Do you mindlessly click your pen during meetings? Or maybe you like to tap your fingers or fiddle with your headphones? Do you have a colleague who bounces their legs, taps their feet, or twirls their hair?
Plenty of adults fidget during their daily lives and it would be crazy to expect children not to do the same. But some forms of fidgeting can be distracting or inappropriate in a classroom setting. Fidget tools can help your students focus during lectures, schoolwork, and tests without distracting others!
What are fidget tools (fidget toys)?
Fidget tools. Sensory gadgets. Concentration tools. These devices go by many different names and come in different forms. But all of the tools can be used to make small movements, usually by using your hands or feet and often offer tactile input too.
Calling them “fidget tools” instead of “fidget toys” can help remind your students of their purpose. They aren’t for playing; the tools can help with self-regulation, attention, and calming.
What students can benefit from fidget tools?
Many teachers find all of their students benefit from having the option to use fidget tools. Teachers especially appreciate them in elementary grades where many students have higher levels of energy and few opportunities to use it up during P.E. class or recess.
Children with autism may find using fidget tools soothing and calming as the tools helps them meet their sensory needs. For children with ADHD, the tools can offer a movement outlet that allows the child to focus and concentrate better. Some people with anxiety also benefit from using fidget tools.
Is there research proving fidget tools improve attention or concentration?
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows other teachers think fidget tools help their children during class. But what about actual research on the subject?
Title: Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth-Grade Learners
Participants: 29 sixth grade language arts class students
Results: Distractions and inattention decreased when using the stress ball during both direct instruction and independent practice. The students’ writing scores increased by 2% compared to the previous grading period. In the past, grades typically decreased during this grading period due to heavy emphasis on a research paper.
Many of the students surveyed felt that the stress ball helped them and it was especially useful for kinesthetic learners. Additionally, peer interaction improved, especially for students who learn kinesthetically or have ADHD.
Title: A Trial by Trial Analysis Reveals More Intense Physical Activity is Associated with Better Cognitive Control Performance in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
Participants: 44 children between the ages of 10 and 17, with ADHD or typically developing, with no psychiatric comorbidity or significant learning disorders
Results: This study measured activity using an actometer on participants’ ankles while performing a flanker paradigm. The flanker task requires participants to focus on the central symbol and identify it while the other symbols surrounding it are congruent (>>>>>), incongruent (<<><<), or neutral (++>++).
The study found that children with ADHD had higher intensity movements during their correct trials compared to their incorrect trials. In contrast, the typically developing group showed no within group differences.
The findings suggest that the excessive motor activity associated with ADHD symptoms may reflect compensatory efforts by people with ADHD to focus their attention and increase their alertness.
More research is needed to discover if fidget tools help improve attention. The first study suggests they can help all children concentrate. The second study suggests they are probably more helpful for students with ADHD. Trying them in your classroom allows you to see if fidget tools are another way you can help your students learn.
Why are fidget spinners often a poor choice for classroom use?
If you’ve survived the crazy 2017 fidget spinner fad in your classroom, you might be reluctant to add in other fidget tools. Some schools even banned fidget spinners because they are noisy, and distracting for the user and students around them (especially light up options). Plus, students can use them as a toy to do tricks.
Schools also had troubles with trading, stealing, and breaking of fidget spinners. Fidget spinners require attention when spinning and doing tricks which interrupts the focus of the entire class - the exact opposite effect of their original purpose.
What makes a good fidget tool?
There are other fidget tools, beyond fidget spinners, that your students can use to help them focus.
A good fidget tool:
- Is quiet and safe
- Can be used without looking, so the user can focus on the lesson
- Can be used out of other children’s eyesight to eliminate distraction
- Meets your student’s sensory needs (some prefer certain textures while others avoid them)
- Fits your student’s physical abilities (they must have the fine motor skills or strength to use the tool)
- Is relatively cheap (or durable, if more expensive)
From stress balls to squeeze under their desks to resistance bands to kick when tied beneath their chairs, here are our top choices for fidget tools in your classroom.
For Fidgety Hands
1. Therapy Putty
Squishable, rollable, and quiet, therapy putty is an excellent fidget tool. Choose smaller containers, write your students’ names on the lid, and let each child keep one at their desk. And at the end of the class, your students can just put it back in the container and pop the lid back on, so it’s ready for the next day. Or keep a couple containers of putty in your fidget tools bin and let your students try it out.
2. Tactile Balls
These tactile balls are another way to add variety to your tool set. The large diameter makes these best for circle time and listening to lessons, rather than during writing exercises. The bumps on the balls offer a fun texture for sensory seekers.
3. Stress Ball
Get back to basics with stress relief squeezies. These adorable stress balls are a great choice for younger children who may not always follow the directions about using fidget tools appropriately. They are perfect for gentle squeezing to help improve your student’s attention and focus.
4. TheraBand Hand Exercises
If you have older students who prefer a stress ball with more resistance, try using TheraBand Hand ExercisersTheraBand Hand Exercisers. The soft hand exerciser ball will even strengthen their grip while working as a fidget tool.
5. Rolyan Ultigrip Finger Exercisers
If you’re looking for something engaging like a fidget spinner, but without the distraction of kids trying to master tricks, try a hand exerciser. The exerciser has multiple buttons that can be pushed down individually or all at once. Plus, the resistance will strengthen your student’s hand muscles at the same time.
