Updated: Aug 24, 2021
“Stop squirming”! Sit down”! “Get that pen out of your mouth”! “Enough of the tapping”!
Everybody knows this kid. Everybody knows this adult. For some of us this is our kid. For some of us this is us.
Fidgeting is a natural and common thing to do for everybody. We all fidget. We all need to move. But for some of us on this planet, fidgeting is cranked up to 11.
So why do some kids do this? Well, let’s start with what fidgeting actually is. Fidgeting is moving the body to either wake the mind up, or calm the mind down. So fidgeting is simply moving.
We all fidget. We click our pens, twirl our feet, bite our nails, chew our hair, wiggle in our seat, pace, and so on and so on. These are all forms of fidgeting. We are doing this because of two reasons.
Our brain is tired. So we do some kind of movement to wake ourselves back up. From the smallest form such as twirling our foot. Or to the largest which is standing up and moving our whole body. We are moving our bodies to help wake up our minds so that we may focus on whatever task is requiring our attention at the time.
Our brain is overcharged. There is too much stimulation coming in. Our minds are maxed out, they are racing with ideas, excited, anxious, scared, or just unorganized. Moving the body in the same ways can help us calm our minds. Tapping, chewing, pacing, big breaths, etc all help our minds get more organized to focus on whatever task is requiring our attention at the time.
So why do some of us fidget more than others?
Well, this question has a LOT of answers. And to answer this one specifically for yourself we would have to sit down and get to know you or your kiddo individually. But we can explore a few general answers.
Being tired or overcharged. See above.
Being on the autism spectrum. Autism often comes along with a sensory difficulty. Because of this, movement is oftentimes interlaced with how we process sensory input. So moving (fidgeting) helps deal with sensory input and how we process that input. In the extreme forms this would be known as STIMMING. Stimming is moving the body or making sounds in repetitive ways. These behaviors are another form of fidgeting and people on the spectrum are doing them for the same reasons as listed above. Stimming can help cope with sensory input and/or anxiety as well as help focus on the task at hand. Where as some people on the autism spectrum might stim, stimming does not mean someone is on the autism spectrum.
ADHD. Movement is a key element with anyone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Someone with ADHD has difficulty passing dopamine from neuron to neuron. This makes for a whole lot of challenges. We need dopamine for many reasons including motivation to actually move. If one is not motivated to do something then it makes doing that very thing a little more difficult. If a person with ADHD is not motivated to do something it makes doing that very thing near impossible. BUT, movement can help with that dopamine release so movement is crucial for someone with ADHD. And fidgeting can be a good thing to help stay on task and focus.
Sensory Processing Disorder. So we know there is a sensory difficulty because it’s built right there in the name. As stated before, processing sensory input is always linked to movement. The short of it, the more kids with sensory difficulties have opportunities to move, the better. Fidgeting can also provide tactile, proprioception, and even vestibular input which can all be calming to the nervous system.
Trauma and Anxiety. Both of these can lead to the nervous system not working as well as it could. Which also in turn leads to processing sensory input and emotions very difficult. Having busy hands, a thing to fiddle with can bring body awareness, mindfulness, and help stay in the present which in turn can reduce anxieties.
Kids just need to move. Fact; Kids don’t move as much as they used to. Restricting movement will have an impact on development, attention, and can lead to unwanted behaviors. Some kids need to move more than others just as we are all different in so many other ways. Some seek it out in large obvious ways and others internalize that need in quieter ways. And just because a kid is fidgety, does not mean they have a disorder of any kind or neuro-diversity. Some of us just move more than others.
There are so many neurodevelopmental reasons why somebody might fidget. But there are also neuro-typical reasons why somebody might fidget as well. Either way, fidgeting is completely normal and, in many cases, necessary. People are always seeking homeostasis. And we do that most of the time through movement. If we can’t find outlets for our brains to return to baseline then we will seek them out in non-functional ways. This could be a reason why we get out of our seats when we are to be sitting, why we get cranky, make annoying noises, chew our pencils until they are dust, chew gum until our jaw hurts. We are trying to regulate. So in times when our attention is needed when our bodies can’t move we can provide and allow for our bodies to fidget. This way we get that input and output functionally instead of it disrupting our day or the day of others.
So what can we do when our brains are trying to regulate themselves? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s look at a few ideas.
Proactive (getting movement before having to sit still or focus on a task)
Getting ahead of the game and being prepared is always better. If you buy groceries ahead of time you usually buy the healthy stuff (Except for Snickers ice cream bars. They are healthy for the soul. Don’t judge). If you wait until you’re hungry you might stop by the Burger Barn for a supersized #12 with ice cream fries and a bologna burger. Both will satisfy your hunger but the first option is more healthy (unless you’re feeding your soul with an ice cream Snickers). Movement is the same. Feeding the body the movement it needs before it craves it will ensure less stress and less disruption in a day. A kiddo will seek out movement when it’s needed so getting it in a functional way will ensure less movement during work or focus time.
