Parents and teachers are often distressed when they see young people squirming in class or during homework time. If a child is tapping his foot, clicking a pen, or wiggling in his seat, he can’t possibly be focusing, can he?
At the Yellin Center, we often tell parents that there are two kinds of fidgeting: the kind that distracts a student, and the kind that actually helps him to concentrate. The key is to figure out what kind of fidgeter their child is. A new study indicates that our advice is on target.
In the experiment, students were asked to perform a task that required concentration while sitting in a swivel chair. The ones who had been diagnosed with attention difficulties did better the more they moved. The typically developing kids, on the other hand, performed more poorly when they spun in the chair while working. The movement, it seemed distracted them.
We explain it like this: Moving one’s body is like recharging one’s “battery.” If a child with attention difficulties is forced to sit still, her battery drains, leaving her little mental energy to work with. Instead of devoting her mental resources to thinking, she’s using them up in her efforts to keep her body still. Dustin Sarver, lead author of the study, offers a similar theory: “We think that part of the reason is that when they’re moving more, they’re increasing their alertness.”
If movement seems to help your child concentrate, it’s important to figure out ways that he can move in class without distracting others. (Supportive as we are of fidgeting, we agree that pen-clicking has no place in a classroom.) Perhaps he can do his work standing at a counter or tall table so he can move his feet. When listening to his teacher, maybe he can squeeze a stress ball, sketch, or roll a wooden dowel under his feet on a carpeted floor. Sit discs and swivel chairs are also helpful to many kids. Here at the Yellin Center, our assessment rooms have a variety of chairs, including stationery and swiveling, to accommodate the needs and preferences of all the students we see.
Remember, though, that the object is to help him focus. If he becomes so fixated on his swivel chair, stress ball, or sketch that he stops listening, perhaps it’s time to try another technique.