This week, fidget toys have received a lot of attention in the media. Apparently, they’re being banned by exasperated teachers but according to the research out there, they do work. As teachers, should we bother to use them in class and if we do, how can we do it so it doesn’t annoy the living daylights out of everyone? A clearly communicated, well-enforced approach should do the trick.
Before I go and further, I have two confessions to make. Firstly, I’ve got ADHD. It’s linked to Tourette’s Syndrome (thankfully, not the swearing variety, coprolalia) but it has all the bells and whistles associated with ADHD. Secondly, I banned fidget toys from my own classes early in my career despite knowing how important controlled fidgeting is for my own concentration.
Are fidget toys worth it?
Did I make a mistake? Probably. Evidence shows that fidget toys enhance cognitive performance and prolong attention, particularly for people with ADD or ADHD (Grodner, 2015). As long as the fidgety movements are small and ‘mindless’, people concentrate on demanding tasks for longer and more efficiently than those who suppress their urges for motion. However, large and complex movements can limit attention so fidget toys need to be small and easy to manipulate to be useful (such as spinners, cubes, and stress balls).
Set expectations, be ruthless
There’s a real risk that fidget toys can annoy the whole class and hinder learning, but I saw examples of colleagues successfully deploying fidget toys and how they benefitted their pupils, so I had to try again. To make them work, I developed very clear expectations and communicated them through a memorised consistency script (read more about consistency scripts here):
‘Fidget toys shouldn’t disturb anyone. If they do, you lose the privilege to use them (as they’re not serving the purpose they’re there for). Make sure you keep looking at me when you fidget so I know they’re working.’
For fairness, I allow one strike before removing the toys (because the pupils have to get used to them) but the pupils know I’m looking for eye contact so there’s very rarely any complaints or challenging secondary behaviour.
Now my pupils know how to use them successfully, fidget toys enhance attention rather than distract. Last year, I had a year 2 class where many pupils had ADHD or very limited attention spans. As with every year I’ve tried them, fidget toys were a novelty and the pupils didn’t know why they had them or how to use them. However, by encouraging their use and spelling out how to use them, key members of the class (in terms of classroom management) were able to concentrate much better. In fact, the class’ progress was excellent and they far exceeded many people’s predictions from the start of the year.
In my practice, fidget toys are now a key component in maintaining a calm, focused atmosphere and they needn’t be banned in your classroom either. As with any classroom strategy, communicating clear expectations and enforce them consistently will help you get the best out of fidget toys.
Gillespie, T. (2017). Fidget spinners being BANNED from classrooms because teachers say they distract pupils. The Sun. Accessed 28th April 2017.
Grodner, K. (2015). To Fidget or Not to Fidget: The Effect of Movement on Cognition.