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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10-Jun-2014 03:11 AM Anonymous

Yes, this is part of the problem. The other one are studies on how TV affects concentration. Children are used to constant stimulation, quick changes, adrenaline etc. by watching action movies. Their brain can't concentrate on just "plain" speech. It is not enough stimulation.

10-Jun-2014 03:34 AM James Shields

An interesting article, but I'm suspicious of any theory that claims a common cause for all fidgeting. I would tend to suspect a number of causes, and for many children there may be several factors involved. On the core body strength point, I'd like to see a study of a group of kids with poor core strength against kids who would be considered normal.

I don't want to sound negative. The theory makes a lot of sense, especially considering how many schools ban normal play activities like running these days. I'd just like to see scientific data to back it up.

10-Jun-2014 03:59 AM Jas Cooper

You would be surprised how many teachers are getting on board with moving more in the classroom. Just google, brain breaks or lesson breaks and you will see that there are plenty of resources out there made by teachers, for teachers. Lesson breaks range form your traditional songs, to yoga positions and animal walks. There is lots of opportunity to move throughout the day. Most schools have a requirement to do 3 hours of physical education every week. Just a question, as adults could you confidently say you do 3 hours of exercise every week? I like the point someone above made about setting an example. Like reading, students are influenced most by their parents. If they see their parents exercising and loving it, they will too. I believe it is a joint effort; parent, teacher and the community. Us teachers will continue to make the day as varied as possible with lots of movement and involvement. I hope parents can get on board to work with us too by getting their kids outside and active.

10-Jun-2014 04:24 AM Lizzy

As a teacher I find that taking my class for a few laps around a basketball court before any session requiring prolonged attention such as writing really helps. I also aim to minimize "floor time" as kids learn much more authentically by "doing". This works wonders, particularly with my boys. If I notice they are particularly fidgety or off task we simply pause for 30 star jumps or a quick game of Simon says. For kids who can never sit still a little squeeze toy or stress ball keeps their hands busy while they listen without distracting others. I think the key to success here is remembering they are kids and that if they are fidgeting heaps then they are probably bored! Might be time to plan some more engaging and physical/kinesthetic learning experiences!

10-Jun-2014 04:38 AM James

This is a fascinating post and very poignant for parents of highly sensitive children. HSC's let too much stuff in they have a very sensitive nervous system which easily gets overloaded the modern school environment is often a terrible place full of every distraction to the senses you can think off there is no wonder many parents choose to home-school. Many of the parents in our community are also teachers and are torn over what is best for their child the challenge is finding a school with the right environment and teachers who understand. I do feel that that the school environment needs a complete overhaul so keep spreading the word our children need to establish a healthy sensory system which takes time. You can't just tell them to sit still and not get distracted just like you can't tell a highly sensitive child to just toughen up.

10-Jun-2014 04:46 AM Anonymous

looking back at our primal selves is an excellent way to fix many of the issues parents face today, we were once nomadic and kids either kept up or were left behind. Our survival instincts still exist and many of the kids who supposedly have ADHD are trying to make sense of all of the thoughts that bombard them because their brains are not growing the necessary elements that allow for survival and growth ...there needs to be a balance within them otherwise it's an overload of synapses... you don't see any other animals sitting around watching TV, offspring learn through play and they learn how to survive, hunt and forage...our kids don't do this, they just learn to expect and wait for things to come to them.

10-Jun-2014 05:21 AM Anonymous

To a certain extend I do agree with this article. However, I think about children who grew up years ago, and had to help families with farming, etc. Playing wasn't something that was done on a regular basis, and yet the children didn't have the issues we have today. I think part of the problem is the things that are in our foods. Just in the last 20-30 years or so, more and more chemicals have been put into our foods, along with dyes, etc. This isn't natural. It isn't good for us. Until we, the USA (because Europeans won't allow it), start voicing to the manufacturers that we want this crap removed from our foods, and that we don't GMO foods they will continue to do what they are doing. They're in it to make a buck, not to look out for our best intersts, and those of our kids. I applaud VT for stepping up to the plate on GMO labeling in our foods. Funny how the manufacturers don't want it to happen. What do they have to hide? Bottom line is I feel that part of the issue today is also what we allow our children to consume. Go back to basics. Grow your own foods as much as possible. Buy local, don't buy packaged stuff. If you can't pronounce it it's probably not good for you.

