Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock this past year, you’ve probably encountered kids (and even adults) playing around with the hottest new toy craze, fidget spinners. These little hand-held toys contain a ball bearing at their center, surrounded by weighted arms that spin around the central axis. One grasps the toy between a finger and thumb and flicks one of the arms to set it spinning. The spinning motion creates a sensory experience that’s pleasing—so much so that many people find them addictive.
To give you an idea of the fidget spinner’s popularity, here are three encounters I’ve had with the toys in just the last week. A few days ago, I walked into a coffee shop and saw a family seated at a table. While the adults sipped their coffee, the three kids all sat mesmerized, playing with their fidget spinners. In another incident, as I walked down the street, I passed a young man walking in the other direction, spinning his fidget spinner horizontally, balanced on one pointer finger while he walked (there’s no telling how many hours of practice it took to master that trick). Finally, as I headed toward the check-out line at my local big box grocery store, I passed a giant display case full of fidget spinners—well, I’m assuming it was full to start with, but by the time I walked past it, it was nearly empty, as every child in the store had apparently badgered his or her parents into buying one.
Certainly, if you’re a teacher, I don’t need to explain what fidget spinners are, as it seems these little gadgets have found their way into many classrooms around the world. This is because the companies selling them have craftily marketed them as an antidote for all kinds of learning challenges. One company, Cpplsee, in its fidget spinner ad on Amazon, claims that the toys are “perfect for ADD, ADHD, anxiety, and autism,” and that they “bring out that creative genius lying deep within you by increasing your concentration.”
Is there any truth to such claims?
Can a simple spinning toy be the panacea that solves all of these varied learning issues? In a word—no. But to explain why fidget spinners are likely to (or at least should) have a very short run in the classroom, we need to take a quick detour to discuss human attentional systems.
The War of the Attentional Systems
Humans have three main attentional systems. The most basic one, arousal, is our general state of wakefulness and alertness. That system need not concern us here.
The other two attentional systems are focused attention and stimulus-driven attention. When we consciously try to attend to something, we’re using focused attention (also called “executive attention”). This is a “top-down” attentional system that requires the interaction between an area in the lateral prefrontal cortex and other executive function areas of the prefrontal cortex involved with working memory.
Stimulus-driven attention, on the other hand, is our “early warning” system responsible for constantly scanning the environment and alerting us to any possible dangers. Most of what we experience during any given day isn’t dangerous to us, but the stimulus-driven attention system doesn’t know this. Any sudden sound, any sudden movement in our peripheral vision, any out-of-the-ordinary event in our vicinity is picked up by this system. And if the stimulus is deemed important enough, our stimulus-driven attention system “pulls rank” on our focused attention system, wresting our attention away from whatever task we had been attending to. When this happens (and it happens hundreds of times a day), we say that we were “distracted” or “lost focus.”
As you can see, there’s a constant battle going on between these two attentional systems. Sometimes focused attention wins, and we’re able to retain our focus; at other times, stimulus-driven attention wins, and we shift our attention to the distractor.
Obviously, in school, teachers are usually trying to get students focused on an academic task and trying to help them maintain that focus long enough to achieve the objectives of the task. We all know how hard it is just to maintain our own focus on a task. Try keeping 20–30 students focused on the same task for any length of time!
To add even further complexity to the job, people vary quite a bit in their ability to focus and maintain attention. Much has been written about the attentional challenges faced by students with ADD and ADHD. These students have more difficulty maintaining focused attention, as either their focused attention system is weak, their stimulus-driven attention system is over-active, or both. A teacher who has several such students in a class faces an ongoing management challenge as a result.
Over the years, teachers have tried many strategies to try to help students with attentional issues. Of course, the treatment of choice today seems to be drugs, but they’re a rather blunt instrument, and even though most students with attentional problems see some improvement from their use, the attentional issues are only masked or reduced, not eliminated, meaning that other measures are still needed to help such students function on a level with their peers.
There are several global approaches that teachers can use with all students that help everyone in a class stay engaged and focused on their work. These global approaches include a highly engaging teaching style for direct instruction, frequent movement, frequent peer interactions, and background music behind individual seatwork tasks (more on these approaches below).
Another approach that has proven effective for many students with attentional challenges is the use of fidgets.
What are fidgets?
The term covers a wide variety of strategies, but the essence of a fidget is that it’s a way to use some type of gross motor movement, fine motor movement (such as the manipulation of an object), or other activity in order to keep the stimulus-driven attention system occupied so it won’t as readily distract the focused attention system.
