Julie Schweitzer has seen a lot of mundane objects be used as tools to quell fidgety fingers in her 25 years of research into attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Even so, the palm-sized “fidget spinners” that are invading classrooms nationwide are a mystery to her.
Schweitzer, director of the Attention, Impulsivity and Regulation program at the UC Davis MIND Institute, said she’s not sure why the multipronged spinning gadget is flying off retail shelves, or why some have lauded it as a potential aid for children with attention disorders. Marketers say the spinner, which whirs hypnotically with the twirl of a finger, can provide comfort in stressful situations and improve focus. Teachers say it’s distracting.
While the toy could be helpful to some of the 6.4 million children in the U.S. diagnosed with ADHD, it’s not a proven treatment and shouldn’t be given a free pass in the classroom, Schweitzer said. Many students with attention disorders have trouble sitting still because the motor centers and impulse areas of their brains work differently, she said, and it’s up to parents and teachers to help them learn.
“There are other ways of doing it than these toys,” she said. “I can’t say that they for sure don’t work, but there’s no evidence to support that they do and it’s obvious they’re going to be distracting to other people.”
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Schweitzer sat down with The Sacramento Bee to explain ADHD-related fidgeting, and how parents and teachers can draw the line.
Q. When a person is fidgeting, what’s going on in their brain?
A. There are certain areas of the brain where we see over-activity, and oftentimes it’s in motor areas like the premotor cortex and other areas involved with response initiation and response control, like the basal ganglia. I’ve wondered, for many years, if the over-activity in the brain is also related to the physical movements we’ve been seeing. This activity that we see, I think, is really an unconscious way of increasing alertness. People aren’t doing it on purpose, but I think what they’re sometimes doing is moving to stimulate themselves, to help increase their ability to attend.
Q. In a 2015 study, you found that physical activity was linked to higher focus for children with ADHD but not children without it. How did you discover that?
A. We correlated the fidgeting movements, the naturally occurring ones, with attention. The major advantage of that study was we could look at how well each kid did on each trial on the attention test, and we were able to correlate that with their natural movements. So we saw, with the kids with ADHD, when they were fidgeting more intensely, they actually performed better and their accuracy was higher, whereas for the typically developing kids, their movements were lower in general, but also there was no correlation between their fidgeting movements and how well they did on a test.
So for the kids with ADHD where there’s this hyper-movement, it helped them. That’s not to say that’s the same thing as grabbing a toy and playing with it.
Q. Is there a threshold where fidgeting becomes a serious concern?
A. No. The issue with fidgeting is that it oftentimes bothers other people more than it does the fidgeter. If people are fidgeting and they’re left to their own devices, they’re oftentimes just fine.
Fidgeting is not something that parents and teachers should be so concerned about, unless it affects other people in the classroom. You have so many families that are concerned about hyperactivity, and maybe they should focus less on that. It is, in some way, a compensatory process that’s happening.
Q. Why are some people considering the fidget spinner an attention toy?
A. I know people who have used some of these fidget gadgets, and some of them have said they’ve been helpful … but until we test it, we don’t know. From what I’ve seen, (the fidget spinner) is becoming so ubiquitous that it’s overtaking the classroom and becoming a huge distraction. … To me, it’s common sense. If you give somebody a toy or they could be doing classwork, what’s going to be more interesting?
Q. Is there any object that’s been proven to help squirmy students?
A. I don’t know of anyone who has systematically studied it in a way that rises to the level of a peer-reviewed, well-designed experimental study. I haven’t read everything out there, so maybe something does exist. I haven’t seen it.
I do know that if you stand up and you stretch and you walk around the room, that might also be really helpful. And if you’re in a classroom, that could be distracting, but in a lot of other settings it’s not as distracting as playing with a spinner or something like that.
Q. What are your feelings about whether movement should be permitted in learning settings?
A. It’s not something that should be considered negative from the perspective that you should try to keep a child quiet and should try to stop them from moving. But I also recognize from a teacher’s perspective that it’s disruptive to other people.
It’s just an unconscious way that they’re trying to maintain alertness, and it’s helping them on some level. I almost see it as a side effect of some other processes that are going on with them. So I think trying to inhibit a child so much where they’re not allowed to, that’s where it becomes much more problematic.
If someone tests it, and there’s some fidget toy or fidget tool that’s shown to help, and it’s not distracting to other people, fine. … But teachers have to decide what they’ll allow in their classroom. If somebody is going to bring it in, they have to have rules about it.