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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09-Jun-2014 11:17 AM Anonymous

The difference today is that after "sitting" in school the kids are then expected to "sit" at home. Kids need to go outside & play when they get home, actually moving (not on electronics). Everything can't be blamed on the schools when the parents don't take responsibility for their kids being active at home.

09-Jun-2014 11:47 AM Anonymous

Instead of exercise balls to sit on, how about addressing the actual problem and getting these kids outside to play!!

09-Jun-2014 11:55 AM Andrew

I think I had said that last paragraph to at least all of my teachers, when I was in school. Too bad people are only listening to my cries now! XD

09-Jun-2014 11:55 AM Anonymous

I do think that kids need to have more opportunities to move around during a school day, and also that perhaps school days should be shorter, especially for younger children. I think it's a huge leap though to conclude that lack of core strength is causing fidgeting and ADHD symptoms. If this were true we'd see a huge correlation between fidgeting/inattentiveness and athleticism. That's certainly not something that I've seen. Some of the "weakest" looking kids are often the best behaved.

09-Jun-2014 12:12 PM Jennifer

No two people are same so,if a child moves a lot it is not pathological.i think as a society we have created labels for our kids and try to classify them in the hope of finding a manual for looking after them.Follow your instincts and you will find that your fidgety child will grow up to become a successful individual.

09-Jun-2014 12:13 PM Anonymous

What a great read! I care for my 3yo grandson who is a bundle of energy! Without physical activity he becomes a challenge, cranky and aggressive. A few hours a day mid morning and afternoon keep us both happy and enjoying each other. High energy in children, to me, is the norm. I totally agree with the consideration for diet. He does well with any food sans artificial color, preservatives and excessive sugar. We must rethink children's diet in regards to best health and effect on behavior.

09-Jun-2014 12:24 PM Angela Hanscom

Wow! So interesting to hear all these different opinions and observations. I agree - the main reason why this post was written was to explain how the neurological system works with treatment and how this can also be used as a form of prevention. Pediatric occupational therapists are often overwhelmed with the number of clients we have to see and I feel it is time we start thinking in terms of prevention too; therefore, I'm using my clinical skills in an unconventional manner to educate others on the importance of play outdoors and movement on healthy sensory development in children. To the comment about the core affecting fidgeting. I don't believe the core is the only reason kids fidget. A weak core is just a small part of the problem. I think the bigger problem is lack of vestibular movement kids get throughout the day...both at home and at school. There are so many different factors and barriers getting in the way of movement. I need a whole chapter to explain how the brain is all interconnected and yes movement is important part of child development.

09-Jun-2014 12:32 PM Cindy

In my Prek class, we move a lot. I vary our day with active times and more quiet times. We have 2 recesses. By October, my students can sit quietly for 20 minutes or so (and that's all we need) and attend to my story or game. We sing and dance at transitions. Every year I hope and pray that all of my students have a kindergarten teacher who will do the same.

09-Jun-2014 01:02 PM Nanajane

They called me an 'itch'. I played outside all the time in nice weather and still had trouble sitting still. Still do at 76. If I can't swing my foot or chew gum, I wind up chewing my tongue.

09-Jun-2014 01:15 PM Anonymous

Thank you for breaking it down! Fantastic article.

09-Jun-2014 01:44 PM Anonymous

I agree with this - our toddler is a really high energy kid and we notice a HUGE amount of difference in his focus and even behaviour if he has not had enough exercise.

If he's whiny or fidgety, we know he hasn't been out enough that day. He also doesn't sleep as well, which in turn further affects his ability to concentrate.

09-Jun-2014 02:44 PM tanya

There's something else that's likely to be a factor towards kids fidgeting more, and that is the level of electronic/electric/wi-fi that's in the air nowadays...even for people not especially sensitive to it there is an effect, and for those who are more sensitive then it has a kind of static-buildup effect. Plus everyone wears rubber soled shoes now and so all the static just builds up and never gets sufficiently discharged. Movement, and being barefoot, naturally discharges it...we need outdoor classrooms hey!

09-Jun-2014 02:59 PM Anonymous

Thanks for a great article. I also completely agree with the post above about artificial dyes (I would expand it to include artificial preservatives and all the benzoates). I'm pediatrician whose children "used to have" ADHD and other psychiatric issues before removing all the junk, and now they're happy, healthy, normally active boys. Remove all the chemicals from my patients' diets and the fidgeting dramatically decreases (as well as the tantrums, screaming, sensory-seeking, etc.)