10-Jun-2014 05:36 AM Michael

I think this issue has been oversimplified and is actually quite complex with many factors entering into the equation not mentioned. We can not expect schools , administrators, teachers , coaches etc. to solve all problems for our children. It truly begins at home. Those parents that have made a commitment to nutrition , exercise, study time, limited screen time , family time etc. are having good results with their children's performance at school. Yes schools can always do better and adapt to new ideas that will help but ultimately it is going to be solved at home or NOT depending on the family attitude about exercise , nutrition , family time etc. Remember "We Are Role Models" and our children quite often emulate what they see in the home on a daily basis so if you truly want to improve your child's outlook on life and physical health look at yourself , your habits, your nutrition and make good choices to "set the tone" .

10-Jun-2014 06:17 AM Anonymous

As an educator I would love to be able to get the kids moving more but as we have to justify every minute of our day it can be difficult to convince certain powers that be how important it is to move... I do not mean daily fitness either... genuine movement with variety. Even playground equipment does little to improve physical fitness and core strength. It was great to hear comments that are directed at parents and the need for them to get their kids moving right from the get go! My child was always moving and has a healthy physical and mental body than her cousins who were not encouraged to move.

10-Jun-2014 06:42 AM Tracy McCullough

Steiner / Waldorf schools have always recognized this need and the fabulous curriculum reflects that.

10-Jun-2014 07:00 AM Teacher

Great article and totally understandable but where are the solutions? We can't just make playtimes longer because we want to and my class is too small, with 27 children, to fit 27 exercise balls. Even if I got the kids moving for 5-10 mins between lessons you say that's not enough, they need hours, so what are we supposed to do?

10-Jun-2014 07:14 AM MK

Add to this that a LOT of kids are bused to school, then driven to any sport, shopping..... they do so much less physical activity than previous generations. Of course there are those who are involved in TOO many sports outside of school and can't get their school work done!

10-Jun-2014 07:16 AM Anonymous

I couldn't agree with this more. My daughter has a diagnosis of ASD and at school she has a weighted animal that sits on her lap during class time. It has helped her with focus and sitting for a length of time. She even stays seated during assembly time! Before school I get her to do dragging and lifting strategies, all to help with vestibular and sensory muscles. On the weekend in the morning you can really tell when she hasn't done these exercises.

10-Jun-2014 07:27 AM Tracie Cowey

What a great article and makes so much sense.
Yes not every child who can't sit still is because of this reason but I'm sure every child would benefit from exercising their body & brain.
I home school my 9 year old son and we start every morning with stretches and core exercise not only to strengthen his body but to centre his emotions and kick start his memory. A wonderful friend of ours who teaches children the benefits of movement taught him some amazing techniques. I have seen a huge increase in his memory retention since we started this. He knows in himself now whenever he feels fidgety, agitated or bored that even the simplest exercises make him feel better.
I just find it unbelievable that we have people complaining that we are becoming an over weight country with more and more children with disorders yet they have taken away play time, exercise and gym classes, children are expected to start school at an earlier age and behave like adults.

10-Jun-2014 07:34 AM Wendy

I think this is absolutely right on. As the mother of two grown sons, I received the same complaints from teachers. Luckily, I figured out my sons were more kinetic learners... my one son learned his math tables by tossing the cards up in the air when he could roll off the answer - my other hung by his knees on the kitchen stool, swinging back and forth as he chanted the formulas. They both ended up as NCAA recruited athletes, are now both graduated from college, working, in their 20s, and are still moving for hours upon hours a day.

