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 09:57 AM Anonymous

I agree that children do not move enough. However, in classrooms today children are allowed to move far more than they were in classrooms of the past. The behaviour you described in the class during a story would never have been tolerated in a class in the 70'slet's say. Also, children are given varied activities, assignments and breaks throughout the day which allow for greater movement. I think the problem is not in school but outside of school where children are watching TV and playing electronic games. hey are being picked up from school rather than walking. I understand that we can not change the home activities but we can change the school activities. I am willing to do this even more than I do already. My point is that it is easy to target schools as the problem but it is not realistic because we have change towards greater movement in school but homelike has gone the other way.

10-Jun-2014 09:58 AM Anonymous

My doctor once said, if a child, any child, can sit still at the age of 10 doing something that they LOVE for 15 minutes ADHD shouldn't even be considered! His standard was the age of 10...I know children getting diagnosed at the age of 4! His theory is children should be moving, it is how they grow and learn and I have to agree. The biggest problem now-a-days is that we are too quick to label our children, pump them full of drugs so that their behaviour is deemed acceptable to mainstream society. What happened to children just being children, get them out of ALL the activities and get them outside to play and using their imagination!

10-Jun-2014 09:59 AM Anonymous

Another way to add movement to classroom chairs is to place a small bungee cord between the front two legs of the chair. The kids can place their feet on the cord while seated and "bounce" away during class. I did this with my students and they loved it.

10-Jun-2014 10:01 AM Maggie

I have a daughter with "sensory seeking behaviors", my dad always says "this girl cannot walk! Teach her to walk not run"! Lol! We also have had OT, have made indoor space (for when weather is bad) for gross motor movement - mini trampoline, balance beams, spots to jump on.indoor sm. ridding toy, and provide where with lots of outdoor time - scooter, bike, balls, climbing on tree planters, hopping, and just running around! It's so cool to see and read that we are not alone, and this is not really abnormal - I think the 4 heard old who does sit still is abnorma! Lol!

10-Jun-2014 10:12 AM Keith Bakken

Excellent article. Yet, in this day and age we still have classroom teachers who view recess as a privilege and often deny recess as a mild form of punishment for offenses like turning in homework late or fidgeting in class. Active recess is an integral part of the child's academic day. It is not a privilege to be withheld. Imagine taking books away from a student who has trouble reading.

10-Jun-2014 10:21 AM Anonymous

compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance. Only one! this is why my children do not get to play on I pads and I pods and x box and wii watch cartoons all day...this is why my children have scooters, swing set, trampoline, bikes, trikes, a gym membership and a membership to the children's museum....kids today are lazy...not because they really are but because parents are to busy during the day so when they come home they are to tired to fight their child and make them go outside! kids will be lazy if you let them be...it really is in the parents control....the rule at my home for any child who enters the door....if it is nice outside you have no business inside so get your butt out that door!

10-Jun-2014 10:32 AM Mitch

I have for many years wondered why new babies are said to be 'bouncing' and my internet research indicates that it's a natural bodily function to 'bounce' - read that as 'move'. The only time a baby is still is when he/she is asleep. We all accept this yet we expect older children to have 'grown out of this' and if they dopnt fulfill this expectation we start to look for causal factors and focus towards some deficit but they are (we are) doing what we are programmed to do - MOVE. The two best primary teachers I remember so well and I believe it was because they understood this programmed need and would get us in turn to 'move' in, say, some illustrative learning technique. Wipe the board, get the books from the cupboard, turn the chairs around so we could lean on the back rails, have us move our desks into geometric shapes and so on. I'm 72 and I still remember those classes (I have worked with disadvantaged and deprived children for most of my adult life - Uni degree helped but maybe I'm a bot out of date.

10-Jun-2014 10:36 AM virginia

When i was a child ,i never,ever sat still. ran everywhere. walked at least 6 blocks to school and at the end of the school day i ran the streets playing games.
always,always shook my legs,and still do. We were never allowed to have soda,sugared cereals,candy. only cakes my mom made and fruit and jello was our snacks.
'looking back,i know i had some sort of problem. thank goodness i was an "a" student. teachers overlooked a lot. and i came from a screwed up home life,moved around a lot.
personally, I think it is genetics.my sister is like this,so is my brother and her kids were too. my brother is gay and has no children ,but i would bet they would be.
my husband was also.i guess that was why we married,we were both hyper fools,his made worse my the USMC and Vietnam.
only one of my twins is hyper. the other one is severely disabled so I cant put him in the same catagory. but definately my daughter is. and my grandson is autistic,and that is a whole other story.
when whole families get like this,it HAS to be genetic.

