WHY CHILDREN FIDGET: And what we can do about it

A perfect stranger pours her heart out to me over the phone. She complains that her six-year-old son is unable to sit still in the classroom. The school wants to test him for ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). This sounds familiar, I think to myself. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I’ve noticed that this is a fairly common problem today.

The mother goes on to explain how her son comes home every day with a yellow smiley face. The rest of his class goes home with green smiley faces for good behavior. Every day this child is reminded that his behavior is unacceptable, simply because he can’t sit still for long periods of time.

The mother starts crying. “He is starting to say things like, ‘I hate myself’ and ‘I’m no good at anything.’” This young boy’s self-esteem is plummeting all because he needs to move more often.

Over the past decade, more and more children are being coded as having attention issues and possibly ADHD. A local elementary teacher tells me that at least eight of her twenty-two students have trouble paying attention on a good day. At the same time, children are expected to sit for longer periods of time. In fact, even kindergarteners are being asked to sit for thirty minutes during circle time at some schools.

The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Lets face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.

I recently observed a fifth grade classroom as a favor to a teacher. I quietly went in and took a seat towards the back of the classroom. The teacher was reading a book to the children and it was towards the end of the day. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting back their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, a few were chewing on the ends of their pencils, and one child was hitting a water bottle against her forehead in a rhythmic pattern.

This was not a special needs classroom, but a typical classroom at a popular art-integrated charter school. My first thought was that the children might have been fidgeting because it was the end of the day and they were simply tired. Even though this may have been part of the problem, there was certainly another underlying reason.

We quickly learned after further testing, that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance. Only one! Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. These children need to move!

Ironically, many children are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system today--due to restricted movement. In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time. Just like with exercising, they need to do this more than just once-a-week in order to reap the benefits. Therefore, having soccer practice once or twice a week is likely not enough movement for the child to develop a strong sensory system.

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”

Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.

         In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.

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06-Jun-2014 07:26 AM Anonymous

This makes absolute sense. And just how do we make the changes needed?

06-Jun-2014 10:48 PM Lisa

As a parent I have made the choice to have my children play more, move more. They get one hour of screen time a day and if we miss the 4 to 5 time then we miss it. I homeschool so they can bounce on exercise balls while doing math, hange from trees while I read to them and then they can reenact what I've read to them. They can run from noun to noun and they can imagine whatever it is in their minds. As they get older they sit more, they read more, they learn more.

07-Jun-2014 01:15 AM Anonymous

Parents need to take away the video games and take their children to the park!

07-Jun-2014 04:29 AM Kierna

Great post indeed, I will be sharing this with the parents in September to help them understand why we allow their children to roll down hills, climb up slopes etc.

07-Jun-2014 09:32 AM Angela Hanscom

We can create change by being THE example and through education. We all can and should be a part of this. My part in all of this is through providing knowledge on why movement and play outdoors is so important for sensory development - I'm doing this through talks, conferences, my upcoming book - Balanced & Barefoot, writing articles, and by spreading TimberNook programming (will be going into schools) as far and wide as possible to set an example.

We just need to get creative, figure out the barriers and find a way around these barriers. Nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it. Some simple ways to make change for parents is for you to also be the example and to educate. By letting our children play outdoors when they get home; by educating others about new research and publications advocating children to move; and by not letting others perceptions of us get in the way of doing what is right for our children.

Anyone else have some great ideas to share?

07-Jun-2014 05:49 PM Marie

So what you say is that in the past kids were not fidgeting because they moved more?? I don't believe that. Also in our parents time most of the kids could not sit still..

07-Jun-2014 11:28 PM Anonymous

Schools that recognize this have been replacing chairs with exercise balls, allowing for movement and strengthening of the core muscles because they are constantly balancing. Regular chairs are available for children that want to opt out or for those that are unable to use their ball appropriately. I wish more schools would do this.

08-Jun-2014 03:10 AM Fawn Carriker

Both Bronson Alcott (Louisa May's father) and my grandmother would agree whole-heartedly with your conclusions. Healthy, strong bodies need movement...lots of it...to develop properly. Congratulations on explaining it so eloquently. - Fawn

08-Jun-2014 04:08 AM Anonymous

And we wonder why so many children are over weight.
It is the same reason we are obese.
Thank you for posting. What is the action that must be taken?

08-Jun-2014 12:46 PM Anonymous

Allowing young children to sit on the big exercise balls instead of hard chairs allows them to wiggle to keep their balance without disrupting their learning or their classmates.

08-Jun-2014 01:02 PM Gayle Joyce

Stop making them sit still in school for 8 hours, could you do it? Children learn by interacting with their world, let them do it. And teaching all things in moderation, some video games are helpful for children's brain development, all depends on how they learn. "Video games may actually teach kids high-level thinking skills that they will need in the future." http://www.raisesmartkid.com/3-to-6-years-old/4-articles/34-the-good-and-bad-effects-of-video-games

08-Jun-2014 03:58 PM Anonymous

Could this be anymore true. And kids are barely strong enough to hold themselves up in a chair for so long. As a pediatric OT for many years this is a problem I endure daily.