The two key elements that all good fidgets have are:
1. The fidget activity must be different enough from the primary task that it doesn’t compete with it for focused attention.
For example, if a student is trying to read (a visual task), the fidget needs to be something that doesn’t require visual attention—engaging in some physical movement, for example, or listening to something like background music.
2. The fidget activity must be mindless. That is, it must be something the student can do without having to pay conscious attention to it.
A good example from everyday life is how we can think about a hundred and one different things as we drive from our home to work and pay very little conscious attention to our driving. We end up at work and wonder, “How did I even get here?” This is because driving (unless something unexpected happens on the road) has become habitual and has been assigned in the brain to procedural memory. Similarly, good fidgets can be done without thinking about them at all.
Why Fidget Spinners are a Poor Choice for the Classroom
This brings us back to fidget spinners, specifically. Given what we’ve covered so far, I’m sure you can see why fidget spinners would be a poor choice for the classroom.
First of all, remember that the best fidget toys are in a modality different than that of the primary activity so that they don’t compete with it for attentional resources. Most academic tasks are either visual (reading, writing, drawing, etc.) or auditory (listening to the teacher lecture, discussing a topic with a partner or small group, etc.). This is why so many effective fidgets are kinesthetic—gross or fine motor activities—that don’t compete with visual or auditory tasks.
Fidget spinners, on the other hand, are both kinesthetic and visual. You may be able to get a fidget spinner spinning without looking at it (even I’m coordinated enough to do that), but it’s much more difficult to keep it spinning, know when it needs to be flicked again, etc. without looking at it. And even if you made an effort to fidget with one of these little gadgets without looking at it, I think you’d be hard-pressed to do so. The companies that make them do everything they can to make them eye-catching—most spinners are made in bright colors or are multi-colored, and some even have flashing lights embedded in them! They simply beg to be looked at.
The bottom line is that fidget spinners are an excellent toy. They’re fun to look at, they’re fun to play with, and they can hold a child’s attention. And all of these qualities that make fidget spinners an excellent toy are the same qualities that make them a very poor choice for a fidget. In the classroom, you don’t want students looking at, playing with, and attending to a fidget spinner; you want them doing their work.
A Common Sense “Fidget Strategy”
So, you might be thinking at this point, “OK, if fidget spinners aren’t the answer for my distracted students, what are some other approaches that might work better?”
Fortunately, there are many options that have proven effective. I believe the best approach involves a combination of “global strategies” to be used with the entire class, educating the fidgeters in your class about the purpose and use of fidgets, and providing them with a number of options so they can find what works best for them. When you weave these three approaches together, you end up with a solid “fidget strategy” that’s bound to improve your students’ attentional focus.
Here’s a little more detail about these approaches:
These are strategies that you can (and should) use daily because they keep all students more engaged—including your fidgeters.
Global Strategy #1—Don’t be Boring!
Fidgeters fidget more when the instruction or academic activity they’re being asked to attend to isn’t engaging. There are hundreds of ways to avoid boring your students. Tell a story. Dress up as the historical figure or fictional character you’re teaching about. Use a prop. Use a video. Do a magic trick.
I know that some teachers feel it’s not their job to be entertainers, but I’ll tell you, an entertaining teacher holds her students’ interest better than a boring one, and better attention leads to better learning.
Global Strategy #2—Frequent Movement for Everyone
One of the very best ways to help all students focus is to give them frequent opportunities to move (while staying on task). Instead of having seated pairs discuss a topic, have students walk to find a partner. You could even have partners walk as a pair in circles around the room as they discuss.
When sharing group work, don’t just have groups report out while seated. Have them write out their work on pieces of chart paper and post them; then have groups rotate to view their peers’ work and comment on it.
Most classroom activities that have traditionally been done while seated can be modified to include movement.
Global Strategy #3—More Peer Interaction
Human beings are social animals. We find interacting with others more engaging than working by ourselves. When an academic task is completed with one or more partners, students have more engaging input to which to attend (both the content of the task and the interactions with one’s partners), and as a result, they tend to fidget less.
Global Strategy #4—Background Music
When students are working on a visual task, a “pad” of sound can help to filter out distractions. Whether played on a music system for the entire class or listened to on headphones individually, the right background music can help to increase on-task focus. The characteristics of effective background music are: instrumental only (lyrics are distracting), music that’s unfamiliar to the students (familiar music gets students’ attention and distracts from the academic task), medium speed (60-80 beats per minute), played just loud enough to cover other distracting noises such as toe-tapping or coughing.
