Fidgeting and Focus: How to use Non-Disruptive Movement While Learning

We all fidget. We click our pens, twirl our feet, bite our nails, chew our hair, wiggle in our seat, pace, and so on and so on. How does fidgeting help you focus?

“Stop squirming”! Sit down”! “Get that pen out of your mouth”! “Enough of the tapping”! Everybody knows this kid. Everybody knows this adult. For some of us this is our kid. For some of us this is us.

Fidgeting is a natural and common thing to do for everybody. We all fidget. We all need to move. But for some of us on this planet, fidgeting is cranked up to 11.

So why do some kids do this? Well, let’s start with what fidgeting actually is. Fidgeting is moving the body to either wake the mind up, or calm the mind down. So fidgeting is simply moving.

We all fidget. We click our pens, twirl our feet, bite our nails, chew our hair, wiggle in our seat, pace, and so on and so on. These are all forms of fidgeting.

Why do we fidget? We are doing this because of 2 reasons.

1. Our brain is tired.

So we do some kind of movement to wake ourselves back up. From the smallest form such as twirling our foot. Or to the largest which is standing up and moving our whole body. We are moving our bodies to help wake up our minds so that we may focus on whatever task is requiring our attention at the time.

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2. Our brain is overcharged.

There is too much stimulation coming in. Our minds are maxed out, they are racing with ideas, excited, anxious, scared, or just unorganized. Moving the body in the same ways can help us calm our minds. Tapping, chewing, pacing, big breaths, etc all help our minds get more organized to focus on whatever task is requiring our attention at the time.

Why do some of us fidget more than others?

1. Being on the autism spectrum.

Autism often comes along with a sensory difficulty. Because of this, movement is oftentimes interlaced with how we process sensory input. So moving (fidgeting) helps deal with sensory input and how we process that input. In the extreme forms this would be known as STIMMING.

Stimming is moving the body or making sounds in repetitive ways. These behaviors are another form of fidgeting and people on the spectrum are doing them for the same reasons as listed above. Stimming can help cope with sensory input and/or anxiety as well as help focus on the task at hand. Where as some people on the autism spectrum might stim, stimming does not mean someone is on the autism spectrum.

2. ADHD

Movement is a key element with anyone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Someone with ADHD has difficulty passing dopamine from neuron to neuron. This makes for a whole lot of challenges. We need dopamine for many reasons including motivation to actually move. If one is not motivated to do something then it makes doing that very thing a little more difficult.

If a person with ADHD is not motivated to do something it makes doing that very thing near impossible. BUT, movement can help with that dopamine release so movement is crucial for someone with ADHD. And fidgeting can be a good thing to help stay on task and focus.

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3. Sensory Processing Disorder

So we know there is a sensory difficulty because it’s built right there in the name. As stated before, processing sensory input is always linked to movement. The short of it, the more kids with sensory difficulties have opportunities to move, the better. Fidgeting can also provide tactile, proprioception, and even vestibular input which can all be calming to the nervous system.

4. Trauma and Anxiety

Both of these can lead to the nervous system not working as well as it could. Which also in turn leads to processing sensory input and emotions very difficult. Having busy hands, a thing to fiddle with can bring body awareness, mindfulness, and help stay in the present which in turn can reduce anxieties.

5. Kids just need to move.

Fact; Kids don’t move as much as they used to. Restricting movement will have an impact on development, attention, and can lead to unwanted behaviors.

Some kids need to move more than others just as we are all different in so many other ways. Some seek it out in large obvious ways and others internalize that need in quieter ways. And just because a kid is fidgety, does not mean they have a disorder of any kind or neuro-diversity. Some of us just move more than others.

Fidgeting is completely normal and, in many cases, necessary.

There are so many neurodevelopmental reasons why somebody might fidget. But there are also neuro-typical reasons why somebody might fidget as well. Either way, fidgeting is completely normal and, in many cases, necessary.

