I gave up Facebook for awhile, and was surprised to see a great debate raging across my page when I logged back on this morning. This time it was not about Trump, immigration, or even sports - but fidgets. As the fidget companies are starting to market to more parents than teachers and occupational therapists, more and more kids are bringing them to school... and driving their teachers crazy. I saw some posts about the need to ban them from schools because they have become so distracting.
Ack. I think we are all missing something here.
Fidgets absolutely have a place in school, and you can ban the current popular items, but students will always find something to fidget with if they are so inclined. Shoe laces, pencils, picking at their finger nails, their neighbor's hair. Fidgety fingers will move with or without a designated fidget.
BUT, giving a child a fidget should be purposeful. The idea behind one is that it will help a child concentrate, or help them stay regulated so that they are available for learning. If they are distracting a child then they probably are not doing their job.
So why use a fidget? I am a constant fidget-er myself. I mindlessly grab a paperclip before the start of any meeting, and then fidget it with it under the table. I've snapped pen tops on accident after too much fidgeting, or dropped my rings. The subtle movements help me concentrate on what is going on around me. Many kids (but not all) are like this. If they are constantly seeking tactile or proprioceptive (movement) input, fidgets can be a good way to give them this stimulation while letting them maintain focus in the classroom. If they are told not to fidget they will sit there just thinking about not fidgeting (or about what they'll do on the playground) instead of attending to our lesson.
Sometimes we need to use a fidget as a replacement behavior. A child may do something that is slightly self-harming like mindlessly pulling out his eye lashes, picking at a scab, or pulling off her fingernails. Or something that is disruptive to the classroom environment like pulling at a string on the classroom rug, mindlessly unscrewing his desk, or constantly touching the teacher's materials during a lesson. A fidget will give them the sensory need they are seeking, but in a safer or more socially acceptable way.
I hear a lot of "kids need to learn to not touch things instead of us pandering to their needs." OK, yes, we want our kids to grow up, have a job, and show socially acceptable behavior at that job. But many adults fidget in a socially acceptable way, and that is what we can teach our kids to do.
Once I started student teaching in college and had control over the behavior of 25 little people in front of me, I was suddenly driven crazy by all of the adult fidgeting that took place around me in my college classes. Pen clicking, shoe wiggling, paper shuffling, doodling... I suddenly felt sorry for my professors who had to teach through it instead of doing what I would have done in my classroom - taking away the fidget object or just firmly telling someone to stop. But I had not even noticed the fidgeting before I started teaching. Look around your office and you'll notice all sorts of fidgeting behavior people have taken on in order to help themselves stay regulated and accomplish their tasks. How many people twist their rings while they talk to you? Run their hands through their hair? Play with their keys?
Everyone has different needs, and not ever child needs a fidget even if it is the newest fad. Part of being a teacher is carefully observing the child and recognizing what he or she will need to perform best in the classroom. Sometimes that is not a fidget, but having access to sitting in a different location, having some independent calming moments throughout the day, or even having a chance to watch glitter fall inside a sensory bottle so the child can stay regulated. Fidgets are not a one-size fits all item.
Teaching How to Use a Fidget:
If fidgets are in our classroom we must teach our children how to use them. Just as we would teach our children how to respectfully use the computer, our classroom books, or how to line up quietly, we need to show them how to and how not to use a fidget.
1. Show them the fidget and explain its purpose. "Some kids learn best when their fingers are busy. It helps them concentrate on what the teacher is saying and the work they need to do. I thought you might want to try it too, so I have this for you to try to see if it works."
2. Explicitly show them how to use it. "This tube has a ball in it. You can push the ball back and forth while you listen to me talk. It needs to stay in your lap. You can keep your hands in your lap while you use this so no one else sees it. Isn't that cool? It's a secret between you and me. If you are using it the right way, no one else will even know. Make sure you keep your eyes on me even when you are using it. Show me how you can do that." Have the child show you exactly how she will use it.
3. Explicitly show them what will happen if they do not use it correctly. "Sometimes we all forget how to use things the right way. If I see the tube out of your lap I will take it away. If you are showing it to another child, I will take it away. If you are looking at the tube and not me, I will take it away."