For more details on the effective use of background music, see Allen and Wood’s The Rock ‘N’ Roll Classroom: Using Music to Manage Mood, Energy, and Learning.
Educating the Fidgeters
If you feel like you have some work to do on creating an engaging classroom for all students, take care of that first. Not everyone needs a fidget. If you consistently employ an engaging teaching style as described above, you won’t have many students who still exhibit attentional problems. Those who still fidget in spite of a high level of general engagement by the majority of the students will be the ones who need a little extra help.
Pull these kids aside and have a discussion with them about the importance of attentional focus for learning and acknowledge that, in spite of your attempts to teach in such a way as to keep everyone engaged, you’ve noticed that some students (the ones in this group) still seem to be having trouble focusing.
Then teach these students about fidgets—what they are, why they might (or might not) work for them—and give them several examples of fidgets that might work for them (see below). Work together to come up with a few fidgets for each of these students to try. The goal is to find one or two strategies that work for each student.
Here are some fidgets that have proven helpful for many people.
1. Small, Unobtrusive Movements
This is a classic habit of fidgeters—swinging one’s leg or shaking one’s foot, wiggling one’s pen in the air while thinking, etc. Your fidgeters are going to do this kind of thing anyway. The key is to coach them to do it in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself (swinging one’s foot in small arcs instead of large ones, for example, or wiggling one’s pen instead of tapping it on a desk).
Doodling is another classic fidget. When students are listening, as in a lecture situation, doodling in the margins of their paper can help them to better focus on what’s being said. Of course, it can be hard to tell when students are listening and doodling vs. simply doodling and daydreaming.
Another similar approach is to allow fidgeters to use multi-colored pens and pencils for note-taking. The extra level of sensory information provided by the colored pencils may be enough to keep other distractors from capturing their stimulus-driven attention.
3. Hand Fidgets
There are many good fidgets that fall into this category: stress balls to squeeze, a small rock kept in one’s pocket to fiddle with, or something like Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty (my new favorite), which is a thick putty that one can stretch, twist, and bend while reading or listening.
The key with all hand fidgets is that one must be able to use them without having to look at them. This allows the student to attend to both visual and auditory input without distraction.
4. Gross Motor Movement
This category includes larger movements for those students who need more than the fine motor movements discussed in the previous categories. You may need to allow these students to pace in the back of the room while they listen to a lecture, or you may need to assign them two desks so that they can get up and migrate from one to the other when they need to move and reset their attentional clocks.
Sometimes, all a student needs is the opportunity to stand up at his desk and do his work while leaning over to write instead of remaining seated.
5. Alternative Seating
Let’s face it, school desks and chairs are some of the most uncomfortable seating on the planet, especially for fidgeters. If your budget allows, you might look into purchasing a few alternative seating options for those who need something different. Bean bag chairs are one old school option and can work for some students, but their low profile makes them poor options for many classroom activities beyond silent reading.
Other options include single-leg chairs such as the Safco Mogo Seat or large exercise balls. Both of these require students to constantly adjust their weight with minor movements to keep balanced. These balancing movements themselves take the place of normal fidgeting.
Sometimes it’s helpful for your attention-challenged students to have a goal of staying focused for a finite time. If a task is going to take about 20 minutes, you might have your fidgeters set a timer for 5 minutes at a time (they can use a watch; the alarm function on their phones, set to “vibrate”; or an old-fashioned kitchen egg timer—anything that works) and attempt to work with good focus until the timer goes off, then stretch or do something else quick to refocus, and set the timer for another 5 minutes, etc.
Another fun option is to buy some of the oil and water “timers” that you turn upside down and let the colored liquid bubble up until it’s finished, then refocus, flip the timer over, and begin working again.
7. Ideas the Kids Come Up with Themselves
The list above isn’t exhaustive. Often, your students will have other acceptable suggestions if you ask them and listen with an open mind. It’s all about finding what works.
We started off talking about fidget spinners, and we’ve covered a lot of ground. If you’re a teacher and you’ve been struggling with the question of whether you should allow fidget spinners into your classroom, I hope you’ve found some direction here. If it were me, for the reasons laid out above, I would ban them from the classroom. But the right fidgets, used appropriately, can help your most distractible students stay on task, which will ultimately lead to better learning.
So, develop your own fidget strategy for your classroom and implement it. Your fidgeters will thank you for it!