People are always seeking homeostasis. And we do that most of the time through movement. If we can’t find outlets for our brains to return to baseline then we will seek them out in non-functional ways. This could be a reason why we get out of our seats when we are to be sitting, why we get cranky, make annoying noises, chew our pencils until they are dust, chew gum until our jaw hurts. We are trying to regulate. So in times when our attention is needed when our bodies can’t move we can provide and allow for our bodies to fidget. This way we get that input and output functionally instead of it disrupting our day or the day of others.

What can we do when our brains are trying to regulate themselves?

1. Proactive (getting movement before having to sit still or focus on a task)

Getting ahead of the game and being prepared is always better. If you buy groceries ahead of time you usually buy the healthy stuff (Except for Snickers ice cream bars. They are healthy for the soul. Don’t judge). If you wait until you’re hungry you might stop by the Burger Barn for a supersized #12 with ice cream fries and a bologna burger. Both will satisfy your hunger but the first option is more healthy (unless you’re feeding your soul with an ice cream Snickers). Movement is the same. Feeding the body the movement it needs before it craves it will ensure less stress and less disruption in a day. A kiddo will seek out movement when it’s needed so getting it in a functional way will ensure less movement during work or focus time.

Big body movements like exercise, walking, biking,(insert any large gross motor activity) is going to help you focus afterwards. Sometimes a lot of vestibular input can have the opposite effect. Vestibular is movement of the head specifically. So swinging, spinning, those huge metal death discs on the playground that break shins and fling kids off at top speed, are a lot of vestibular input. Also activities with lots of visual or audio can be too much. Think of a basketball game in a noisy gym. Lots of people moving with a ball and the echo. This can all be hard on the nervous system. These can also be great ways to get movement but I always recommend ending with some heavy work such as moving some weight, slow diaphragmatic breathing, or even some oral motor things such as blowing up a balloon.

2. Active (While sitting still or having to focus on a task)

So while you’re trying to focus on something while maybe sitting at a desk, figuring out math problems, reading, writing, etc is a great time to use our smaller fidgets or less interruptive strategies.

1. Busy Hands
Using things like fidget spinners, putty, rubber bands can be a great way to get some input while keeping my eyes and ears on the task at hand. They are small and discreet and can be used without interrupting other people in the room. Note that I said “can”. Sometimes fidgets make great projectiles, noise makers, and distractions. Taking the down side into consideration they can still be extremely effective.

2. Busy Feet
Same concept, except sometimes I have to use my hands to work. So having a resistance band around my chair legs, standing on a BOSU ball, or even just standing might be all a person needs.

3. Reactive (Getting back on track after Elvis has left the building)

When I say reactive I mean the ability to focus is gone and intervention is needed. This is where we as adults get up and get more coffee, annoy coworkers at the cooler, or don’t turn our TPS reports in on time. For kids, this is when participation goes down, and unwanted behaviors go up. In either case, it’s sometimes too late to use the smaller fidget ideas (I don’t recommend giving kids coffee). This is when I would defer back to larger gross motor ideas such as going for a walk, playing a game, etc. while still keeping in mind to end with heavy work if lots of visual, audio, or vestibular input is being done.

So the short of all of this is fidgeting is movement and movement is crucial for focus. There are a million reasons why a person is fidgeting but either way it’s their brain telling their body it needs to move in order to get back on track. Allowing different options for movement helps us all individually and allows for situations like teaching and learning to still happen without being interrupted too much. Movement is not only important for developing but also important for maintaining healthy and organized brains. A sound body, truly is a sound mind.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Sloan

Founder of Sensory Fitness. As an occupational therapy assistant, personal trainer, and special education teacher Matt Sloan has directed his experience into specialized fitness programs for everyone while catering to sensory difficulties, neurodiversity, or any special need. Matt also brings sensory education and strategies to educators, parents, fitness professionals, and anyone working with a sensory difficulties to provide sensory strategies, create sensory friendly environments, and promote the importance of movement in learning and everyday activities.

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