Advice from the OT: Why it's so hard for children to sit still and what you can do about it

Minds in Bloom is so very honored to welcome guest blogger Loren Shlaes, a registered pediatric occupational therapist and regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff (who were instrumental in making this series possible). This is the first in a series of post from Loren about how to help students who may be challenged with attention, sensory, or other issues be successful in the classroom. Most likely, you have at least a few students with these challenges every year, but even if you don't, the information in these posts are relevant to all teachers.

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This first post focuses on something that most teachers struggle with around this time of the year...helping students to pay attention! I learned a great deal from this article, and I am sure you will too!

If You Want Children to Sit Still, You Have to Let Them Move
Children need to move their bodies in order to be able to stay focused and to learn.  A good thing to remember is that a nerve in the inner ear, called the vestibular nerve, serves to tell the body how upright, aroused, and present to be in direct response to movement. The only way to activate the vestibular nerve so that it can do its job is to move.
Normally, a small amount of movement, like a quick stretch and turn of the head, will make the nerve fire and talk to the muscles.  When children are fidgeting and finding it difficult to stay still, they are unconsciously attempting to activate that nerve in the inner ear to improve their ability to sit up and focus.

Are Your Students in the Just Right State or in a Sensory Needs State? 
When we are forced to sit still for long periods, we are either in one of two states: the just right state, meaning that our bodies can support our ability to stay present by remaining effortlessly aroused and upright, or in a sensory needs state, which means that we cannot attend because our bodies need something to help our brains stay alert and ready to learn.  The just right state doesn't last long when we are forced to sit without moving, unless what is happening in the room is highly interesting and engages our full attention. Attention spans in young children are quite short.  Most of the time, they require constant movement and novelty to stay engaged.
Some children don’t have responsive vestibular nerves.  If a child has had a series of ear infections, for example, and has had tubes placed in his ears, his vestibular nerve may not fire with just a little bit of movement. His vestibular system requires a great deal more intensity before it will respond and tell his muscles to sit up.  This child will have an especially hard time sitting for long periods without being allowed to get up.
How Can I Keep My Classroom Alert and Focused? 
Think of movement as quick bursts of brain fuel, and try to top off your students’ tanks frequently. Transitions should always be accompanied by some sort of structured movement activity as a class.  Perhaps a quick “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with the accompanying gestures, or put on some rhythmic music and lead the class in  a round of old fashioned calisthenics, like  pushups, toe touches, or jumping jacks.  Accompany this with a drink of water and the children will be able to stay much more alert and in the right physical state for learning. You’ll feel pretty good, yourself!
If you teach the children to recognize when their attention is flagging and they need to do something for themselves in order to stay present, they will have the tools to recognize when they drifting out of the just right state and into the sensory needs zone. They can then employ a discreet sensory tool to get themselves back. 
Here are some suggestions for things that students can do at their seats to help them pay attention:
  • play with a fidget toy
  • suck a hard candy
  • stretch
  • squeeze and relax all of your muscles
  • rub your hands on your legs
  • give yourself a big hug
  • quietly blow out all of your breath and hold it, then let the next breath come rushing in.  
  • For a child who needs to chew to stay grounded, a few inches of clear plastic fish tank tubing on the end of his pencil is  easy and discreet. This can be easily and inexpensively purchased in a pet store or hardware store. If the child doesn't like the flavor, you can soak it in vanilla extract for a day or two.
Here is an easy way to make a great fidget toy: take a good, thick balloon, and, using a funnel, put some cornstarch and a big squirt of glue inside.  Knot it up and massage it until the cornstarch and glue are mixed. 
If the child requires more intensity than what he can get from sitting in his seat, he can get up and get a drink of water, or do an errand for the teacher (Carrying a box of books to the principal’s office is great exercise).
Disc-O-Sit cushions are another very nice way for a child to be able to sit still at his desk and wiggle around at the same time.  Making a few cushions available for anyone who wants them will allow the children who really need them to gravitate towards them without feeling singled out.

Want to read more from Loren? Here are the other posts in this series:
Post 6: Indentifying and Helping Students with Sensory Integration Issues

Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration, handwriting remediation and school related issues. She is also a manual therapist and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique.  Her informative  site won the  "favorite resource for therapists" poll conducted by   Her writing has been featured on, and she is a regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff.   She is in private practice in Manhattan.

Minds in Bloom would also like to thank PediaStaff for collaborating with Loren to make this series possible. PediaStaff places pediatric therapists in schools, clinic, and hospitals throughout the country. In addition to their highly informative blog, they also have a huge Pinterest presence with over a hundred boards pertaining to education, child rearing, special needs, and various kinds of therapies. 

How do you handle wiggly kids? We would love to hear your comments and ideas!


Linda Nelson said...

Thank you, Loren - what great information! I think many people know and accept that the little guys need to be allowed ( and encouraged!) to move, but many also think that the need for movement should be controlled by the time kids are in 3rd or 4th grade. This post has great info for teachers to share with their colleagues and administators!

Rachel, what a great idea to host this series - thanks!


Sasha said...

This is a great post! My 2nd grade son with SPD has been using a disc-o-sit in class since K and it has been so helpful!

