields of kinesiology, developmental psychology, neuroeducation, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, we have found that specific rhythmic coordinative activities engage the executive function systems in the brain (see Vazou et al., 2020).

Over the past ten years, we have been developing cognitive coaching and beat-based rhythmic activities to prime the brains of our students. In the following cognitive-movement teacher & clinician training video you see our neuroeducation intern modeling an upper-body pattern with a lower-body pattern that switches sides every eight beats. This activity requires attention, memory, self-control, cognitive flexibility, beat saliency, and motor coordination.

CogniTap Rapid Neural Activation with Active Memory Components

Here is a bit about what the research currently tells us and what research is ahead of us.

What we know…

  1. Beat perception, beat synchronization, motor timing and rhythm detection appear to be associated with regions of the brain often indicated in ADHD and developmental dyslexia, Lundetræ & Thompson, 2018.

  2. In neuroimaging studies, common subcortical and cortical brain areas activated in perceptual and motor timing tasks include the:

    1. Cerebellum - Jeuptner et al., 1997; Jeuptner and Weiller, 1998

    2. Basal Ganglia - Harrington et al., 1998a; Schubotz et al., 2000; Rao et al., 2001; Ferrandez et al., 2003; Nenadic et al., 2003; Lewis et al., 2004; Grahn and Brett, 2007, supplementary motor area Macar et al., 2002; Ferrandez et al., 2003; Coull, 2004; Macar et al., 2004; Grahn and Brett, 2007

    3. Premotor Cortex - Schubotz et al., 2000; Schubotz and von Cramon, 2001, and

    4. Prefrontal Regions - Rubia et al., 1998; Lewis and Miall, 2002; Grahn & McAuley, 2009.

  3. Although beat perception develops spontaneously in humans, individuals vary widely in their ability to extract a beat from musical rhythm. Some of this variability may result from musical training, which enhances beat perception abilities. Bouwer et al., 2018.

  4. Beat perception and the ability to move to a beat are correlated with ADHD, Puyjarinet, 2017.

  5. Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers Carr et al. 2014.

  6. Subcortical structures including the basal ganglia and cerebellum are suggested to play a role in beat and rhythm perception Grahn & Brett, 2009; Grahn, 2009; Thaut et al. 2014; Tierney & Kraus, 2013.

  7. Beat and rhythm-based rehabilitation are reported in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Ashoori, 2015; Dalla Bella et al. 2017, with varying outcomes, more research is in progress. Musically cued gait training is also an interesting line of inquiry.

What we are currently studying...

  1. What is the relationship between gross motor beat synchronization and learning in children?

  2. What is the relationship between coordinative bilateral upper and lower body beat synchronization and learning in children?

  3. How do coordinative beat-based movement activities stimulate the executive functions associated with learning in children?

  4. How does rapid neural activation prepare the brain for learning in students with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, developmental coordination disorder, and dysgraphia?

  5. Might coordinative-rhythmic movement activities improve attention, memory, cognitive flexibility, and response inhibition in children with learning challenges?

  6. When we improve beat competency in children with learning challenges (biologically based or due to low environmental brain stimulation), do their academic outcomes improve?

  7. What types of rhythms work best to improve executive functions in which types of children?

  8. If we provide high-quality music education beginning in preschool and extending through elementary school, will we see an improvement in math and reading scores for many children?

  9. If we add coordinative beat-based rhythmic motor activities in physical education, will we see an associated improvement in executive function skills in students?

Children with Developmental Dyslexia have Difficulty Tapping to a Beat

Tapping in time to a metronome beat (hereafter beat synchronization) shows considerable variability in child populations, and individual differences in beat synchronization are reliably related to reading development. Children with developmental dyslexia show impairments in beat synchronization.

