Stop fidgeting! That’s what I was always told when I was a kid. And it’s no wonder: just think of the synonyms that exist for the adjective fidgety: squirmy, twitchy, jittery, jumpy, antsy… None of these has a very positive connotation. I grew up in the Southeastern USA and participated in the old Southern tradition of cotillion, where I learned that fidgeting was pretty much tantamount to starting bar brawls! Yet, being an adept fidgeter, I learned to fidget in ways that weren’t noticeable. I’m now a successful lip-biter (to the great delight of my sister, as she, my mother, and I all do this). What’s the big deal? Nothing about me biting my lip while I do other tasks distracts others. In fact, why would they even notice? Moreover, what’s so wrong with me biting my lip if that small act can help me get through other more meaningful tasks?
This is exactly the argument that needs to be made for today’s worker bee as he or she tries to focus on daily—and sometimes mundane—tasks. These kinds of tasks are part of life, and new evidence shows that fidgeting is actually helpful when we’re having trouble getting engaged in them. Studies show that fidgeting creates the extra sensory-motor input that entertains us and our brains enough to make us feel more engaged in whatever activity we’re actually supposed to be doing. In other words, if I’m bored while I write this blog post, I might not stay engaged enough to complete it well (if at all). BUT: if I bite my lip (fidget) while I’m writing it, that fidget pushes my brain over the edge just enough that it and I get fully stimulated. Then the writing task feels more interesting, entertaining, and fun. The job gets done!
If you’re a parent then you might be thinking: “That’s all well and good for the person writing a blog post from home, but what about my kid who’s a student with ADHD and who has to deal with teachers—many of whom consider fidgeting to be distracting to my kid’s classmates?” The answer: effective fidgets exist on a continuum. They don’t have to distract others, and they shouldn’t compete with the task you’re trying to complete.
Fortunately, there are many different kinds of fidgets toy. We think of fidgeting as shaking our foot, picking at things, or the like. Actually, though, there are fidgets having to do with sight, sound, taste, smell, and (likely the most distracting) movement.
Fidgeting helps focus.
Visual fidgets can be among the most helpful for a student with ADHD because they include things like using bright tools to work—like highlighters or pens. Any time your child notices a detail in his or her surroundings, that’s a kind of fidget. And those can be really helpful when a student is trying to get organized. Sure, staring out the window is also a kind of visual fidget and is also probably a little less effective for learning, but it might also increase productivity or creativity since it gives the mind a quick break from the task at hand.
Also effective for students trying to learn with ADHD are fidgets related to sound, like listening to music or paying attention to a background noise (the traffic passing outside the classroom, or the sound of a ticking clock). These aren’t distracting to other students at all, and they too can help your student focus more on what the actual task should be. Likewise, doodling while taking notes is a type of fidget that employs the senses of sight and touch. Chewing gum or smelling aromatherapy scents stimulate the brain and are, actually, considered fidgets as well. Pacing, standing, or moving around are some of the most common fidgets, though likely to be considered the least appropriate in the classroom. My favorite—the lip bite—is also considered a helpful fidget!
Teaching your ADHD child which fidgets might be most useful to him or her isn’t enabling behavior—it’s tried and true and based on science. The issue will be figuring out what fidgets are most effective for him or her, and which ones can work in which context. This might be a matter of guessing and testing in a partnership with your child’s teachers.