09-Jun-2014 03:06 PM The Atomic Mom

I want to hug you! Thank you for writing this! My son's PT had a parent night for us right before the end of school. This is exactly what she presented. Totally blew my mind ... and I'm a teacher. I had no idea. Needless to say, we're trying to be more active during this summer and no so worried about our 1-2-3s and A-B-Cs.

09-Jun-2014 03:07 PM Trish

The solution you're suggested is one that I've heard many many times, just not for humans - dog owners know this very well! All dog owners and dog trainers and anyone who knows anything about dogs at all knows that many dog breeds need lots of exercise or they will be difficult to live with - hyper, anxious, destructive, and difficult to train. So much is solved by daily exercise. Of course the same must apply to humans especially the growing ones! Big fat duh! I value my children's physical fitness for all the fitness reasons though have not necessarily made the obvious connection between that and their ability to learn. Thank you! I am more inspired to get my kids moving more now. btw we homeschool so we can make it work however need be :-D

09-Jun-2014 03:38 PM Rebekah@The Golden Gleam

Amen! I wish more people, especially those in the field of education, realized this. The lack of time for free play is a big reason we are homeschooling now.

I do want to point out that even with our hours of time for free play with a lot of that being outdoor play, our kids still have trouble with focus and attention and fidgeting. So while I absolutely believe in the health and emotional benefits to play, I think that some children will continue to struggle given lots of time for movement. I am sure there attention is better than it would be without that time for play.

09-Jun-2014 04:57 PM Mary OT

The Movement theory makes perfect sense to me. When I was in OT school, my university was in the forefront of sensory integration study and treatment. When I was a child, I walked 3/4 of a mile to school in the morning, walked home and back for lunch and walked home again at night. We sat in the same classroom all day but walked to Mass next door first thing in the morning, then back, had a 15 min recess in the morning and a 1/2 hr at lunch. We only had 1 car so we walked to the movies, swimming pool, friend's houses and shopping. When we got older we rode bikes. Of course, we did not have electronics and TV came on at 6 am, off at 1 pm then came back on at 4 pm. It was safe to play outdoors, ANYWHERE in the neighborhood and safe to walk the 2 miles to downtown to the movies, shops or doctors appointments. It's too bad it's not then same today but maybe this will help parents come up with the ways to get/keep the kids moving!!!

09-Jun-2014 05:00 PM S.G.

I couldn't agree more (though I think there are many other factors at play in the rise in attention problems, like issues with food.) This really starts in infancy. Kids are now spending far too long on their backs in a infant carrier/car seat - and not just in the car. I see them in shopping carts, carried around in stores, left on the floor at a restaurant, etc. I hope the art of baby-wearing catches on more. It is so much better for motor and brain development than all of the baby holders (besides the car seats, the swings, bassinets, etc.)

09-Jun-2014 05:33 PM Anonymous

Do you have science to back up your claims or is this all anecdotal?

09-Jun-2014 06:21 PM Anonymous

Golly! I just had a flashback of the dog trainer my dog and I went to tell me that my dog needs to run several miles a day in order to pay attention to his training sessions!

09-Jun-2014 06:31 PM Anonymous

What needs to be done is kids should not be put into daycare and preschool at such an early age. They should be home for the first 4 years of their lives. They should run around play at their leisure. They are confined all their lives and it affects them. This is the real issue, they don't need bouncy balls, they don't need movable chairs. They need their youth back, they need to be taken care for by family members that love them and allow them to play and run around as much as they can.

09-Jun-2014 06:35 PM nancy

YES! Recess, music, movement. And let's ditch all of those "dittos" (photo copies) that the children are doing and have REAL teachable moments. Children learn by moving. Children learn through play. Yeah, its old school because playing does not cost as much as all of those photo copies...

09-Jun-2014 07:29 PM angela

Children need more exercise. Supposed ADHD may be food allergy related, and cool white fluorescent lights are BAD for anyone especially children who are sensitive.

Think for a moment. Do you think it is natural to force your child to sit in a government run institution for hours on end five days a week? Consider home schooling.

09-Jun-2014 07:41 PM J m r

Wow this is really interesting. As a 3rd year ece student I've seen the inside of a classroom where students attention spans can vary. My own son is at a boys school where the timetable is split up to allow time for study then time for play and physical activity. I think this works really well for concentration levels and mental health. Play is obviously apart of their learning also. Great read and great to take on board with my career.

09-Jun-2014 07:43 PM Rena K

My daughter was "wiggly" in class (4th grade) -her punishment?... She had to sit at her desk through the entire recess!~~~ hmmm... Seemed counterproductive to me AND I SAID SO!!


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