Fidgeting and ADHD

“Stop fidgeting!”

I wonder how many parents and teachers have shouted those two words out of sheer frustration over the years. I can understand it. Personally, I cannot focus when someone is fidgeting near me. Somehow my eyes find the moving object and my mind slips into reverse gear. It irritates me to no end, and I guess, most other people too.

The fact is that fidgeting is determined by genetics. A common act of fidgeting is to bounce one’s leg repeatedly. Fidgeting can be a medical sign, as seen in hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroid patients may be restless, become agitated easily, display fine tremors, and have trouble concentrating. Fidgeting in children is sometimes a sign of hyperactivity or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it’s not always a bad thing. Fidgeting is an unconscious act. Most people who fidget are totally unaware they are doing it and definitely not doing it to irritate others.

We are taught that we need to sit still and concentrate on one thing when we are writing, studying, working, or engaging in other activities. Yet for people with ADHD, those things usually do not work. They are particularly ineffective when a person with ADHD finds the task boring or uninteresting. Their brains then start to provide extra sensory stimuli to make up for it and the result is a swinging foot or something irritating to others.

Some adults fidget too. Ever been in a business meeting situation wherein attendees, after some time, begin fidgeting or squirming in their seats, looking to reach for the coffee machine just outside the conference room. Scientists believe this behaviour of fidgeting/squirming keeps arousal levels up to the point individuals remain engaged for longer periods of time. In simple terms: we fidget because our brain needs the extra movement to stay focused.

We need to respect the fact that there are neural diversity and that people have different ways of doing things – not out of preference or contrariness, but from sheer need. That said, fidgeting works for many ADHD children but it must be deliberate to be effective; intentional fidgets allow you and your child to self-regulate ADHD symptoms in a controlled, constructive fashion, and an effective fidget doesn’t distract you from your primary task because it’s not something you need to think about.

An effective fidget is respectful to others in that it is not distracting to others and arousing enough to activate the brain to sustain interest where it could not before. Different tasks will require different fidgets. It is important to choose fidgets that do not compete with the task at hand.

Some fidgeting strategies can help you as you work and read:

  • Sipping coffee or water, chewing gum, or biting your lips or cheek.
  • Listening to music, listening to a ticking clock, humming, singing, or whistling and hearing background noise.
  • Feeling, holding, or handling something as you are listening or talking.
  • Playing with your hair, taking notes (I draw arrows on a piece of paper in meetings), or having a squeeze ball in your one hand.

What about fidgeting toys? Professionals who treat ADHD don’t see the value in it, is the short answer. They believe that it is much more of a distraction than a help.

What can you do to help a child with ADHD? It may take a little experimentation. Look for tools that help you get the wiggles out in ways that are quiet and autonomic. Putty, squeeze toys, fidget cubes, wobble seats for your chair, chewing gum—all of these can be helpful. Activities using these items tend to fade to the background as you pay attention to your task. For children, many of these items can go quietly into a classroom without becoming a distraction.

Taking brief breaks at regular times can help to release energy. You may find that a walk or a snack improves your focus when you resume the task. Keep in mind that children can maintain attention for short periods, so set a watch for every 15 minutes or so if necessary. For children, adding brief amounts of exercise to their day can also improve their attention when it’s time for seatwork. Gym class, recess, and playing outside after school can all help.

Here are eight other fidgets worth trying:

  1. Walk and talk
  2. Doodle
  3. Use multi-coloured pens and pencils
  4. Bouncy band around chair legs
  5. Rubber bands around their arms
  6. Chew gum
  7. Stress ball
  8. Sensory Ring

Deon Visser

Biolink Attention Training Head Office