10-Jun-2014 10:40 AM Mimi Katakowski

You make some good points and I agree with all but one. In your first paragraph you indicated that schools have the ability to diognose ADHD. As a teacher, I can make observations about a student's behavior but I am certainly not qualified to make a judgement about ADHD as it is a medical condition that can ONLY be diagnosed by a medical doctor. Teachers have been given a bad rap for a long time about this topic. Please clarify that teachers make observations, but it is the doctors who diognose and often prescribe strong and, sometimes, unnecessary medications for children. Perhaps, doctors could help parents explore healthier options like the ones you suggest.

10-Jun-2014 10:47 AM Carrie

Thank you for writing this article. My six year old came home from kindegarten everyday for the first 2 months with notes about him not sitting still and constantly fidgeting in class. The teacher has been teaching for 14 years and had expressed concern about ADHD. She suggested I have the OT specialist come in to help evaluate him. After leaving the first parent teacher conference in tears, I made an appointment with a private doctor but it was 4 months out. In the meantime, we made some changes to his daily activities, made sure he was getting enough sleep, ensured his diet included veggies , fruit and fun snacks. By the time of his 2nd parent teacher conference, the teacher commented that his behavior had greatly improved, not perfect but much better. I personally saw a difference and decided to cancel the appointment with the private doctor to evaluate him. He's finishing kindergarten this month and showing consistent progress. I'm nott against getting a professional involved but my instincts told me what it was that he needed. If that didn't work, I would have sought help from the pediatric specialist. Keep kids moving and they will show you what they are capable of!

10-Jun-2014 10:50 AM Anonymous

The Brain Highways program addresses vestibular and proprioceptive needs and how that affects behaviors.


10-Jun-2014 10:56 AM Donna Reed

This is SO true! In my day we were expected to sit still in class, BUT we walked half a mile to school and walked home for lunch, plus we didn't go to school until the first grade; we had recess and there was no homework until the third grade. With no video games, after school we played outdoors. I coach gymnastics and we do lots of programs for schools. It is so sad to see eight year olds with no muscle tone and not enough upper body strength to engage in the type of play that children should be able to do, like swinging from the monkey bars, climbing ropes etc. Not only that but movement experiences in early childhood develop the parts of the brain used for math, reading and spelling later on. Deny this time for movement and we are stunting a child's brain development.

10-Jun-2014 10:59 AM Anonymous

When I was in grade five, I remember having a teacher who, as a former gymnist, made us dance out the built up energy at the start of school and after recess, to Mombo #5. It was fun, and we all participated and focused better afterward. I didn't realize it then, I just thought he was the coolest man alive.

10-Jun-2014 11:14 AM Anonymous

I understand and this makes a lot of sense,and in all honesty it makes it harder for children with adhd to get the help they need because of all the misdiagonsis,my child has adhd to both affects,along with several other disorders that are genetic,and it took almost 4 yrs to finally get some of the help he needs due to all the false presumptions of adhd.my children are outside from sun up to sun down,they play sports and even rodeo,my grandparents raised me so I do attribute some of that to them I want my kids to be raised the same way Iwas.work hard for what u want and never be afraid.

10-Jun-2014 12:13 PM Loving_the_Mom_Life

This is so "right on!" It's just one of the many, many reasons I believe homeschooling our kids is such a blessing to kids. School work in elementary school actually takes very little time. It's the running, playing, climbing, and experimenting that kids need for both their bodies and their brains to develop as they should. My son is an exceptionally bright high schooler (public school now) that frequently thanks me for the memories and experiences he had while all of his contemporaries were sitting in plastic chairs in cinder block classrooms, looking out the windows wishing they were outside playing...

