What Makes a Child Fidget?

Judith Ashton In-house psychotherapist Buddy Bench

I have recently delivered our Buddy Bench Aware Programmes to several Irish primary schools and have noticed a great deal of fidgeting going on. The junior and senior infants being the “worst offenders” and this activity set me wondering about fidgeting. What it is and why does it happens?
More and more children are being diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. When I was a child decades ago such a label did NOT exist. How come it does now? Could fidgeting be a symptom of some deeper issue?
Years ago when my own children were small I remember thinking how un-natural it was to expect a 3 -6 year old to sit still for hours on end when the natural language of a child’s young body is movement, feeling and touch ; these are their means of exploring the world of wonders into which they have recently arrived. If you watch any nature programme about young animals they are all either moving , playing, exploring, eating or asleep…. Rarely still.
In our present state educational system, children are expected to pay attention by sitting still in an un-naturally upright position for long periods of time. Kids are naturally full of energy and quite literally have energy to burn .There are numerous natural body positions for young children eg.  lying down, moving, dancing, rolling, climbing, tumbling, clowning, wrestling, jumping, skipping, hopping, spinning round, twisting, turning, falling and so on. Sounds familiar?  As a kid I never walked, I ran! I was constantly in motion. These days, many children lead sedentary lives and whilst in playgrounds are banned from chasing games, running , leap-frog,  skipping ropes, hop, skip and jump etc for fear of falling and litigation. Even the humble sand pit where digging and building used up energy has lost its place in childhood activities for fear of grains in young eyes!
The fact is,  many children are simply not getting enough exercise. Gone are the days of the long daily bag-carrying trek to school,  the parental taxi now drops kids from door to door rain or shine. Admittedly, children can be vulnerable if walking alone yet some urban schools have instigated healthy “crocodile programmes” where children and parents meet up and walk to school together. What a great idea… exercise and saving petrol all in one go!
Research from the early 1980’s shows that children  back then , had good core strength and good balance because of movement and mobility. Today only 1 in 12 children has good core strength and balance. What is this telling us about our children’s developing bodies? I am convinced that it’s because they are not moving enough or getting enough exercise, and I believe that this is why many are fidgeting and getting ADHD diagnoses.
Movement is not an option for a healthy body and mind but an essential part of daily activity. Children need to move in a multitude of ways for most of their waking hours not just using short bursts of energy at regulated times. All young animals need to move and explore with their bodies to make sense of the world around them. Many children are walking about with very poor co-ordination due to restriction of movement. Poor hand eye co-ordination and balance issues can be improved by ball throwing and catching and lots of cross lateral movements like skipping, crawling and hopping. Organised sports sessions after school and weekends are fine but movement needs to be frequent, intense and regular. For optimum health, kids need to get out of breath, sweat and get tired out. In short they need to let of steam … this will strengthen their developing bodies and diminish build- up of emotional pressure, this is good for healthy relationships, self- esteem and encourages healthy tiredness which in turn leads to healthy sleep patterns. Exercise also oxygenates the brain making children more alert, motivated and receptive to learning.
Children who lack exercise are not able to function properly on many levels. All the systems in a child’s body crave exercise and its myriad of benefits for growth, positive stimulation and optimum function.  : the child’s skeleton, the muscles, the digestive system, the nervous system, the lymphatic system etc. are all enhanced .
Inhibiting children (especially the youngest ones in schools) from moving by forcing them to conform to stillness and making them pay attention, is to rob them of the joys and benefits  of movement which are their rightful and natural states during childhood. Making them endure un-natural stillness and silence is bound to create trouble down the line for both mind and body. I believe this un-natural lack of movement and exercise is the root of much fidgeting and a possible over- diagnosis of ADHD.
In conclusion, to learn and to get the most out of school, children  need to be able to pay attention. To enable them to pay attention we need to encourage our kids to move, walk, run, hop, skip, jump, climb, fall, dance and twist and turn. In other words to mobilise every part of their body as often and as much as possible so that they can be happy, well balanced , healthy, sleep well at night and fidget less during the day.
Even better you need to join your young kids in all the above mentioned activities. Go for it, enjoy and have lots of fun …..
Judith Ashton 21/09/2016

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