When I was teaching in the traditional setting, these little gadgets called ‘fidget-spinners’ became extremely popular. They were some sort of three-pronged spinning circle with discs at the ends (maybe just look them up). Kids would fidget with them incessantly, obviously.
It wasn’t long before teachers began pointing them out, berating the kids, and confiscating them, talking in the lunchroom about how ridiculous these things were— all while clicking their pens and tapping their feet.
I mean I get it, I found the spinners annoying, too. But what was more annoying to me was when I would have to repeat myself five times to distracted kids, and what I’ve found is that fidgeting is not the same as being distracted. Someone tapping their foot is not exactly interested in the beat they’re creating. As teachers, we need to have a more empathetic approach to fidgeting as well as a more curious one.
So when exactly do we fidget? I notice in myself that I fidget when I’m thinking something up, in a stressful situation, or have extra energy in my body that needs somewhere to go. Kids have other reasons, too-- they need to use the bathroom, they’re having growing pains, they’re nervous, they want to play, and so on. Furthermore, never have I seen a student fidgeting who was actually conscious of it, that’s the whole point of fidgeting. It’s some kind of release.
The more important concern is that if fidgeting is a release, a reaction to some kind of stressor, what is going on with our students that they would give the fidget-spinner industry half a billion dollars? And how can we aid in that underlying stress problem? Plus, the environmentalist in me has a problem with the overconsumption of these things that will only end up confiscated and in the trash sooner than later. I have a few simple solutions that have worked for me and my middle school students:
Music: You’re probably thinking “Well yeah, obviously.” But I really do want to emphasize how important it is to play music, and how the type of music does matter. It’s even been proven to lessen pain and calm the nervous system. I’ve experimented in my own classroom what got the kids riled up versus calm. Even if it’s not their thing, jazz has an energy to it that gets the students moving. Classical is too easy for them to tease (overdramatic air violin). Usually something calm with a beat is good, something called chillhop works well for me. You can also check out music at 432 hertz, or 528 hertz. Experiment yourself, but I’ll touch more on music in another post soon.
Greetings: Students have been trained to fear their authorities, so that’s the stress they have walking into the room. Be different. Say hello, or high-five, or fist-bump, or shoot finger guns! Do whatever lets your students know you see them and you care about them. I had an entirely different classroom when I would stand at the door and greet them, versus sit at my desk and prepare while they came in. It also reminds them that, shockingly, I am a human, too, and I would like to be seen.
Food & water: We are not at our best when we are hungry or dehydrated. Let your kids snack (within reason (no nature valley bars)). It’s also a way to show respect for your students; I’d find it pretty upsetting to have to help someone cope with the feeling of hunger when it has a quick fix. Also, fun fact: eating indicates to our bodies that we are safe enough to do so, which reduces our stress levels, so even chewing gum is a little life-hack to get your body to calm down when you’re getting worked up. But I do not stand behind gum for students, only if they have stinky breath and no mints!
Movement: Some things like yoga and intermittent stretching work better with younger ones, but not as well with the older crowd. Still, everyone is having some kind of growing pain, some urge to move around, extra energy that’s been squandered through sitting all day. My classroom was arranged in groups, and each area of the classroom had a different task (independent, teacher-led, computers). Even the movement between the groups was enough to feel like there was a small break. Having them get up and stretch when I’d notice low energy was also helpful.
Silliness: My last post was about laughter in learning, and I really do think it’s one of the most important tools. I like to think I’m naturally silly, so I can’t tell anyone to be inauthentically silly because kids catch on to that, too. Make appropriate, relevant jokes where you can. If that’s not your style, dedicate some time at the end of class to put on some silly compilation video, post a joke of the day on the board, a riddle, a drawing, anything that lightens the mood.
Initially this was going to be a shorter post just venting about how we should let kids fidget! But like with most issues I see in the schools, there’s an underlying cause that we should be paying more attention to. I used to encourage my students to only come to me with a problem if they’ve thought of a solution, so I wanted to come up with some solutions for the problem I saw causing fidget-spinners to pop up.
What I want you to take away from this is that students have a plethora of reasons to be fidgeting, from minor to major, and it would be unfair of us to ask them to stop or take away the spinner or clicky pen or whatever it is. If they need to wiggle their foot to think, let them! They need to play with their pen while giving a speech? Sure! What matters is the content. Plus, letting them fidget now might actually lessen it in the future simply because you’ve done something that’s open, understanding, and in the pursuit of a more calm classroom.