Navigating the Gray Area
Long before TikTok, school-based occupational therapy practitioners commonly provided “fidgets” to students in need of an outlet for high energy and restlessness. These tools, such as putty, velcro attached to desks, or stress balls, allowed students to expend energy in a positive and socially acceptable way without distracting others.
That was before TikTok turned them into novelties and trends rather than effective focus tools. In and around 2020, these once-effective tools became so trendy and collectible that their actual purpose as focus aids was overshadowed. When fidgets become named and coveted collector’s items, they shift from being secondary attention tools to becoming primary focuses for students and those around them.
Unfortunately, this shift comes at a cost for students with ADHD or anxiety who often require something in their hands to self-regulate while learning. The line between tools and toys has become blurred due to trends and hype, leading many teachers to ban fidgets in their classrooms.
This article aims to provide evidence-based insights, best practices, and intervention guidelines to help classroom teachers select, implement, and utilize fidgets effectively in the classroom environment.
The use of fidgets as a universal educational support lacks a strong scientific evidence base. Current literature examining the effect of fidgets on student behavior, learning, and attention is filled with limitations. Many studies have small sample sizes and short durations, which fail to account for the novelty effect of fidget items. Additionally, researchers often use the term “fidget” as an all-encompassing category, despite the fact that fidget spinners and stress balls are drastically different tools.
While there is substantial literature demonstrating that restricting the movement of students with ADHD during learning and memory tasks deteriorates function, further research with specific tools is needed to gain a better understanding of their effects.
Who May Need a Fidget and Why?
Movers and Seekers: Students who need to fidget are often the ones who engage in fidgeting behaviors without commercially available tools. The ” they make everything into a toy” kids. These students may exhibit behaviors such as chewing on shirts, twirling hair, picking at scabs, or destroying laminated name tags by the second day of school. They will turn anything they can get their hands on into a fidget, even a ball of lint.
For these students, constant fidgeting is an attempt to calm a nervous system that is not fitting into expectations. Providing quiet, non-distracting items for these students to tacitly explore can decrease impulsive and destructive behaviors and increase their ability to stay on task.
Anxiety/Stressed: Students with anxiety often benefit from having a tactile item. Tactile fidgets can improve self-regulated behavior by providing a place for nervous energy to go. Stress balls can help slow down the body and mind. Fidget tools are excellent additions to calm-down centers, waiting rooms, and school social work or counselor table tops.
Early Finishers: Students who finish their work early and need to wait for their classmates to catch up may become disruptive due to boredom. Small fidget items that can be manipulated in their hands can help alleviate this waiting period.
When a Fidget Becomes a Toy
An object used as a tactile fidget should be utilized in secondary attention, meaning it is mindlessly manipulated while focusing on something else. Teachers need to be aware that what is a fidget for one student may be a toy for another. When trialing a focus tool for a student, practitioners should consider certain characteristics that often blur the line between fidget and toy.
In a classroom full of children, almost anything can become a highly coveted item. We all desire what others have. If an item is new and not universally available, it becomes a distracting toy. Therefore, the effectiveness of provided tools cannot be measured until the novelty wears off. Practitioners and teachers, when possible within their budget, can provide universal items that satisfy the needs of active, restless, anxious, and early-finishing students at their desks. A student who doesn’t need the tool will likely abandon it within a week.
Even if a tool is potentially the best fit for a student, if it is currently trending, it will inevitably distract from learning. It’s advisable to avoid trending items.
Tapping pencils, clicking pens, and popping toys will not stay in anyone’s secondary attention. Noisy focusing tools or ones that require large movements are disruptive to learning, period.
The less visually appealing and visually demanding an object is, the better. The goal is to use tools in secondary focus, so if an item requires visual attention to manipulate, it may not be an effective choice. Fidgets that demand visual attention or have game components involving matching, unlocking, or problem-solving are poor choices for promoting on-task behavior.
The most effective fidgets for classroom desks are quiet, discreet, non-distracting, universally available, non-trending, allow for finger and hand movement, and visually neutral.
My personal favorites for classroom use are : Marble mesh, spinner rings (older students) , kneadable erasers, silly putty and really mushy stress balls that my students and I refer to as ” potato balls” .
Effective intervention in the classroom requires pre-planning and dedicated time for introducing fidgets. School-based practitioners can implement best practices to assist with selection, implementation, and measuring effectiveness.
Drop the Word “Toy”: When discussing regulatory needs in the classroom, it’s best to avoid referring to fidgets as toys. Changing the language and referring to them as “tools” helps students understand that fidgets are aids for personal focus and learning, not distracting toys.
