Why kids 'fidget' - and how to help reduce it

Could pedal desks help stop fidgeting at school?
Could pedal desks help stop fidgeting at school? Photo: Getty Images

Bethany Lambert had a problem.

The maths teacher from North Carolina had a room full of kids who wouldn't pay attention in class.

Instead, they would "drum on desks, touch other students [and] just generally fidget", she told Daily Mail.

So Bethany came up with a solution.

Having read about a school that had used 'pedal desks' to great effect, she applied for a grant to fund these desks in her classroom.

Once the pedal desks were in place, her students - who are aged between 11 and 14 - showed an immediate improvement in their behaviour. 

"The kids are no longer picking [on] each other, fidgeting, walking around and exploring - they get their energy out on the bike and get their work done."

 They're doing better academically, too.

 "I've definitely noticed grades going up. The students are producing more, and better quality, work - and getting it in on time too."


Paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT) David Jereb thinks pedal desks are a great idea, as long as they're not too noisy or distracting to others.

But instead of just trying to solve the problem of fidgeting, he says it's important to understand why children fidget in the first place.

He explains that fidgeting is simply the body's way of either trying to "wake itself up or calm itself down".

This happens on a pre-conscious level. That's why behavioural strategies such as rewards or punishments (for not fidgeting) are unlikely to work.

Trying to just ask a child 'sit still' won't help, either.

"The child may use all their cognitive energy to sit still and not leave any to take in the information."

Australian teacher and author, Sharon Witt, agrees fidgeting is a real problem at school.

Over her 23 years as a teacher, she says she's employed a number of strategies she refers to as "fidget busters".

She says 'stress balls' can help. So too does having a 'fidget container' in the classroom (a box filled with small toys that children can fidget with as needed).

Taking a break also helps, whether it's running around the oval or taking two minutes to get up and drink some water. 

David agrees that frequent breaks help.

He also advises teachers to get involved when needed.

For instance, he recommends having a teacher keep a stack of heavy books on her desk. Then, when a child gets fidgety, the teacher should ask that child to take those books to the library. The library teacher then asks the child to return an equally heavy stack of books back to class.

"This gives [the child] some movement, heavy work, a short break from the multi-sensory classroom and a chance to get some fresh air."

Of course, there are times when children need to stay seated.

In that case, David says: "Kids may sit on a gym ball or wriggle cushion, chew gum, bounce their legs off stretchy band attached to the chair legs or fidget with a small object in their pocket".

If the problem of fidgeting rears its head during homework, David recommends simply reversing the order you do things.

"I frequently have families say things like, 'Homework is a nightmare, he just can't sit still and pay attention even though he knows he's not allowed to go and play on the trampoline until he gets it done'."

In those cases, David recommends letting your child go on the trampoline first as an "engine charger," rather than a reward.

The same theory can be applied before school. Letting your child play or be active can then help prepare them for a long day of sitting.

If your child's fidgeting concerns you, David advises seeing an OT.

Your child's therapist can identify whether your child fidgets to stimulate, or calm themselves down. She can then create a "sensory diet" to support your child's attention while reducing their need to fidget.

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