  1. These impairments may reflect deficiencies in auditory perception of the beat which in turn affect auditory-motor mapping, or may reflect an independent motor deficit. Colling LJ, Noble HL and Goswami U (2017) Neural Entrainment and Sensorimotor Synchronization to the Beat in Children with Developmental Dyslexia: An EEG Study. Front. Neurosci. 11:360.

  2. Preschoolers who can entrain to an external beat have more faithful neural encoding of temporal modulations in speech and score higher on tests of early language skills, Carr et al. 2014.

  3. Beat synchronization abilities emerge at an early age, therefore, when children exhibit challenges matching their movements to a beat, the research may inform strategies for early detection of and intervention for language-based learning disabilities, Carr et al.2014.

  4. The precision of beat synchronization is reduced in children with developmental dyslexia, Overy et al., 2003; Thomson and Goswami, 2008; Flaugnacco et al., 2014.

  5. “For children with developmental dyslexia, it is unknown whether their impairments in beat synchronization arise from a primary sensory deficit in auditory rhythm perception which in turn affects the temporal precision of action, or whether beat synchronization is impaired via an independent deficit related to the developing motor system, or both,” Colling et al. 2017.

Children with ADHD Show Deficits in many areas, including Motor Timing and Beat Perception

A meta-analysis of timing functions in ADHD, including 11 fMRI studies of time discrimination, time estimation, motor timing, and temporal discounting (temporal foresight), showed consistently reduced activation in 150 ADHD patients relative to 145 healthy controls in left IFC, left inferior parietal lobe and right lateral cerebellum (Hart et al., 2012), which are all key regions of timing functions (Wiener et al., 2010; see Figure 1E), Rubia 2018.

Children and adults with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have difficulty telling whether two sounds have different durations. This deficit is linked to poor reading, attention, and language skills.

Research demonstrates that these timing distortions also emerge when tracking the beat of rhythmic sounds in perceptual and sensorimotor tasks. This contrasts with the common observation that durations are better perceived and produced when embedded in rhythmic stimuli. Children and adults with ADHD struggled when moving to the beat of rhythmic sounds, and when detecting deviations from the beat, Puyjarinet et al. 2017.

The Puyjarinet study found a deficit in generating an internal beat in ADHD while listening to rhythmic sounds, a function typically associated with the basal ganglia. Rhythm-based interventions aimed at reinstating or compensating this malfunctioning circuitry may be particularly valuable in ADHD, as already shown for other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as dyslexia and Specific Language Impairment.

Slater and Tate (2018), suggest that further investigation of the basis of rhythm and timing deficits could ultimately help to form a more integrated view of the etiologies of ADHD, bridging the gap between genetic factors (e.g., variation in dopaminergic signaling), neural dynamics and the development of cortical networks, and the behavioral control of cognition and movement. They highlighted that the same neural systems are strengthened in expert musicians, suggesting the potential for neuroplasticity to have remediating effects. This novel, interdisciplinary approach could inform therapeutic strategies, harnessing the rewarding properties of music to strengthen coordination within the brain.

Related Studies

Keeping the Beat: A Large Sample Study of Bouncing and Clapping to Music, Tranchant et al., 2016.

What makes a rhythm complex? The influence of musical training and accent type on beat perception, Bouwer et al., 2018.

Rhythm production at school entry as a predictor of poor reading and spelling at the end of first grade, Lundetrae & Thompson, 2018.

Does music training enhance literacy skills? A Meta-Analysis, Gordon et al., 2015.

Perspectives on the rhythm–grammar link and its implications for typical and atypical language development, Gordon et al., 2015.

The Evolution of Rhythm Cognition: Timing in Music and Speech, Ravignani et al., 2017.

Rhythm and Movement for Self-Regulation (RAMSR) intervention for preschool self-regulation development in disadvantaged communities: a clustered randomised controlled trial study protocol, BMJ Open 10:e036392, Williams et al., 2020.

Neural measures of anticipatory bodily attention in children: Relations with executive function, the role of attention in cognitive-motor movement, Weiss et al., 2018.


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