10-Jun-2014 07:41 AM Lynda

We stared last year having our daughter go out to play after school and doing homework after dinner. Before that we had always made her do her homework as soon as she got home and then she could go play. What a difference this made! She went from missing 40 to 50% of her home work despite checking and punishment, to missing only 5% of her homework. Her grades improved. When winter hit we had her go out in our heated garage and either bounce on the exercise ball, jump rope or put in a CD and dance. Her frinds could come over and they could do this together. It really helps.

10-Jun-2014 07:47 AM SB

take their cell phones and xboxes and television away! Make them get outside! The world is an amazing place!

10-Jun-2014 07:50 AM Kari

Teachers can incorporate more motion opportunities in the classroom. I definitely plan to do so next year. Thank you for a good article, and my future 6th graders thank you as well. :) !

10-Jun-2014 08:44 AM Helen

I am 80 years old and your principles are still true for me.......(not that I have to roll around on an exercise ball!!)

10-Jun-2014 08:59 AM Emily

I love this. I am an OT as well and I am seeing this issue further compounded by teachers taking away recess & PE time when their students aren't focused.

10-Jun-2014 09:02 AM Anonymous

Great article! As a kindergarten teacher I see this on a daily basis. It saddens me to see how the school districts keep increasing the amount of time we require students to sit indoors. My district has banned nap altogether in K (something many of them still need) and we can only go outside for 30 min (which I usually find a way I extend). Fidgety behaviors are definitely a problem in this situation. People are so quick to just label it ADHD. Some of my students have very poor fine and gross motor skills and I am convinced it is from lack of movement. I try to incorporate dance, aerobics, yoga and other forms of movement to to my classroom to get kids moving. I'm excited to check out that website...I also use adventuretofitness.com on rainy days. It's a fun way to get the kids moving.
I completly agree with the comments about diet. I had a student this year who would get crazy when she are red dye. As long as she avoided it, she was just fine.

10-Jun-2014 09:05 AM Jan

Open your eyes people. Look back to the last 40 years and see the changes In the home, classroom and office. Children have to have physical activity during the day, both structured and unstructured. We as adults need movement in our lives. We suffer from fidgety legs, known as Restless Leg Syndrome, as well as diabetes, heart problems, arthritis, etc. Let's get our students moving and being kids again.

10-Jun-2014 09:11 AM Anonymous

What I don't understand is why more educators; administrators and teachers do not understand this. I often thought my son had ADD, but my mother (a teacher) told me no. He is able to concentrate, he is just a boy with a lot of natural energy. I remember once when he not "behaving"... I told him to go outside and do 10 laps back and forth to the wall. His face lit up like there was not tomorrow; he went out, did his laps and came back in refreshed and ready to get to task! Rather than just longer recesses, frequent movement breaks during the day would be so helpful at school. Don't the Asians do this? Thanks for a great article! I also think there is a relationship between video games and fidgety behavior...perhaps something to research as well!

10-Jun-2014 09:52 AM People are Nuts

Is home school now a popular trend ? Every single post I read has one or two people talking about how better they are home schooling their children.
I find this incredibly disturbing, kids need to interact and learn life lessons on their own at all ages. Coddling them and only allowing them to learn what you see fit in your little bubble is ridiculous.
And on top of that you are limiting them on what they can learn. They can only become as smart as you are, do you not want to see your kids achieve more? Life is hard the world is even harder, I strongly disagree with this practice, not even to mention the social and economic impact it has. Bunch of crazy hippies !

10-Jun-2014 09:53 AM Anonymous

The video games at damaging to the children. We didn't have them growing up all we had was the outdoors and boardgames. Parents need to stop using video games as a babysitter and take their children to the park, let them outside give them a chance to be kids the right way so they learn and will be able to teach their kids correctly too. Our society has begun to depend on the games and it's pathetic. Get out and have fun with Ur children!


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