fidget spinners: a setback in the fight to decriminalise fidgeting

Teachers hate fidget toys. We want you to Pay Attention.

It’s a pleasure to teach history - there is a compelling storyline one can deliver with enthusiasm and drama; fractions are a tougher ticket. We’re building on skills which I hope are embedded, asking a child to go on the journey with me for 30 or 40 or 60 minutes (hopefully first thing in the morning, early in the week) in a step-by-step process that can challenge a child’s attention. I do my best to be engaging, delivering lessons with humour and, in the case of fractions, metaphors: pizza always works.

When I’m working the room, moving through clusters of desks, I used to look for eye contact; now I am mindful that some children can’t do that with ease. Now I feel for other signs of attention –a Year 9 girl told me she could feel the adrenalin flow when she was switched on and learning and you can see it. Personally, I am happy with the low level of noise which signifies excitement and engagement.

Fidget toys as a rule disrupt the flow of teaching. Fidgeting isn’t new; long before the spinner craze, teachers cased the classroom on the hunt to eliminate all potential sources of distraction: a rubber eraser, blue tack, pencils to chew and chairs to rock. One fidgeting child has been known to stop a lesson midstream for a whole class dressing down, so loathed are fidget toys.

But some kids need to fidget.

I’m not talking about the movement that signifies a lesson is too long, too heavy or just dull. I’m referring to those children who inherently struggle to pay attention.

What makes a child struggle to pay attention?

1. The weight of the information is too heavy to process and they need to ‘check out’ for a minute to regroup. Think staring out the window.

2. An inability to inhibit stimulus.  In plain English, internal or external chatter is too noisy in my head and I can’t filter or screen it out. This can be someone talking to loudly, the fact that my shirt itches or being worried.

As humans we are prone to taking things personally, and this is true for teachers. I want you to value my lesson, stay with me so that I can teach you something new, help me tick off curriculum content. When I lose you, it’s an obstruction to lesson development. It makes me cross.

But children get lost in the lesson for different reasons, and this is the foundation of classroom differentiation and support: a whiteboard on the desk to remind you of instructions, a laptop to help your speed. These adaptations may be at the discretion of the teacher but some are entitlements aimed at levelling the playing field, to which one is entitled through the disability discrimination act.

Some kids need to let out adrenaline and some kids need to ramp it up. Fidget toys can level the playing field and help kids stay cognitively engaged by mitigating the attention surplus or deficit. The child who needs to fidget and is allowed to fidget is developing self-monitoring strategies; independence in learning is always our teaching goal.

We are excellent judges of who is really listening; we can develop this skill to ask ourselves who needs to self-monitor their attention with a fidget toy. That said, it never needs to be a noisy, purchased spinner. Ask any teacher and they well know an unobtrusive, free resource in the classroom which would do the trick. Fidget spinners are bringing fidgeting into disrepute at a time when kids with learning differences (ADD, ADHD, ASD, dyslexia and dyspraxia) are fighting for their classroom rights.

For too long, fidgeting has been a classroom crime. While I am glad children have found a low tech toy to carry in their pocket, make no mistake: fidget spinners are not helping the cause.