Changing Fidgets for Fun into Fidgets for Focusing

“Should Johnny or Suzie get a fidget? What kind?” Those are some of the most frequently asked questions we in the Occupational Therapy department at Churchill receive from teachers each school year. Although we may wish that we had the magical formula for determining if a student should get a fidget, our occupational therapy super powers are not that clairvoyant . 
However, we can examine the potential role of fidgets, the sensory input they provide and how to best choose and use a fidget.
First, it is important to consider that a fidget is NOT a toy. Toys are for entertainment while fidgets are special self-regulatory tools that may help increase attention and focus, and/or reduce anxiety. Although fidgets are a sensory tool, one does not need to be a person with sensory processing disorder to benefit from one. How many adults do you see at meetings clicking a ball point pen, twirling hair, bending and unbending a paper clip or fiddling with their scarf or tie?
For the purpose of this blog, we are considering fidgets as items that can be held in the hand and allow for repetitive motor movements. The Inspired Treehouse states “fidgets provide us with subtle movement and touch input that can help calm our bodies and keep our minds attentive, alert and focused. Movement has been found to be a powerful component of focus and problem solving and fidgets provide an outlet for small movements of the hands while we work.” Aside from anecdotal evidence, there is also supporting research indicating “stress balls have helped sixth graders with their attitude, attention and writing” and “also found to help kids with ADHD perform cognitively demanding tasks.” (The Daily Mail)
When discussing fidgets, Mennillo (Occupational Therapy for Children) talks about the sensory homunculus, which is a visual representation of the human body showing the density of sensory receptors. When there are more sensory receptors, the body part is drawn on a larger scale. Wikipedia illustrates a sensory homunculus sculpted by Sharon Price-James. As you can see, the hands are extremely large. Therefore, it follows that having a fidget in the hands (which are dense with sensory receptors) can be very supportive of self-regulation.
When choosing a fidget for a child (or for yourself), you want to take into consideration what type of sensation that person generally seeks to calm and focus, and in what type of setting the fidget will be used. If a child touches everything in sight (a seeker of tactile input), you may want to provide a fidget that gives strong tactile feedback (such as a koosh ball or a piece of Velcro). Does the child like to squeeze and push things (a seeker of proprioceptive input)? If so, a foam squishy ball, or theraputty might make more sense. One also needs to consider the setting in which the fidget will be used. If a child is a seeker of auditory input, a fidget that makes noises might make sense for a car ride with parents but will not be a viable option in the classroom. Similarly, a child who seeks a lot of visual stimulation may benefit from a fidget toy that is very colorful and visually busy. However, once again, that will probably not be appropriate for the classroom as it may distract the student from looking at the teacher.
It is critical that a fidget not serve as a distraction to the user or others in the room. For this reason, natural fidgets (i.e., items frequently found in the environment) are often more useful than the more attractive fad-driven fidgets that can be perceived as a toy. Some natural fidgets include rubber bands, paper clips, sticky tape, and kneadable erasers.
Every person reacts to a fidget differently. Therefore, it is important to experiment with a fidget to see if it is helpful in increasing attention and focus to assist learning. Here at Churchill, we set fidget rules so that students are aware of the limits and expectations. The fidget must stay in one’s hands or on/in the desk, and eyes must be on the teacher or on classwork and not on the fidget. In addition, it cannot be used to distract other students.
Fidgets are not a fad nor should we all go out in a frenzy to get the latest and greatest fidget spinner or fidget cube for our children. With careful thought, selection, and limits on usage, fidgets can be a welcome self-regulatory tool in all classrooms, as well as at home.
Linda Stern
Head of Occupational Therapy
The Churchill School and Center