“Stop doodling!”

You can hear it in schoolrooms and at kitchen tables across the country. Most parents and teachers believe that doodling is merely a distraction from the task at hand. After all, how can students be listening to a lecture if they’re decorating their margins with flowers? According to a surprising study by Dr. Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth, however, doodling may actually help kids—and even adults—to concentrate.

In her groundbreaking study, Andrade had forty subjects listen to a long, boring recording. Listeners who were given a task similar to doodling actually performed better on a memory test based on the recording than those who were not allowed to doodle. These results show that some people doodle spontaneously when they find their attention drifting and it helps them to stay on track, explains Andrade.

The results of the study are astounding, since other research shows that multitasking usually decreases productivity. In other words, no matter how much your child swears to you that he does his homework more efficiently when he’s texting in one hand and checking his email with the other, studies show otherwise. Andrade explains that doodling works differently from most forms of multitasking. It actually reduces a person’s need to daydream during boring tasks, allowing him to complete those tasks more effectively. So does that mean that all children should be encouraged to doodle? Are some students actually distracted by doodling? Dr. Andrade answers some of the most common questions from parents and teachers who hear about her study.

How should parents and teachers approach children who doodle?

Be sympathetic to doodlers. Doodling in your school book might not be beneficial because it makes your work look messy and makes it hard for the teacher to read, admits Andrade, but doodling on a piece of scrap paper is a fair compromise if it helps your kid concentrate.

And for parents and teachers who feel like children should be able to pay attention without doodling? “The best thing would be to make the lesson so fascinating that no-one needs to doodle, but we are all different and what fascinates one student won't necessarily fascinate another,” says Andrade. “Doodling is a better option than daydreaming,” and it allows a kid to focus on a tedious task without getting carried away by his imagination.

Are all doodles helpful?

Not all doodles are created equal. “Good” doodles need to be spontaneous, self-paced, repetitive, and meaningless. “Coloring the letters on your homework sheet or drawing curlicues in the margin would be this sort of 'helpful' doodling,” explains Andrade. “Sketching a portrait of your friend, writing a poem, or trying to create something beautiful will distract you from the lesson. Doodling a word repeatedly may be fine, but not if the word is the name of the boy you fancy and your thoughts are entirely focused on him and not the lesson.”

In fact, Andrade’s research may not only apply to doodling. Other repetitive tasks, such as making tiny braids out of sections of hair, rolling balls of craft dough, or even what most people think of as "nervous habits" like nail biting may help kids concentrate.

Should I stop my child from doodling?

Even with all of this research, parents and teachers may argue that some kids are truly distracted by doodling. Andrade says that this may be true for some. If a child who often doodles is struggling academically, the first step should not be to forbid doodling. Instead, explore why he's finding it so hard to concentrate and determine what would make the lesson more interesting.

If all else fails, you can always use the following test: forbid your child from doodling for a given period of time, and see how he reacts. Does he listen attentively and retain the information, or does he seem to have a glazed, inattentive expression, and remembers little of what he heard? If he demonstrates that he's actually absorbing the information while doodling, then encourage him to continue doing so.

Should I encourage my child to start doodling?

If your child is able to fully focus on the lesson without doodling, there’s no reason to encourage her to doodle. “The important message is that the best thing is to concentrate fully on the lesson,” says Andrade. “Doodling helps when you are struggling to do that, and it helps because it is better than daydreaming. Daydreaming is very distracting because we daydream about things that matter to us, often about things that worry us or excite us. Whereas doodling can be paused at any moment, daydreams are like a good story, hard to abandon once you've started.”

Every kid is different, and every kid's way of learning is different too. What makes one kid learn and thrive might carry another away to la-la-land. The good news is, doodling isn't the universal sign of someone not paying attention. If your kid is able to learn while doodling, then there's no reason to break the habit. So if that maze of scribbles and shapes doesn't prevent him from remembering that ho-hum history lesson, then tell him to doodle on!