6. Rolyan Loop
For an unobtrusive fidget tool, try Rolyan loop. The soft loop can be attached to the top or underside of your students’ desks where it can be touched without distracting others. This soft material is available in a variety of colors, so you can even choose one that matches your school colors.
7. Rolyan Digi-Block Hand Exerciser
This firm foam aid can be squeezed for fidgeting and finger strengthening. The grip separator bumps can also be traced with a finger for another fidgeting option.
8. Bean Bags
Bean bags are another choice for students that need fidget tools for their hands. They even double as a great addition to classroom learning games. Add this set of six to your fidget tool box!
9. TheraBand Hand Xtrainer
Your students can squeeze and pull this Xtrainer to stretch their fingers and focus their minds. Available in four resistance levels, you can use this tool with students of all ages from elementary school through high school.
For Tapping and Bouncing Feet
10. Standing Desk FootFidget
This FootFidget attaches to your existing desks allowing your students to use up fidgety energy against the perfect amount of resistance. The kit includes leg extensions so you can also convert the desk to a standing desk for use with the FootFidget too. Position your students for success!
11. TheraBand Professional Non-Latex Resistance Bands
If you’re looking for a more cost effective option, try TheraBand resistance bands. Just cut the band to the correct length and tie it around the front legs of your student’s chair. Your students can put their legs behind the band and try to pull their feet forward or rest their feet on top of the band and gently push down. Depending on how much of the band you’re using, you can even split the roll with a fellow teacher to share the cost.
12. Sammons Preston Pedal Exerciser
For children with lots of excess energy, a pedal exerciser might be a better choice. While durable, it’s a more expensive fidget tool, so you might want to get one and have your students take turns using it. Just place it below the desk and let your student pedal away while writing or listening!
13. Rolyan Energizing Exercise Balls
Looking for alternative seating arrangements? Exercise balls require balance and core strength, while allowing children to shift while seated. They’re a great option for students who wiggle in their seats. Let your students use them at their desk or add a couple to a designated table where kids can take their work if they need to “get the wiggles out”. Use stackers to keep the balls organized when not in use.
14. Ball Chair
If you’re looking for an option that gives a little more support, try this chair which combines an exercise ball and a rolling desk chair in one product. This option is costly for an entire class, but the wheels make it easy to move when sharing between students.
15. TheraBand Stability Disc
Our top choice for seated movement! Just slip a stability disc onto your student’s chair for active sitting. They offer sensory movement without distracting others. These fidget tools are easier to store than exercise balls, thanks to their smaller size. Plus, they wipe clean to keep your class safe from germs.
How to Introduce Fidget Tools & Rules in Your Classroom
Taking the time to introduce fidget tools into your classroom is an important step to make sure they are used appropriately. You should start by explaining what fidget tools are and why you’re adding them to your classroom. Emphasize that they are not toys and set some guidelines on use. You can ask your students to help you come up with ideas.
- Raise your hand to ask if you can use a fidget tool
- Only use the fidgets tools during _________ (listening activities, break times, individual work, anytime after you have asked the teacher for permission, etc.)
- Take good care of our fidget tools
- Hand fidget tools are meant to be held, not thrown, tossed, dropped, or bounced
- Fidgets should be used just for you, don’t distract other classmates or interfere with their learning
- If the fidget tool is used inappropriately as a toy or is distracting others, it will be taken away
- Share the fidgets and take turns
- When not in use, you need to keep them out of sight and put them back (inside their desk or in a fidget box)
- Choose when to use the fidgets wisely, only use the item if it will help you focus, pay attention, and be more productive
Others Tools to Increase Your Students’ Focus
If your students struggle with paying attention, a Time Timer can help keep your students on task. The visual timer can be used by children who don’t know how to tell time. Set it for work blocks and set goals, like having three ideas written down or completing five math problems before the timer goes off.
Talk to the occupational therapist (OT) at your school about the benefits of incorporating heavy work, weighted lap pads or vests, or compression vests to your classroom before implementing it in your classroom.
Heavy work can help increase attention. It can be as simple as having your student take a stack of textbooks and pass them out to the rest of the class. You can even have them carry them to another buddy teacher in the building (after letting them know what’s going on and that you will collect them later). TheraBand Soft Weights are another option for heavy work lifting. Your students can hold and lift them during circle time.
Weighted vests and compression vests can also help some students feel more grounded and focused. The proprioceptive input from a weighted critter (whale, butterfly, caterpillar, or dinosaur) or weighted gel lap pad can have a similar effect. Talk to your school’s OT if you think some of these products could help certain students focus during class.
Adding Active Movement to Your Classroom
Many children will benefit from other movement breaks during school, in addition to fidget tools. Seven hours is a long time to spend sitting at a desk. In addition to gym class and recess, try to make time to take your students outside, have a quick dance party break, play an educational game that requires movement, or even just have students get moving by rotating through stations.
Check out this active sensory room that one school has to help get their students with autism ready to learn. If you’re looking to add a room like this to your school, check out our top product suggestions for active sensory rooms!
Haranto, T.A., Krafft, C.E., & Schqeitzer, J.B. (2015). A Trial by Trial Analysis Reveals More Intense Physical Activity is Associated with Better Cognitive Control Performance in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Child Neuropsychology. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2qr5nKq
Stalvey, S. & Brasell, H. (2006). Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth-Grade Learners. Journal of At-Risk Issues. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2GwVHYW
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