Big body movements like exercise, walking, biking,(insert any large gross motor activity) is going to help you focus afterwards. Sometimes a lot of vestibular input can have the opposite effect. Vestibular is movement of the head specifically. So swinging, spinning, those huge metal death discs on the playground that break shins and fling kids off at top speed, are a lot of vestibular input. Also activities with lots of visual or audio can be too much. Think of a basketball game in a noisy gym. Lots of people moving with a ball and the echo. This can all be hard on the nervous system. These can also be great ways to get movement but I always recommend ending with some heavy work such as moving some weight, slow diaphragmatic breathing, or even some oral motor things such as blowing up a balloon.
Active (While sitting still or having to focus on a task)
So while you’re trying to focus on something while maybe sitting at a desk, figuring out math problems, reading, writing, etc is a great time to use our smaller fidgets or less interruptive strategies.
Busy Hands: Using things like fidget spinners, putty, rubber bands can be a great way to get some input while keeping my eyes and ears on the task at hand. They are small and discreet and can be used without interrupting other people in the room. Note that I said “can”. Sometimes fidgets make great projectiles, noise makers, and distractions. Taking the down side into consideration they can still be extremely effective.
Busy Feet: Same concept, except sometimes I have to use my hands to work. So having a resistance band around my chair legs, standing on a BOSU ball, or even just standing might be all a person needs.
Active Seating: Active seating is anyway to get movement while paying attention without having to sit. This would include what’s written above but also allowing laying on the floor, sitting on a yoga ball, laying under a desk.
Reactive (Getting back on track after Elvis has left the building)
When I say reactive I mean the ability to focus is gone and intervention is needed. This is where we as adults get up and get more coffee, annoy coworkers at the cooler, or don’t turn our TPS reports in on time. For kids, this is when participation goes down, and unwanted behaviors go up. In either case, it’s sometimes too late to use the smaller fidget ideas (I don’t recommend giving kids coffee). This is when I would defer back to larger gross motor ideas such as going for a walk, playing a game, etc. while still keeping in mind to end with heavy work if lots of visual, audio, or vestibular input is being done.
So the short of all of this is fidgeting is movement and movement is crucial for focus. There are a million reasons why a person is fidgeting but either way it’s their brain telling their body it needs to move in order to get back on track. Allowing different options for movement helps us all individually and allows for situations like teaching and learning to still happen without being interrupted too much. Movement is not only important for developing but also important for maintaining healthy and organized brains. A sound body, truly is a sound mind.
Gear and Equipment List
Anything can be a fidget really. The key is that it keeps the hands busy and does not get in the way of whatever it is it’s helping you focus on. That being said, there are a few products out there that are recommended by therapists, teachers, parents, and kids.
Fidget spinners: The bane of many teachers and parents. But in the right hands, these could be a helpful tool for a kid to use while working. There is not any one kind that I suggest but make sure there are no blinky lights or the ball bearings don’t make a lot of noise.
Lakikid Marble Maze: This fidget is soft, noiseless, and can be something a kiddo uses during active work or even reactively to help calm down. It could be held discreetly under a desk or kept in a pocket to pull out when needed.
Lakikid Writable Lap Pad: This thing is pretty cool! It is a weighted lap pad to provide some deep pressure while sitting AND it has the option for kids to doodle on it. Doodling is an excellent way to keep the hands busy while listening to a lesson, read alouds, etc. Plus it’s MESS FREE!
Squeezy Balls: The down side to these is that they make great projectiles. So using these in a classroom or at home can be difficult sometimes. But here is one that attaches to your wrist to help solve that problem!
When hands are needed the feet can do some work to help keep the brain on task. Again, anything can be used for this but here are a few things that I have seen work many times.
Lakikid Fidget Band: They are great for wrapping around the legs of chairs. I also use them for squeezy head bands and for kids to pull with their hands. Pretty versatile and easy to keep discrete. And no, they don’t make good projectiles. When kids try to fling them like giant rubber bands, they don’t go very far. So that’s good.
Lakikid Wiggle Seat: So these are not only for sitting on. The bumpy and spiky sides of the seat are awesome for having bare or socked feet on while sitting in a chair. This provides some great tactile input! Kids can also bounce or squish their feet on the Wiggle Seat.
Busy Whole Body
Who says you have to sit to focus? Actually moving your body while learning has plenty of research to support that you learn better when doing something. So during active learning when listening, watching, or discussing is happening then you’re whole body can get the fidgets!
Mini Trampoline: There are dozens of these to choose from but I think the ones that are small enough to store away and have a handle are the best to use. The handle adds a little more control and safety.
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