Kids, in general, are squirmy. But if you’re a parent of a child with ADHD, it might seem to you like your child is even squirmier than other kids.
Kids with ADHD squirm or fidget for a scientific reason, and it isn’t their fault. Not only is fidgeting not a negative behavior, but it can also actually help your child focus better if done intentionally.
Here’s how to harness those ants in your child’s pants to help them focus.
What is fidgeting?
Even if you don’t know the exact definition of “fidgeting” is, you definitely know what it looks like — especially if you have a child with ADHD.
Fidgeting, as it relates to ADHD, is making any small movements, especially with their hands and feet. This could look like:
- Tapping a pencil
- Tapping or shaking feet
- Rocking from side to side
- Cracking knuckles
- Crossing and uncrossing legs
- Picking at things
- Kicking against something
- Wiggling fingers or toes
- Moving around in their seat
Why children with ADHD might fidget
Fidgeting is a common symptom of ADHD, especially the hyperactive-impulsive or combined presentations. But kids (and adults) with ADHD fidget sometimes, too. Even though fidgeting happens in people who don’t have ADHD, it typically happens more often for those with ADHD.
Fidgeting can be a sign of a few different things. For people with ADHD, it might be a sign of boredom or restlessness.
When fidgeting is a symptom of ADHD, it usually comes up when a child is bored or has extra restless energy. Fidgeting can help them release this extra energy in a harmless way while still concentrating on the task at hand.
Fidgeting can also provide some stimulation while engaging in a task that’s otherwise boring. This can make it easier for people with ADHD to focus on a non-engaging task. For people with ADHD, repetitive activities become boring quickly. Multi-tasking, and doing something else while engaging in the “boring” task, can make it easier to complete.
Fidgeting can also be self-soothing, not only for kids with ADHD but for other kids who may live with things like anxiety or OCD. If your child has co-occurring anxiety with ADHD, then fidgeting might be a way that they are able to manage their feelings.
Can fidgeting improve focus?
But research also shows that, because of ADHD’s effect on kids’ brains, fidgeting might actually help these kids to improve their focus. In other words, it isn’t a bad thing.
This can be surprising news to many parents of kids with ADHD, who have become used to trying to discipline their kids for fidgeting. It’s understandable to want to scold; at first glance, it might seem like fidgeting is making your child’s focus worse. Some types of fidgeting can also be disruptive to other people.
But research has found that fidgeting might improve focus for kids with ADHD. One study found that the cognitive functioning of kids with ADHD improved when being allowed to move. This could mean that stopping them from making small movements (fidgeting) could deny them of improved cognitive performance.
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How to use fidgeting to improve focus
But experts warn that fidgeting should be intentional in order to be beneficial for focus.
For example, fidget spinners became a popular item several years ago. Parents and teachers were driven to their limits by these distracting toys, but they were marketed as a tool to help kids decrease anxiety and improve focus.
In the research, however, fidget spinners have been associated with poorer attention and focus.
This doesn’t mean that fidgeting, in general, is bad. There are many alternative gadgets to help kids fidget in an intentional and helpful way. There are also lots of ways to encourage intentional fidgeting for your child that don’t require gadgets, and also don’t disrupt people around them.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when implementing fidgeting as a tool to help your child improve their focus:
Choose strategies wisely
Notice how your child tends to fidget. Do they tend to wiggle their hands? Swing their feet? Try different strategies that will harness these specific fidgeting actions. If you notice that your child swings their legs, then buying them a fidget spinner may be more distracting than helpful. The key is to choose gadgets and strategies that your child doesn’t even have to think about — because they’re usually moving that part of their body anyway.
If a fidget seems to be distracting your child even more (for example, if they’re using a fidget gadget as an ADHD toy for your kid), then experiment with something else. Open a conversation with your child about it, and monitor their progress on tasks that require focus while using each fidget. Experiment with other options if one isn’t working.
Don’t take away from their focus
Choose fidgets that allow your child to focus on whatever they need to focus on. For example, if they need to be reading a book, then a fidget that they need to look at while using it won’t be helpful — it’ll require them to look away from the book. But if they need to listen to a report, then a visual fidget might work.
Be discreet in public
Perhaps when you’re home, your family doesn’t mind when your child kicks the table to focus better. But in public spaces, like at school or on a bus, this kicking will start bothering other people. Kids with ADHD tend to struggle with interpersonal relationships as it is, and disruptive fidgeting may make friendships even harder for them.
Make sure your child learns fidgeting techniques that are discreet. Some types of fidgeting that are respectful to others include doodling and chewing gum.
Fidgeting is sometimes annoying to parents, but it might be helpful to remember that kids with ADHD fidget for a scientific reason. If you can teach them how to fidget intentionally, then you can use the power of fidgeting to help your child with ADHD focus better on whatever task they’re working on. Make sure you choose fidgeting tools wisely and don’t be afraid to experiment if something isn’t working.