10-Jun-2014 01:02 PM Lisa

This is why a school day that begins at 9 and ends at 3 is not realistic for kids or working parents as most of us are today. Kids should be in school longer hours where they are provided with ALL the necessary requirements needed to build not only their educational foundation but their physical strength as well. With both parents working and taking kids from one practise to another, coupled by homework and all the other things parents need to cover off before calling it a day is not helping our kids in the end. The education rubric needs to be revamped for modern day families where scheulde are far more demanding on all. The government needs to take a good strong look at these kids who are the losers in this situation and who ultimately are being set up to fail by no failt of their patents but rather by the lack of the educational system ability to evolve in modern day society. I believe a school day should encompass the level of physical activity that is needed in order for children to succeed academically even if it means extending their school hours to fit it all in. Ultimately this could mean parents wouldn't need to drive around from one program to another in order to keep kids active and it would enable them to build on a sold family foundation where patents and kids spend quality time together. What a concept... I'm sure teachers ruled under union laws are up on arms reading this!

10-Jun-2014 01:15 PM Amiga

The principle and teacher called me into school one morning to inform me that my son was a troublemaker - he refused to sit still and they would be keeping him in during all recesses until he could "behave"
I INFORMED THEM that they would NOT be keeping him in at recess and that as long as he was not hurting anyone he would be allowed to stand beside his desk to work any time he needed to. At recess I mapped out a course for him to run and after the first couple times, nearly every kid in his class ran with him. We then added an obstacle course where they had to run, climb, throw balls into hoops, etc… and they loved it.
Both principle and teacher said it made a huge difference in my son and all the kids who participated. Kids and adults need to move - we were created to move.

10-Jun-2014 01:15 PM Karla Adams

I teach 1st grade. We have noticed the same thing with our kids. So we have started using a movement site called Gonoodle.com. Love it and best of all the kids love it!!! Any other suggestions will be greatly appreciated!!!

10-Jun-2014 01:26 PM Anthony

Thanks for this.
In the past, more kids got to school by walking or cycling: they get driven to the schoolgate now. At home they might be denied playing outdoors, for safety concerns; or they might have electronic games to distract them.
Sweets and sugary drinks may be an issue - the body needs to burn that instant energy off, so the kids start 'bouncing off the walls'. On drinks, if a body needs water, that water should not come with added nutrients, it should be plain water.

10-Jun-2014 01:38 PM Anonymous

I wouldn't point the finger at schools. Kids have always had to sit up straight in a chair at school, but the kind of attention issues you speak of weren't nearly as prevalent. That's because after school, kids were outside, running and playing, developing their bodies and using up that energy. Now they go home and sit and watch television or play video games. The changes need to come at home. At my school, kids get plenty of time to run around, take breaks from sitting, etc.

10-Jun-2014 01:46 PM Anonymous

I agree . Take them to the country side for an hour or so give them a bat and let them play. You would be surprised what goes thru there mines and where they are at the time. Let's them use their imaganation

10-Jun-2014 02:14 PM Melissa

I am wondering what part the way we care for infants plays a part in this as well. Babies are carried in plastic buckets or put in bouncy chairs and baby swings that support them and move for them. They don't have the same opportunity to move and balance and develop core strength as in the past, when they would have been on the floor or carried in arms, or even in a playpen. They're constantly being supported in rather unnatural positions (semi-reclined).

10-Jun-2014 02:16 PM ALI

My son is 13, never on drugs, and relatively calm. He is not an outdoor or sports kid. I don't know many things we can do that would get him moving, that he might find fun. Any ideas???

10-Jun-2014 02:17 PM Nik

I was a nanny for 20 years and I looked after a lot of very active, fidgetty and energetic children.....especially boys!!! I found taking them out regularly to the park/swings/on their bikes etc helped to burn off any excess energy, improved their behaviour and increased their appetites!!!! I also walked them to and from school, every day without fail. Too many kids are pulled home on their scooters (rather than doing it themselves) or pushed around in a buggy!!! Kids are becoming lazy and that is because some parents are over-indulgent!! I had to walk over a mile to school every day (and back again in the afternoon!!) as Mum didn't drive, from the age of 4 onwards. Why are so many kids driven to school when it's just a short walk away??

10-Jun-2014 02:23 PM April

This makes perfect sense but due to the increase in "instructional" time in the classroom the students recess time has been nearly cut in half. Then when the kids get home it is almost as if we as parents have no dictation of "family time" due to the overwhelming amount of homework that takes an 8 year old 3 hours per night to complete. I understand parent involvement in their child's education and that means a little homework here and there. But honestly, 2-3 hours with every night? If you can not "fit in" your instruction as a teacher during 8 hours with my child, why should we as parents and children be punished for that? This is why I chose to school my child at home. I have absolutely no problem getting in the proper instructional time while still allowing him to "be a boy" and enjoy life.


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