S/he fidgets all the time!

Individual students

A student that won't sit still or taps the pen on the desk or jiggles their leg can be distracting and irritating.  Often it appears that they are not concentrating on the task or listening.  The natural impulse is to tell them to sit still.  However, such behaviour is not necessarily a sign of inattention.  Indeed for some people it aids concentration – even if it distracts others!  Fiddling or fidgeting can be the way an individual manages the sensory input they experience.  

Ideally our brain processes and integrates all the input it is receiving all the time from our seven senses.   Yes seven!  They are:  Sight, Smell, Taste, Hearing and Touch - the five we all learned about at school; - Balance - equilibrioception /the vestibular sense which provides information from our inner ear about the balance of the body and any experience of acceleration; and  Proprioception – the awareness of where all parts of our body are in space eg being able to put on a coat without watching our hands.

(Note: some authorities identify further senses – the Wikipedia page Sense gives a good overview   - others combine the vestibular and proprioception.)

This integration process develops through childhood but, as with all development, there is a range in the rate at which it occurs.  Some children may experience a significant developmental delay and can be helped by an Occupational Therapist.   A few children will have ongoing sensory integration issues; this is often, but not always, associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  However most of us develop the capacity to integrate sensory input functionally by adolescence although may not be perfect, eg we may feel uncomfortable with the texture of some fabrics or foods well into adulthood. Students thus have a range of sensitivity to sensory input.

A modulated response is one that generally processes incoming sensory messages well, although this may be undermined by, for example, fatigue.  When a student is underreactive – hyposensitive – their nervous system “muffles” sensory input and so the person is likely to be relatively slow in reacting to stimulus.  The student is likely to have low muscle tone; for example tend to slump or sprawl on their desk.  They may seek additional input.  A sensorily over-reactive – hypersensitive – student experiences sensory input with disproportionate intensity.  This may in some cases be so uncomfortable that that the reaction is defensive – from avoidance through to high emotion “fight or flight” responses to simply “withdrawing” and becoming inattentive.

So how does this relate to fidgeting?  The under-reactive student may do so to “rev-up” their nervous system.  The over-reactive student may be distracting themselves from unpleasant responses or acting out some level of distress.  They are unlikely to be aware of any connection between this behaviour and their sensory experiences of the moment.

Fidgeting can still be a problem even when the underlying purpose is understood, as it can be very distracting for other learners and the teacher.  As it is difficult for the student to stop an unconscious behaviour, other management strategies are needed:

from the News & Views of

Anne Williams, Consulting Educator

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Substitute - rather than stopping the behaviour, provide an alternative.

Prevent: for over-reaction responses, reducing sensory input, and for under-reaction, increasing sensory experience, can reduce the need for disruptive unconscious behaviours.

Adjourn for short movement break (just a few minutes).  This can assist in releasing over-reactive stress or “revving up” under-reactive passivity.

Examples of SPA strategies are listed here.

Some further information:

Overview of sensory responses and the behaviour impact

Useful list of behavioural indications of over or under reactivity

(the rest of the discussion focuses on those with more significant issues)

Kids with ADHD must squirm to learn, study says

I would also recommend Autism SA's workshop on Sensory Integration.  While their focus is obviously on students with autism, it is a very good insight into sensory integration in general.