Boundaries Just like with any other aspect of the elementary classroom, teachers need to establish rules and procedures around focus tools. A mini-lesson can be beneficial when introducing these items to the class. Provide explicit boundaries and guidelines for focus tool use. Whole-class lessons can incorporate learning styles, fairness, individuality, and self-regulation.
Some effective rules that teachers have found:
- Fidgets are “tools,” not toys.
- I use fidgets to help me pay attention so I can learn.
- I keep fidgets on my desk or in my hands.
- I don’t show other students my fidget because I want them to focus.
- I always put away my fidget when I am done.
Tool or Toy: Therapists can use objective measures when introducing an item to a child, allowing them to assess the benefits and usage. Therapists can facilitate exploration and discussion through trial and error of different types of tools, individually or as a whole class mini lesson.
By engaging students in hands-on exploration, critical thinking, and group discussions, therapist and teachers can use fidget contrast activities to create an interactive and engaging learning experience that promotes a better understanding of suitable fidget tools for the classroom while fostering collaboration and decision-making skills among students.
Is this a tool or a toy?
- Does it distract others?
- Does it require your attention?
- Is it noisy?
- Is it trendy?
- Does it help you feel calm?
- Does it help you focus?
- Is it durable or fragile
Measuring Intervention Effectiveness
When providing a fidget tool to a student as a Tier 1, 2 or 3 intervention, teachers and therapists can use Goal Attainment Scaling (GAS) for data collection to determine effectiveness. . Here’s an example of a table showcasing Goal Attainment Scaling (GAS) to measure the use of a fidget tool and its impact on on-task behavior in the classroom:
|+2||Excellent Response||The student consistently remains on task for close to the entire duration of the activity or lesson.|
|+1||Good Response||The student is mostly on task but may experience minor distractions or brief periods of off-task behavior.|
|0||Expected Response||The student’s on-task behavior remains consistent, similar to their usual performance without the fidget tool.|
|-1||Mild Response||The student’s on-task behavior shows slight improvement but still experiences frequent distractions or longer periods of off-task behavior.|
|-2||Poor Response||The student’s on-task behavior does not improve significantly, and there is no noticeable difference compared to their performance without the fidget tool.|
The Bottom Line
In the world of fidgets and ADHD, the line between a focus tool and a toy can often become blurred. The rise of trends and the hype surrounding fidgets has shifted the perception of these tools, overshadowing their actual purpose and effectiveness. As the trend weakens, it is crucial for educators and practitioners to navigate this gray area and understand the true potential of fidgets in supporting students with ADHD and other regulatory needs..
To ensure the effective use of fidgets:
- practitioners should carefully select appropriate tools and avoid items that are noisy, visually demanding, or currently trending.
- Referring to fidgets as “tools” rather than “toys,” educators can help students understand their purpose as aids for personal focus and learning.
- Establishing clear boundaries and rules around fidget use can also promote responsible and productive use in the classroom.
- Employ methods like Goal Attainment Scaling (GAS) to gather data and assess the impact of fidget tools on student outcomes.
In conclusion, fidgets can be valuable tools when used appropriately and in conjunction with evidence-based practices. By understanding individual student needs, implementing best practices, and measuring effectiveness, educators can harness the potential of focus tools to create a supportive and engaging learning environment for students with ADHD and regulatory needs.
Tools and Resources
I have to admit that I have almost all of them in my toolbox at this point. It is important to remember that there is no one size fit all focusing tool. Some are appropriate for the classroom, others for waiting, others for calm down centers , and some for groups that are heavy conversation.
The Therapy Shoppe has the largest selection of focus tools, nicely organized by catagory. They are owned and operated for the past 28 years by occupational therapists.
The newest on the street is the Ono Roller Jr . Not for whole class use as the price is prohibitive but a clear winner for tactile manipulation and calming. The junior size is perfect for smaller hands ( I prefer it) while a high school student could handle the regular size. Use this link for a OT4ADHD’s 10% affiliate discount or use the code “lflynn” at checkout.
Check out our TPT for the resources and an interactive lesson for implementing focus tools into the classroom. Great for push in and small group lessons.
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- Sarver, D., Rapport, M., Kofler, M., Raiker, M., & Friedman, L. (2015). Hyperactivity in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Impairing deficit or compensatory behavior? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 43(7), 1219-1232. doi:1007/s10802-015-0011-1
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- Swartz, Ann M., et al. “Attentiveness and Fidgeting While Using a Stand-Biased Desk in Elementary School Children.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17.11 (2020): 3976.
- Wells, Stefanie L. “Moving through the curriculum: The effect of movement on student learning, behavior, and attitude.” Rising Tide 5 (2012): 1-17.
- Rohrberger, Amanda. “The Efficacy of Fidget Toys in a School Setting for Children with Attention Difficulties and Hyperactivity.” (2011).