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 02:23 PM Holly

When I worked as an educational assistant in Wyoming, our principal (a K-2 school) insisted that each grade get three 20-minute recesses. He always said that we were asking too much of children that young to sit still for hours on end. The kids benefited from his wisdom so much. They never had to 'earn' a recess and recess was never cancelled for weather, unless it was pouring buckets. Even in the Wyoming cold, the kids went out and then could come back in and warm up before going out again. When we moved to Florida, my very young son's classes had to 'earn' their recesses and the behavior problems were rampant in his school. I think good recesses would have helped that immeasurably.

10-Jun-2014 02:49 PM sarah

This makes so much sense, thanks for posting.
I try and get my kids out as much as possible and we have so much fun. Makes a change from teaching teenagers also forced to sit down in classrooms for much of the day 5 days a week and with not enough appreciation of how what they are learning fits into the big wide world OUTSIDE the school gates.

Why can't more primary schools get the learning taking place outside?

Why are we not looking at countries like Sweden - where they are getting it right, despite class sizes, often given as a reason for this not to be possible...

I'm looking at retraining in outdoor learning - getting kids out to play and learn about the local woods and beaches...anyone else interested in this? Or trying to find ways to get such opportunities into mainstream learning?

10-Jun-2014 03:13 PM B. Hubbard

Did our parents fidget years ago? Yes. But also we didn't force school on 3 and 4 years old either. You played outside during those years and only went a half day if at all to kindergarten. But yes the art of sitting still has been lost, when I read Little House on the Prairie books and they had to sit still during all day Sunday, wow, that must of been hard.

10-Jun-2014 03:19 PM Judy L Marino

I totally agree. More and more schools are doing away with physical education, art programs which have less restricted movement, chorus, band, and even recess. While it is not terrible for teachers to expect their students to "sit still and pay attention", they are rushing to have children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and get them medicated with very strong medications that have many side effects. One of the most common is shaking hands (still fidgiting) and the worst, loss of appetite. Kids eat less and have even weaker core muscles. I wish someone would make a very LOUD PUBLIC NOISE, about not giving children these drugs and allowing children of all ages to have mandatory gym and recess times each day, so they will be able to do what is necessary in the classroom to learn !!! Our nation is so worried about keeping up with other nations on an educational basis that no one is ALLOWING KIDS TO BE KIDS anymore !!!

10-Jun-2014 03:31 PM Anonymous

This is all fine and dandy, but I think many of you here are looking for an excuse to why your child is different... Even in the article it says most other kids went home with green stickers. Only children who are outside the norm are referred for ADHD testing. I have taught over 1200 students in my career and I have referred 5. Those 5 parents wanted to say my class was not active enough. Well for 1195 it is but 5 it was not. What gives?

10-Jun-2014 03:51 PM Stephen Mclellan

Hello, Im not a parent but a 20 year old, english is terrible so please forgive any mistakes (massive lol). I personally think the problem is the fact that kids these days are given tablets, iphones, and these kind of gadgets wayyyyyy too early. Sure you wanna be able to track your kids, maybe. Sure they can be helpful for learning but how are they going to enjoy the real world if all they want to do is watch a screen all day. Im definately not a perfect example because I sat and played games when I was younger but to be honest thats only because I was growing out of lego

10-Jun-2014 03:52 PM Anonymous

This is the first that I have read the truth. Children should be playing more outside or inside. Computers are alright in the proper setting. Not for kids to do continually.

10-Jun-2014 03:55 PM Ruth Brayton

The answer isn't always clear. Yes, they certainly need to move more--and the diagnosis can be abused. But I believe there is also a condition that some kids have that does interfere with being able to learn. Our adult son was that fidgety kid. He played drums, he ran track, he was musical. But sitting down on the inside seat in a restaurant, reading a book cover to cover, sitting in a car on long trips always remained difficult. He went to a fine college and struggled. He was not medicated. I refused that option. I am not sure if I was willing enough to realize that, for some, there is a genuine need to find some help. It is a puzzlement.

10-Jun-2014 04:10 PM Sherrie

I agree. I think too much is expected of students today. They want to reduce P.E. or recess. I hear some schools only have P.E. two days per week. Then they complain about the child obesity rate.

10-Jun-2014 04:40 PM Ginny

I had only ONE teacher who knew how to teach the fidgety mini-me. ONE. This awesome teacher let me move around the classroom, draw on the chalkboard, sprawl on the floor, and just about anything else as long as I didn't distract the class.

I was the only one who got all the answers right each time and was faster than the rest of the kids.

If kids were allowed to move around, but keep quiet so they could hear the teacher, it would be better for them! Sitting still for long periods of time is not healthy for a growing kid. I wish schools would realize this. Sigh.

10-Jun-2014 04:41 PM Michelle

Too often disruptive children are kept in at play times when in actual fact these are the kids that need more exercise. A wise teacher will incorporate exercise into their lessons, they will get a lot more done

10-Jun-2014 04:53 PM Karen

As a school physical therapist back in the 90s, I was given permission to exchange the chairs in a 4th grade classroom of behaviorally challenged kids for therapy balls. I had just attended a continuing ed course on sensory integration, and the idea had been tried successfully in other parts of the country. It was a little challenging for the teacher at first, but by the end of the 2nd week, kids were focusing on tasks for longer periods, test performance improved, and fine motor skills improved all because they were able to quietly bounce and move side to side while sitting on an unstable surface. Kids NEED to move!

