Better Focus Through Fidgeting
Moira Sullivan, M.A., O.T.R.
There is much discussion today about how children are less able to focus on an activity, particularly when they are learning. Fidgeting, squirming in their seat, looking out the window, doodling, these are all signs that we adults interpret as not paying attention.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, these signals are more often an attempt to stay focused rather than being tuned out. Several recent studies have shown that performing an activity that brings in other senses actually helped children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder focus more on the activity at hand. Attention “deficit” increases with the length, familiarity, and repetitiveness of a task. In other words, you tune out when tasks get boring!
All of us have things we do to help our own attention. We chew gum, drink hot or bubbly drinks, tap our feet, or chew our fingernails, drum on the table. For some of us, doing 2 things at once focuses the brain on the primary task.
Children and adults with autism spectrum disorder often need more of these types of supports to attend to an activity or situation. They have difficulty processing sensory information, especially when they are dealing with many things at once. They may squirm in their chair, lean on furniture or people, move their hands, make noises, all in an attempt to clear distracting noise, sight or sound and make sense of what is happening in their environment.
Rather than telling any child to be still, keep their hands quiet, or look at a particular area or person, take a step back and ask yourself what they need to pay attention. Involve them in figuring out what works for them. Some ideas that help children, and adults, to focus include:
• Using a fidget item such as a small squeezable ball or other toy, or piece of fabric.
• Sit on an inflated cushion. This will allow them to wiggle without overly distracting others.
• Do chair push-ups by putting hands on the sides of the chair when seated and gently pushing down.
• Place a strip of material in a favorite texture under the desk so that they can touch it while working on a project.
• Put a stretchy band such as Theraband around the legs of a chair and let your child bounce their feet on it.
• Place a pillow under their feet that they can tap on without distracting others.
• Allow for unusual body positions, such as standing, walking around briefly then returning to their work.
• All children benefit from breaks. Younger children often benefit from seeing a visual cue, such as a Time Timer (now available as an app), older children may benefit from a break after an assignment is completed.
Giving your child options and helping them to figure out solutions that work for them will not only help them focus and enhance learning, but will help them take more control over their lives.
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