4. Practice taking it away. "If I need to take it away from you I am not going to say anything. I am only going to look at you and put my hand out. Then you will give me the fidget. I will give it back to you later, when I think you are ready for it. Let's practice that." Have the child act out using it the wrong way and having you put your hand out so the child can give it to you. Do this multiple times so the child understands exactly what will happen when she does not use it correctly.
5. Don't hesitate to take it away (and give it back). When you first let the child use the fidget make sure you follow through on your boundaries. The minute it goes out of the child's lap, put your hand out and have the child give it to you. This way the child knows you were serious. A few minutes later, wordlessly give the fidget back to the child and let him try again.
6. Keep checking in with the child. Make sure you call on the child, or ask for group responses like thumbs up to see if the child is still attending to the lesson with the fidget. If he is not, take it away and let him try again another time.
What about when the whole class complains that they don't have one?
Ah, yes, the "- but that's not fair argument". I think there are a few ways to handle this. I've had classrooms where I just had a fidget basket out so that anyone could get what they need. I did the fidget introduction with the whole class and expected everyone to follow by the rules. It took a lot of practicing how to use and put away the fidgets, but also worked very, very well for maintaining classroom focus during lessons.
At other times I've done a quick lecture on understanding differences. "I went to college and studied how to help children learn. I know that everyone learns differently, and so I carefully watch each of you to see what will help you. At some point during the year I will do something differently for each of you than I will for anyone else."
Another teacher told me recently that during the first week of school she would show the class that she only had 4 band aids. "So, if you get a cut on your finger, I can't give you a band aid because that's not enough for the whole class. It wouldn't be fair to give you a band aid for your cut and not share the band aids with everyone else." Inevitably a child says, "But that's not fair! They don't all need band aids! Only the kid with the cut needs one!" Which then prompts a great discussion on fairness.
You don't have to buy a fancy fidget!
My all-time favorite fidgets are not ones that I've spent money on. A strip of velcro under the desk often works magic for some children. The child can rub his hand back and forth on the velcro while working - and no one even knows they are doing it.
Is a child picking off their name tag? Put some packing tape under their desk and tell them to pick off the masking tape and not their name tag. Again, no one will even know what they are picking at, their needs are being met, and their name tag remains in tact.
Putting velcro on a craft stick that can be carried around in a pocket is also a simple feature to help with fidgeting behavior on the move. I've also put glitter glue on a craft stick, knowing that the child will most likely pick off the glue. That's fine, but it keeps their hands busy in the hallway and off of friends or the wall.
Ask a child to untangle your headphones. This is also a task that is mostly mindless, keeps their hands engaged, and lets them focus on the lesson. Plus, they think they are helping you. One year I had a basket of "jobs" that I'd keep for moments I needed them. Any tangled headphone, coins that needed to be sorted, or pencils that needed to be sharpened (with a silent sharpener) went in there. Since these are jobs more than fidgets I would check in with the child more frequently to make sure she was still attending to the lesson.
Think about natural fidgets. If you are OK with a child playing with his shoe laces (if he is still listening) then that is fine. It is the same as the fidget, and as long as he is still attending to your lesson, then the child just independently met his own needs. Our long term goal for our children is for them to be independent, and if a child can find a way to appropriately self-regulate then let's not stand in the way of that by forcing them to depend on a fidget when a more natural item would work just as well.
A lot of the fidget debate comes down to looking at ourselves as teachers. I often find that I am more distracted by a child's fidgeting than the children around the child are. I have to check and ask myself "Is this about me or the kid?" If something drives me absolutely crazy then I need to work with the child to find a balance. What is the kid seeking through their fidgeting? How can I help them achieve that without also driving me (or others) crazy? Sometimes we can just ask the child. "I really don't like it when you play with my pointer during the lesson, but I notice you are always touching things. Maybe touching things helps you think. Hmmmm... is there something else we can find that you can touch so that you are not touching my things?"
Sometimes when we give up a little bit of control we get more of what we want than we had before.