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How Can I help a child or student who won’t sit still?

How Can I help a child or student who won’t sit still?

Does your child constantly swing their legs under the table while having a meal or while doing their homework? Are they always fidgeting with objects in their hands?

Does a student in your class constantly rock on their chair? Or roll around on the floor during floor time?
As carers or educators, we have no doubt thought or verbalised to a child who is always moving “please sit still!”. But, is this the right approach?

It is important to understand why children are fidgeting.

Why do children fidget?

There are many reasons why children fidget.

  • They are dysregulated: Regulation describes a child’s nervous system when it is able to balance calmness and alertness for the task at hand. When children are too alert, it is difficult to feel calm and safe. When children are too calm, it is hard to remain alert enough for the task at hand. When the balance between calmness and alertness is off, a child can appear dysregulated. We often see movement behaviours such as fidgeting, rocking, swinging or playing with objects to try and regulate their body to engage in the task at hand. Consider what you do after you have been sitting at a computer for extended periods of time? Perhaps you start crossing and uncrossing your legs, walk to make a coffee or start fidgeting with something on your desk. All these movement patterns help wake up the brain so that it remains alert enough (and therefore regulated), to continue working on the computer.
  • Underdeveloped vestibular system: Due to a lack of movement, or restricted movement, many children have not had the chance to adequately activate their vestibular system. The vestibular system is responsible for providing information related to movement and head position. It is important for the development of coordination, balance, eye control, body awareness, attention and feeling secure with movement. Some children have difficulty interpreting vestibular information and may be over or under responsive to vestibular input received. A child that is hypo-sensitive (under-responsive) to vestibular input enjoys and seeks movement such as spinning, rocking and twirling. A child that is hyper-sensitive (over-responsive) to vestibular input can be fearful of movement, dislike having their feet off the ground or experience motion sickness. Children need regular movement in all different directions to effectively activate their vestibular system. This ensures for periods where they require focused attention, their need for movement has already been filled.
  • Reduced core stability: Core stability involves the activation of the muscles of the back, neck and stomach. Core stability plays a significant role in the development of motor skills. Without stability in the core, children will frequently fidget and re-adjust their posture because the core muscles are unable to remain activated over long periods to keep them steady.
  • Task demands and expectations: Is the task at hand pitched correctly to a child’s ability? If it is too easy or too hard, their engagement will likely be less and fidgeting greater.
  • Time spent on a task: Is the time spent on the task appropriate to the child’s age?
  • Underlying developmental conditions: such as sensory processing disorder, developmental trauma, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Why are children fidgeting more?

  • Lifestyle: Children have less active lifestyles with limited exposure to opportunities to move their bodies to support regulation, activate their vestibular system and develop core stability. We have hectic schedules that accommodate fewer opportunities for free play and movement.
  • Increased screen time and use of gadgets, resulting in over-stimulation, less free play and less movement. This may also impact a child’s sleep patterns, making them overtired and therefore more fidgety.
  • Academic expectations: Children are expected to cover more content at school, leaving less time for play and movement at recess, lunch and between tasks in the classroom.
  • Discipline: Some forms of discipline involve removal of opportunities for movement, such as children staying back at recess/lunch and missing crucial play time.

What can you do?

  • Encourage movement: All kinds of movement! Playing on playground equipment, rolling down hills, climbing trees, building obstacles course and sandcastles, running under the sprinkler, swimming or bike riding.
  • Movement prior to periods of focused attention to get the jiggles out, activate the vestibular system and develop core muscles.
  • Have resources available for children to use while they are required to focus
  • Consider flexible seating options such as lying prone (on stomach), low lying tables, using a student lap desk while seated on the floor, stand up desk or kneeling with work on a vertical surface.
  • Schedule movement breaks throughout the day
  • Monitor cues for when a child needs a movement break
  • Have clear expectations around a task. Verbal and visual cues are helpful in providing predictability such as “2 more minutes” or using a visual timer such as a sand timer or Time Timer.

What resources can help a child who likes to fidget?

There are tools to a) prepare the body for a task, and b) maintain attention during a task. 

Preparatory tools work large muscle groups to activate the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Some top sellers to assist in preparing a child for focused attention include:

Maintenance tools are fidgets that help focus during a task. Some of the best maintenance tools at The OT Store include:

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