08-Jun-2014 04:28 PM Nadine

So happy to find this article. My son was in a similar circumstance where his teacher had very little tolerance for his fidgeting. I bought him a circular hair pad that swivels. He sits and swivels from side to side during class and its had a positive impact on both his attention span and his core muscles. I highly recommend it for other fidgeting kids during classes.

08-Jun-2014 04:36 PM Margaret

I could not agree more that the fidgeting and the increase in early ADHD diagnoses is a lack of movement experiences. Here is a fun sign to hang up at home to encourage outdoor play - http://yourtherapysource.com/freeplayoutdoors.html

Also, try hanging up this sign in the school to encourage more movement throughout the school day http://yourtherapysource.com/freemovementinfo.html

Definitely following your blog. Thanks!

08-Jun-2014 05:29 PM Angela Hanscom

Great comments everyone!

Marie - I'm sure there was fidgeting in the past too. To say kids in the past never fidgeted wouldn't make sense. I'm just sharing some important knowledge so that people can understand why kids fidget and why there appears to be an increase in problems with attention from a therapist's point of view.

08-Jun-2014 05:49 PM Anonymous

There is a wonderful website out there that teachers can use in the classroom. We did not have good winter weather in Northern Michigan so recesses were spent indoors for many days. www.gonoodle.com has great movement activities for the classroom. Check it out!

08-Jun-2014 06:34 PM Glenda

Nadine, where did you purchase the circular hair pad that swivels? I'm interested to looking into this as I teach kindergarten.
I work very hard at keeping my little ones moving all day and ad the year progresses I extend the time I expect them to sit. Any students that want to stand while they work, I put them where they do not distract others and allow this.
This information has been on my mind a lot and I do no like having or making my students sit for long periods of time. I've
Earned that If you allow them to get up and move or take them out side to move the behavior is much better as a whole.
I'm excited to look up the web sites that you wrote about Margaret and pass this indormation on to my parents and fellow teachers.

08-Jun-2014 06:43 PM Anonymous

I agree we need to get our kids moving BUT, a lot of these kids need to have dyes removed from their diets. It may sound silly to some but a lot of kids have problems with the artificial dyes. My grandchild is one of them and her behavior and attention span are horrible when she has red dye. A much happier child after her mother removed red dye from her diet. We noticed an amazing change and didn't know her mother had removed the dye from her diet until we mentioned the positive change in her behavior. If all parents would try this we'd have much happier and better behaved children in our school systems.

08-Jun-2014 08:10 PM Angela Hanscom

To the post about diet. I totally agree! I totally agree but only speak from my area of expertise which entails movement. The movement piece often gets overlooked and I wanted to explain the neuroscience behind movement and how this relates to fidgeting.

To the posts about chairs that kids can fidget in. This gives the child a way to move to keep the brain stimulated and I definitely recommend these. I also think we need to give them movement breaks - preferably outdoors to stimulate the senses again in a natural way.

08-Jun-2014 08:34 PM djccnt

My daughter is 5 and was just diagnosed with vestibular disorder. Please google it. It's even more than just fidgeting, it can also affect behavior. My daughter was in o.t. for possible sensory disorder and started having horrible tantrums after the circle swinging part!sometimes right away,sometimes 20or more minutes later and she had never reacted like that before. She actually brought it to our attention. She told me that the swinging makes her dizzy and turns her fun thoughts into not so fun thoughts! Since then they have started treating her for vestibular disorder and she is getting better! I have to roll her around on the exercise ball, twirl her in our office chair-5times one way, 5times the other, have her do somersaults, swing on the swings, piggyback rides, anything to get her moving...but then in order to control the soon to come tantrum-calm her down before it happens with huge bear hugs,rolling the exercise ball over her body, or anything sensory. And yes, she's always had a hard tine sitting still. :) love this article, I had never heard of this until my daughter was diagnosed. I hope these tips help!

08-Jun-2014 08:34 PM Suzy Koontz

This is why Math & Movement is helpful! If you are a teacher, please come to our Summer Institute.


08-Jun-2014 08:39 PM Lauren Drobnjak

LOVE this article. We will be sharing on our Facebook wall as further testament to the power of play. Thank you!

09-Jun-2014 01:16 AM Gina

I could not agree more. In fact, there are professionals speaking out on the overdiagnosis of ADHD and other childhood disorders. I think you'd appreciate Enrico Gnaulati's book on ADHD overdiagnosis. I interviewed him a few months ago . . . we have a long way to go in terms of setting up classrooms for the benefit of all children.

09-Jun-2014 08:06 AM Lauren

This happens more at the end of the day because it is after lunch... At lunch kids are loaded up w food w artificial dyes in them. If schools banned dye I think they would notice a difference. It amazes me that parents let their kids have food w dye in it.... Try removing it for 2 week and you will see a difference

09-Jun-2014 11:00 AM L.B.

This is part of the reason why my sons are homeschooled. Everyone knows that children need to move, all animals need movement. A child can't learn if his body is filled to the brim with unspent energy. I don't have time for the school system to catch on to this common knowledge concept - childhood is fleeting.


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