This child just won't sit still!!!

Dec 04, 2014


 One of the most common concerns raised in OT referrals is that a child "can't sit still" or "they fidget and fiddle constantly".  If you can set aside your own frustrations and expectations about this behaviour for a moment, and delve with me into the reasons behind children moving, fidgeting and fiddling perhaps we can embark on a new era together...

First of all, rather than asking why this child won't be still perhaps we need to ask ourselves "Why do I need this child to be still right now?" 

Is it possible for us to adapt our expectations to allow a child to move and fiddle with something while they are listening to us, or writing, or working on a project.  Sometimes, if there are no other issues it will resolve the problem if we provide a way that the child can move and fiddle.  This is what I mean when I say "new era".  Imagine classrooms and homes where children moved... where the "active listening posture" allowed  children to be active if they needed to.  Classrooms may not look as "neat" on the surface, but for many children learning and life would be a whole lot more fun and engaging.

To allow this to happen, at least for the children who obviously need it, it helps to have a couple of "tools" up your sleeve:

  • First of all, providing opportunities for more intense movement can be a big help.  Movement breaks can be great for the whole class, or for an individual child.  I was recently in a  teacher's class... and this teacher definitely thinks outside the square.  During the morning session when around Australia children are knuckling down with academics he suddenly burst out "We've been inside long enough... let's all run outside for a quick play on the playground."  I've been in other classes where I've heard students say to the teacher "we haven't moved for a while... I think we need a stretch and move break."  I love it when I see this because I know it means it happens often, and the children feel comfortable in requesting it when they are needing it.
  • My favourite tool for allowing a child to move when they are working and sitting are seats or cushions that allow movement, and the one I like best is the worm bOble.  Sitting on this as a seat for the first time took me back to that lovely (but forbidden) feeling of rocking on my chair in primary school.  And when I work with children now I usually bring along a worm.  I don't even need to explain to children how to use it - they just know.  And they'll sit with me and concentrate well through sometimes quite challenging activities... gently rocking, swaying and wobbling as they sit.  A "move-n-sit cushion" is a cheaper option that allows a child to wiggle.  It is important that a child is given time to learn how to use these in a way that the teacher involved can cope with, as some teachers take time to adjust to having a wiggling child in their midst.
  • I also love modelling beeswax for children to fiddle with while they are listening.  It is a beautiful sensory experience, as it has a silky feel, smells like honey and once it is warmed up in the fingers you can mould it into lovely creations.
  • Soft cushions, textured cloths and bean bags can be helpful in making children comfy when they are sitting and giving them something to feel and fiddle with.

It can also help to explore "why" a child is moving. 

And sometimes it is helpful to involve an occupational therapist in answering this question.  There are many reasons why a child may move, fiddle and fidget, ranging from:

  • Their sense of balance may be still developing, and they move around, touch things and look around to compensate.
  • They may have "sensory seeking" needs where they actually benefit from moving, rocking, rolling, spinning or fidgeting - and they need to do this proactively in their daily life to help them concentrate and make sense of the world.  This can be identified with a Sensory Profile assessment, or gathering information about a child's sensory preferences.
  • They may be reacting to the foods they are eating... gut health, microbes, blood sugar and fat levels can all influence how fidgety a child is.
  • They may be bored... I'm being brutally honest here, but sometimes we are expecting them to do tasks which are unimportant to them, and if we are completely honest are boring and irrelevant.  These children push us to think outside the square and to question ourselves about why we are asking children to do tasks... is it just to tick someone else's box about what should be done? Is there a way we can present it differently and turn it into a fun and playful game?  If it must be done how can we empower the child to do the task in a way that is achievable and positive?
  • They may be hands on/kinesthetic learners.  These children learn best when actively engaged in tasks and "doing something".  So learning tasks need to be adapted.  Classrooms are usually tough environments for these children, and unless teachers are aware of their needs they will likely cause frustration for the teacher with their deep yearning for hands on activity.

I find myself reciting this sentence so often that it has become a little mantra of mine "the child will show you what they need". 

If a child is listening and concentrating, but they are moving and fiddling then it is likely that the adults in that child's life need to provide ways for a child to move and fiddle, proactively, positively and without using the movement/fiddling as punishment/reward system (i.e. "when you do this work, then I'll let you have a movement break").

I would like to see classrooms and homes where it was considered fine for a child to be wriggling, rocking moving or fiddling while listening, writing or even eating.  And it's our job to find the resources and time to allow that to happen proactively, before children become disruptive... and before we are tearing our hair out!

If a child isn't able to listen, concentrate and complete tasks because they are distracted by their need to move and fiddle then we have to look deeper and seek to understand the reasons for the wriggling.


I look forward to a new era, where we accept that children need to move and fidget, even older children... where classrooms look a lot more wriggly and fidgety... and where rather than punishing children for moving and fiddling, we seek to understand them and meet the need underlying what we see.

Want to learn about children's furniture designed to encourage movement, creativity and fun...

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Category: Toolkit

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