10-Jun-2014 04:56 PM Ola

Sounds factual but what is enough movement and outdoor time. How do 9-5 working parents balance homework time, another 30-60 minute sport once or twice a week with more activity? Can a 7 yr old really focus enough to do homework at the park? Sounds great on paper but until someone can lay out a plan to implement it - it sounds good on paper.

10-Jun-2014 05:08 PM Anonymous

It is interesting to me that there is not a conversation about learning while doing rather than learning while sitting. So much of elementary education can be done in a different manner than involves children learning with their bodies rather than fighting against them. How about math done on a hopscotch? Drawing letters with chalk outside? Counting the number of leaves or branches on a tree? Learning shapes by discovering them in nature? Not all learning has to take place at a desk, and much of it done through play leaves a lasting impression.

10-Jun-2014 05:21 PM I.M

Move to the farm (and I mean a real farm not some pretend, "I want to be a farmer with a goat and two chickens"). Kids get real world experiences, get fresh air, tones of exercise, learn where their food really comes from (and no it's not the grocery store) and learn what it's like to be proud of growing and raising your own food. Farm kids aren't glued to their devices and electronics. They know and feel their sense of community and want to help others experience the same thing.

10-Jun-2014 05:35 PM Lin

The disc-o-seat has helped my son a lot in the classroon. It gives him the feeling of movement while sitting in his chair. He can stand and balence on it or bring it to circle time when he was younger. Now that he is older he takes it from room to room. It also works on his core muscles.

10-Jun-2014 05:49 PM Anonymous

My 4 year old son is actually diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and his therapy involves movement to strengthen his core muscles and give him a better sense of his body. Very much the same as this article.

10-Jun-2014 06:24 PM Anonymous

Thank you for this article, but children with ADHD present with FAR MORE indicators than just sitting still. Please, for those who suffer, and I mean suffer with ADHD, be more considerate when using this illness to justify your position.

10-Jun-2014 06:34 PM Mary Coffman Long

This is summer Mom! Begin tomorrow, turn off the tv, VIDEOS, and cell phones. Measure the time they actually run and play. A little tv time if a child is sick is fine but summer is NOT for sitting on their ever widening bottoms using their thumbs. As parents, we are responsible for when and how they play. We are to take responsibility for the food they eat ad the quality of the beverages they consume. This was a very good article.

10-Jun-2014 07:11 PM Anonymous

It is common knowledge there are two things in the body that utilize and burn carbs (Sugars) the Brain and Muscles. If these kids aren't using in in physical activities and their diets are loaded with carbs they will fidget. Add this to the fact that they are using computers, ipads, calculators, cellphones to do their thinking for them they aren't using the same thought process to burn additional sugars. There are many factors to the facts you have given but core muscle weakness is a combined situation. How many of these children go home and get a work out playing baseball or tag or touch footballs or have played kick the can it isn't just schools who contribute it is society in general.

10-Jun-2014 07:33 PM Mike

I do agree with much of this article. I do think kids needs exercise, I do think they need to play outside, ride bikes, run, play organized sports. However, I have heard so many comment about home schooling. So many lower middle class families think this is the answer. What on earth has our generation become, we are ruining these children. No matter how well designed they are they will not be a match for a nationally recognized school curriculum with examinations and accreditation. Why do parents that aren't trained think they can do it better than a trained professional. Would most parents repair their fridge, their car, their plumbing themselves, or would they call a professional to do the job correctly. Yet, we think we can teach our children better. We don't want our children expanding their minds and getting any kinds of thoughts or ideas in their head other than "our" opinions. Kids need outside stimulation, both from play and exercise. They need outside stimulation of thoughts and ideas. Our kids need to get in a fight with their friends and learn how to solve differences among themselves without an adult stepping in. (within reason) We're raising a bunch of whiny babies that are just like my generations of Xer's and it's pathetic. We should raise our kids to be well rounded. That means athletically, academically, and socially. The world doesn't have just one type of person and we need to be aware of that.

10-Jun-2014 07:34 PM Anonymous

This is another reason I love Montessori education ! Children are allowed to get up and move around freely without getting in trouble. Also they have longer recesses on nice days.

10-Jun-2014 07:36 PM Anonymous

cut back on the amount of homework.most grownups dont like to take their work home with them.why should kids be expected to do overtime everyday....

10-Jun-2014 07:44 PM Nancy

Here is a link to a wesite by Dr. D. Breithecker and information on the research he has been doing for 15 years on movement and learning: Breithttp://www.haltungbewegung.de/ergonomics-for-children.aspx

10-Jun-2014 08:01 PM Anonymous

Many identified one of the more obvious steps, that being the restriction of video games and the like. More importantly, parents need to learn to interact with their kids, apply political pressure to eliminate the ineffective but oh so convenient "one size fits all" philosophy of education, and realize that children are not just technological trinkets to be programmed according to some formula.


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