Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

May 31, 2024

ADHD: The Benefits of Fidgeting

Benefits of Fidgeting for ADHD

By: Jerica McIntyre, LPA

Research shows that physical activity — even a little foot-tapping or gum chewing — increases levels of the neurotransmitters in the brain that control focus and attention. This helps minimize boredom, block distractions, and increase productivity.

Those with ADHD can often feel frustrated and their self-esteem can be significantly impacted.  The redirection and prompts from parents, teachers, or other adults or peers can feel as if they are constantly being “yelled at” and what they are doing isn’t good enough.

However, there are ways to help! Recent research indicates that the body affects the brain as much as the brain affects the body. In his book, Spark, John Ratey, M.D., shows that physical activity — even something as small as fidgeting the hands — increases levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the way ADHD medications do. Both chemicals play a key role in sharpening focus and increasing attention.

While multitasking is not successful for everyone, the opposite is usually true for adults and children with ADHD.  Inattention or the “deficit” we see in those with ADHD increases with the length, familiarity, and repetitiveness of a task. Therefore, incorporating an activity that uses a sense other than those typically required for a task can enhance performance. For example, listening to music while reading a book, chewing gum while taking a test, or doodling or pacing while talking on the phone. Many refer to these kind of sensory-motor activities as “fidgets.” These are mindless activities you can do while working on the task at hand. It is important to note that this doesn’t just mean wiggling in your seat. Fidgeting is more intentional and must be deliberate to be effective. These allow the individual to self-regulate their symptoms of ADHD in a controlled and constructive way. An effective fidget should not distract you from your task and should be something you don’t have to think about. These should also be respectful and not bother others. We need to respect the fact that there is neural diversity, that different people have different ways of doing things. Managing ADHD involves recognizing our choices and taking action. Understanding what is going on in our brains and proactively choosing an appropriate strategy is the essence of the fidget approach.

In a recent article published by ADDitude Magazine, the following ideas were suggested:

Walk and talk: When your child gets restless and tunes out an important conversation you’re trying to have with them, try walking and talking. Any non-strenuous activity, like playing catch or doing a jigsaw puzzle together, will also work. This is a powerful strategy for talking over your child’s day or having an important discussion.

Doodle: Encourage your child to draw or write words or numbers when listening to a teacher’s lecture or lesson.

Use multi-colored pens and pencils: This fidget works well when your child needs to complete an assignment or read for comprehension. Scented markers or highlighters may also help.

Busy your hands: This facilitates focus when a child is listening, talking, or thinking about how to answer a tough question. Fidget toys for school or home can be found in stores and online.

Tune in: Listening to music helps children stay on task when studying, reading, exercising, or even going to sleep. Choose music that is appropriate to the task. For example, choose a stimulating beat when exercising, or consider classical music when studying or reading.

Chew gum: This helps your child when they have to concentrate for an extended period, such as, doing homework or taking a test.

Beat the clock: Set a timer for 20 minutes, and race to get as much done as possible before the alarm goes off. Children may wish to “race the clock” when doing worksheets, memorizing vocabulary, or cleaning up his room.

Stand up or move around: Talk with the teacher about letting your child stand, at appropriate times, during the school day. A child can do this discreetly at the back of the room or at their desk. Teachers may also consider allowing students who need movement breaks to be messengers, asking them to complete real or invented errands.