Do Fidget Tools Really Work?

If you’ve been on social media or reading any news articles over the past few months, then you’ve probably seen the fidget spinner craze. You might be wondering, do fidgets REALLY work? That certainly seems to be a resounding question I am receiving in the clinic by parents, caregivers and teachers right now. So, let’s take a look at the science behind fidget tools.

The Science behind Fidget Tools:

You’ve been in a meeting at work for a little over 15-30 minutes. Whether the speaker or presenter is highly engaging or not, you might start to notice your attention wandering. You might be twirling your hair without even knowing it. Maybe you prefer to twirl your pen or pencil. Or if you are like myself, maybe you are shaking your foot underneath the table. We all have coping skills to help us hold attention during times of listening or seated activities such as working.

The Average Attention Span:

The average attention span for an adult is 20 minutes. As adults, we can often override our lack of attention by finding a way to focus on slight movement. There’s a reason the famous TED talks are only 18minutes long. As adults, our brains can only handle focusing for about that amount of time.

Obviously, for children, attention spans are much shorter. On average, a typically developing child can attend for 10-15minutes, or 30minutes if the task is new to them.

If you have or know a child who is on the Autism spectrum, has ADD/ADHD, anxiety, or any other number of developmental difficulties, focusing can be more of a challenge. Children with these diagnoses often have a higher (hypo-sensitive) or lower (hyper-sensitive) thresh-hold for incoming sensory input.

Sensory Integration and Focusing:

What is sensory input and sensory integration? It is the way our brains receive messages from our senses through the central nervous system. A typically developing child or adult should be able to take these messages and turn them into an appropriate motor or behavioural response. Children or adults with ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder or Anxiety find it difficult to make appropriate responses to incoming sensory information.

The term “Sensory Integration” is the ‘the neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment’.

In October 2015, a study had found children who have attention disorders or are hyperactive are able to concentrate better when they are allowed to move. The theory behind why movement helps those with attention and hyperactive disorders is that it increases the alertness of the brain. Their brains are in a constant state of under-arousal. In other words, it takes more sensory input than normal for them to recognize it and pay attention. Movement can help “wake up” the brain from this state and help prepare it to focus and attend.

Further research has found that even a small amount of movement, such as fidgeting with the hands, increases the levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the way that ADHD medications do. Both of these chemicals help with attention and focus. According to Sydney Zentall, Ph.D., using a sense that is different from the one needed for the primary task is what will help with focusing the brain on the primary task (for example, listening to music while reading).

Key Takeaways about Fidget Tools

  • One type of fidget tool or “toy” should never be the one size fits all solution.
  • It’s important to realise that fidgets work well with some kids and not with others. Research supports that typically developing children can have the opposite response to fidgets during times when they need to focus than what fidgets are intended for (I think the current debate about fidget spinners highlights this well).
  • ALL children need breaks or time to reset. It’s important to make those reset times part of their day. You may need to break up lessons into shorter chunks, with fidget or movement in between for resets. But it’s also important to provide tools for those who do need extra support by fidgeting during times when focus and concentration are needed.
  • It is also important to remember that not all children will benefit from fidgets, especially in a classroom setting. It may take some trial and error to figure that out. But it is important to try.
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