No one understands the battle of asking kids to sit still better than a parent at dinnertime, or a teacher with a full classroom.
Our modern lifestyle tends to require lots of sitting still time for our kids.
Whether it’s long car rides, hours at school, or after school homework and dinner, you can spend half your day saying, “Could you please just sit still for a moment?”
In some cases, there’s a genuine underlying reason for extra fidgeting, such as ADHD, which should be addressed by a professional.
But this is more the exception rather than the norm.
Why Can’t Kids Sit Still? The Reason They Fidget
Anna Morgan, OTR of Cutting Edge Pediatric Therapy in Allen, Texas says, “Children, especially young children, learn through movement.
“Most children, and many adults for that matter, are tactile learners. We can’t expect our children to sit and listen without exploring their environments through touch and movement”.
Perhaps the reason our kids fidget so much is they’re simply doing what their body needs.
Are we hindering our children by trying so hard to keep them still? Early development experts say yes.
Why Do Kids Fidget?
Our body has many systems and functions, and while they seem quite separate at times, they all tend to work together.
The ability to learn is influenced by movement, especially in young developing brains. When a young body isn’t getting enough big movement, it’s triggered to fidget, in an attempt to get the movement it requires. These small movements can help to ‘wake up’ the brain.
What do we do when children are fidgeting but we want them to pay attention? We ask them to sit still. We think a still body is ready to learn, when in fact we might have caused the brain to go back to ‘sleep’.
In the simplest terms, our children aren’t getting enough exercise. This lack of movement makes for classrooms filled with fidgeting children, and even misdiagnosed behaviour problems.
Getting Enough Movement
Nearly every school has a playground, or gym class. Many children are also signed up for soccer, baseball or other sports. Surely with all these activities our children are getting enough movement, right?
On the subject of school recess, Morgan shared an important perspective: “Recess is vital. Often, the first means of discipline in school children is to remove recess. Activities at recess allow children to stimulate the vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile sensory systems that help to regulate their bodies. They need to swing, run, jump, hang on the monkey bars, and play”.
More and more research says the amount of time for recess simply isn’t enough. And perhaps the children being disciplined with a loss of recess actually need it the most. In fact, most children aren’t getting adequate exercise, even as early as infancy!
Morgan shared, “Babies learn about their environments by moving. Carseat, swings, baby seats – they all have their place, but do not allow babies to move and explore. Moving and exploring engages learning about their environment.
“Babies are born with reflexive movements that integrate as movements become more volitional. These reflexes help to initiate movements such as rolling and crawling, but should go away as the infant moves more freely. When freedom to move is limited, these reflexes hang around. When reflexes hang around, higher level movements are inhibited. This goes on to affect things like handwriting”.
Our stores are filled with fun and exciting baby gadgets. And best of all, many babies love them, right? Well, the babies might seem contented with many of these devices, but overusing them is the first step in hindering children’s movement.
After infancy, many of our children attend preschool. Although much of preschool learning should happen during play, one study found most preschoolers still aren’t getting adequate movement.
Researchers looked at 10 preschools in the Seattle, Washington area, and found just 12% of their day included exercise. The rest of the time was spent in napping, eating, and other sedentary activities. The average preschooler had just 48 minutes of exercise per day.
Most government health experts recommend preschoolers are active at least three hours per day.
It seems baby seats and Exersaucers, along with inactivity in preschools, are setting our children up for a difficult time in classrooms.
How Do We Get Our Kids Off To A Better Start?
As parents, we want our kids to do their best. When we see new, fancy and expensive baby gadgets that claim to help their development, we assume purchasing them will get our babies off to a great start.
In reality, many popular baby items can restrict movement and cause overstimulation. Children spend more time rigidly upright than ever before. We no longer see children spending hours rolling down hills, spinning on merry-go-rounds, or just climbing trees.
The combination of increased academic demands and the fear of sending kids out to play at home is taking its toll on our children.
We send children to school to learn but they’re already at a disadvantage, with underdeveloped muscles and vestibular systems, and with sensory systems not quite right.
They struggle to sit still, and have difficulty with attention span, and then they are constantly reprimanded for something which isn’t their fault.
As a paediatric occupational therapist, Morgan sees the effects of overusing popular gadgets.
She said, “Bright flashing toys, iPads, TV, and fancy baby chairs are no substitute for time parents can spend sitting, lying, rolling, and crawling on the floor with their little one.
“The art of play has been replaced by gadgets at times. Many times parents wonder why their children are falling behind or not reaching milestones. Often, these slight developmental delays are made up with a good routine of play”.
We see engaging toys, bright lights, and noisy gadgets and we think our children are being stimulated and therefore learning. However, these items can lead to overstimulation, which means children are not learning at all.
We see toys that sing the alphabet, spout off shapes and colours, and sing catchy songs, and we assume they will help our infants learn. However, many of these educational toys have the potential to hinder development.
Morgan said, “A child develops the ability to self-regulate, think, process, and engage with others when they are allowed to explore and engage with the world that surrounds them. There is a big world to learn about out there”.
Let your infants spend most of their awake time having floor play, when they are contented, and lots of bonding time, as needed. This will benefit their development better than any gadget you can find in a big box store.
What Do I Need To Do As A Parent?
We all want to do what’s best for our children. Our lives are filled with electronics, gadgets and busy schedules, and it can be hard to know what is best.
Morgan suggests we start simply:
- Tummy time should begin early. Focus on lying with your infants, talking to them, and singing softly
- Children learn when life is predictable. Prepare toddlers, preschoolers, and older children for change
- Hold your baby, but let him be on the floor as well. Allow him to explore quietly
- Read! Point to pictures, point out colours, use adjectives. Allow your baby to explore his sense of touch
- Don’t be afraid of letting your child fail every now and then. Failing at something allows children to learn new strategies to be successful.
Another aspect of helping infants and young children prepare for learning is to ensure they have adequate rest. Every child is unique, and so sleep needs and how to ensure they are met will vary. Making sure your children have enough rest is an important part of their development.
Overtired children might seem quite hyper and fidgety, in an attempt to wake themselves up. Inadequate rest, like inadequate movement, can lead to children struggling in a school environment.
Morgan said, “Too much stimulation makes it difficult for the brain to wind down and rest. Being overstimulated leads to being overtired. Overtired children often take longer to fall asleep and/or wake frequently. A tired child in the morning makes for a difficult day of learning and attention. Create a bedtime routine with soothing music or song, a quiet book, dim lighting, and gentle massage”.
As a parent, you might not be able to change the school environment, although some schools are beginning to adopt an active environment. You can, however help get your children off to a good start during their early years.
You can also ensure lots of time for big movement, after school and at weekends. Making sure your children have plenty of exercise will improve their learning and physical development, and can help them sleep well.
If your children are frequently reprimanded for fidgeting, or if their teacher simply mentions it to you, ask your doctor to arrange an evaluation with a physical or occupational therapist specialising in paediatric development. This will identify any underlying concerns, or simply provide ideas for helping your children get the movement they need to do well in school.
Want to learn more about getting your kids active? Be sure to read 5 Reasons Why Your Kids Need To Spend More Time Outside.