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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12-Apr-2015 04:26 PM Anna Belle

OMG no wonder I fidgeted so much when I was younger...

17-Apr-2015 02:19 AM Inessa

US needs to implement European schedule: each class 45min, and 15 min. break. Really helps the problem!!! Even adult brain can take info only for 40 min. in a row, after that it shuts down for some time, why not to try this schedule for one year in all schools. I promise rasults, as all my generation was educated like that, and it worked better.

24-Apr-2015 09:01 AM Thea Abbott

I totally agree. I see children who appeared dazed at school due to the intensity of the first grade curriculum. No time to move!

07-May-2015 06:27 PM Chris Ellis

Banning homework and playing outside instead would be a good start

13-May-2015 05:49 PM Tania Pheiffer

Thats precisely why I love Montessori!!!

20-May-2015 01:57 AM Anonymous

Hmm..ok. Well then explain why my 9 y/o step son plays and moves his heart out on a regular basis. He is constantly outdoors running, riding his bike, never stops. Yet he still has some of the worst ADHD I've seen.

14-Jun-2015 03:36 PM Audley

I absolutely agree with this. I am 63 years old and see a huge difference between the generations. While my 6 siblings and I were active as children, we were not considered "hyperactive". I'm pretty sure that's because my mother locked us out of the house and told us to go play. And we did. We either found friends to play with or played on our swings, around our property, or fell asleep on the grass while using our imaginations watching the clouds go by. A few hours later we were allowed back in the house to eat, read, color or play with each other. When I had young children at home I kicked our 3 outside but not for as long as we were. When video games started becoming popular, we allowed around 2 1/2 hours per day. But as most parents do, we slacked up with our youngest child by allowing more video and TV time. He was considered by his teacher as "hyperactive". We put him on Adderall and it's one of the biggest regrets of my life because he has since struggled with drug addiction. Now, we have two grandchildren and I worry that because of so little recess and play time, video games and other electronics, TV and ADHD drugs, this generation of children are more sedentary than they should be. Childhood obesity and drug and alcohol addiction are common. We'd better wake up and find safe and healthy activities for the ones we love above anything else.

20-Oct-2015 04:06 PM Anonymous

Yes and you take your child to a park, and the next thing a gunshot wound to the head.

26-Oct-2015 05:49 AM estrella

Thanks for the article.
My son did not sit down during nursery and they recommended SALT assessment which is the obvious route to get him diagnosed. I have changed nurseries and found a smaller setup with more space and my son has improved and so has his speech.
Movement is the key as detailed above and I make sure I am outdoor playing with him or in the garden,and I have seen major improvement.

16-Nov-2015 12:29 PM Anonymous

I love how they take away recess as punishment and let them do extra things during gym class

17-Nov-2015 07:37 PM Connie Shafer

I believe they have to move and it is so Important, but I also believe we need to feed our children nutrient dense food. We need to cut out the processed food and surgar and go with the home grown food raised without pesticides and chemical fertilizeers.

22-Nov-2015 11:50 AM Michelle Davidson

I am a veteran third-grade teacher and I see this same trend in my classrooms every year. I will absolutely share this information with parents at upcoming conferences. Make sure your kids move, move, move when they get home from school. Sign them up for sports programs. It's something that we took for granted when I was growing up. This is a sad trend.

07-Jan-2016 05:10 AM Margaret June Rose Gidgup

This Is True, My Grandchildren Have Been Labelled As Naughty With Adhd Like Behaviour. The School They Attend Dont Allow The Children To Play Prior To Clas In The Morning. This Is Ridiculous, Ghey Need To Play. I Deliberately Allo My Grandaughter Play Because The Teachers Wont Alliw Any Pkaytime Early In The Morning. I Truly Brlieve That Children Are Deliberately Being Dumbed Down By Our Education System, And This Is Coming From Govt Too. You Have To Ask Why?

20-Feb-2016 10:19 PM Nicole

I am going through this same thing with my 6 year old son. Reading it gave me chills,as I too am going through those same things. This was so helpful.

17-Apr-2016 01:23 AM Belinda V

As a parent and educator, I fully agree that children need more activity in their day. For that matter, so do adults! My granddaughter is 2 and I heard people say she's 'high energy.' My response, "Yes, isn't it great to see a child so full of life!" I feel bad for today's children as they are missing so much!

18-Apr-2016 11:47 AM Anonymous



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