... said...

Great tips, and thank you for sharing, but I'd have to disagree about the comment suggesting plastic tubing to chew. A piece of natural birch gum or xylitol gum would be much safer. Many plastics contain chemicals such as BPA that can leach into the system when chewed. BPA is a hormone disrupter that is linked to a litany of health problems, especially in children, including aggression and hyperactivity, infertility, obesity, and intestinal damage.

Rachel Lynette said...

Thanks so much fore your comments! I feel so fortunate to have Loren guest post on Minds in Bloom. I am glad you are finding the article helpful!

mrspedtechtalk said...

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TracyB said...

A less expensive version of the disc-o-sit is a beach ball with 4 or 5 puffs of air. We use these in my preschool classroom.

tmrellin said...

Question....could these activities be used to help a little one on a plane ride?

Aditi Chaudhary said...

Very Informative. Thanks
Aditi C

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. I'm an OT who works with the geriatric population but really appreciate your tips for the younger generation. Can't tell you how many adults I have worked with that never had an OT to help them through their ADD.


As the mother of a child with autism, I am in total agreement that most of these suggestions are great tips for keeping a child focused. I would, however, advise anyone who teaches, cares for, or provides therapy to a child and is not the parent of said child to please, please discuss use of these methods with the parent PRIOR to implementation. While I, personally, find the tips are very helpful, some of them contradict some of the things we already have in place with my son. For example, I agree with the person who commented to use something other than plastic for a chew toy for children. While my son is not a chewer, himself, we try to stay away from plastic in our household. Also, my son receives ABA therapy. While use of fidget toys is appropriate for him in some situations, in others, it is not and serves only to contradict all the work we have done with ABA.

Anonymous said...

As a Doctor of Audiology, I would like to respectfully disagree with the statement regarding placement of PE tubes impeding the vestibular nerve. A PE tube is placed in the middle ear whereas the vestibular nerve is stimulated from fluid movement in the inner ear. These are two different areas of the ear, and placement of tubes will not make the vestibular nerve "harder to stimulate". Regardless, your suggestions are wonderful and beneficial! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

In my daughter's classroom they had yoga balls for the fidgety kids to sit on to do their work. They also could get up and move to work in a different place in the room. This was 4th grade. I have also heard of tying a stretchy PT band around the legs of the chair for kids to mess with using their feet. This gives some kids just enough movement to stay focused. I also disagree with the chewing of plastic fish tank tubing. Surely there is something better than that. I wonder if all the straw chewers out there have attention deficit issues :) my husband teaches chess and gum chewing helps chess players in matches focus on the game.

Libby said...

Great ideas. I use many of the strategies suggested in the article. Other strategies I use in my classroom include play dough inside a deflated balloon and a mini trampoline for kids to jump on for about 3 minutes at a time- this works well for regulating energy levels to 'just right' ( some children to hold something heavy when bouncing such as a wheat pack or backpack full of rice. A few children have healthy snack box of crunchy/chewy food e.g. Popcorn, crackers, celery etc. I prompt them to have a snack at times when I see them chewing on pencils, t-shirt etc.

Pat Jones said...

This is the most amazing post! Thank you so much for sharing your suggestions! I have recommended it on my own blog at Teacher Support Force.

Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

I agree with what other people have said about the plastic fish tubing. I've used a mouth gaurd for children who need to chew on something. You can get them super cheap at walmart for around $2.

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Jennifer said...

Thank you for you suggestions. My son is in first grade and we have struggled for the past two years with his movement issues. He was and is always in trouble. As an SLP, I have always questioned if he has a sensory issue. We are meeting with his teacher next week and I am excited to bring these ideas to the table...and believe me, he's not the only one who could benefit from them! Thank you so much!

Anastasia said...

Please, please remove the comment about using aquarium tubing from the article. That is not FDA safe. It is soaked with chemicals. The last thing our kiddos or anyone's child needs to absorb into their body! Please replace it with the idea of surgical tubing or a chewie that is made to be actually chewed on without the worry of unknown toxins, bpa or pvc!

a ji o ji suno ji said...

Okay, where to start - the dog or the sofa?? Both are amazing! You are good to pull off the shock and awe. How happy your kids must be. Teddy is beyond adorable. And that sofa is just beyond words. I think I was looking at that fabric for something a while back. Still obsessed!! Oh, and your tree looks fab. We put ours up Sunday too. Happy Holidays!
English Bulldog Puppies

Anonymous said...

Here's a novel concept...stop chewing, bouncing, stretching, walking around and generally disrupting everyone else who were taught to correctly control themselves in school and get yourself together. All we give are excuses...and seem to be proud of it. Be a parent and raise your expectations...not an enabler. I'm sure you all have an IEP as well. Did I guess correctly?

mrs guntert said...

Anonymous do u have speical needs kids.. sound like nopppe!!!!!

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Megan Moody said...

Thank you Loren for this great info! I try to implement similar exercises with my homework coach students. I let them walk around a bit while studying, or sit on a stability ball so they can move around. I've also found that letting my students "run errands," i.e. go find a black pen, flash cards, new eraser expels some energy and helps with focus!

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Mildred E. Benn said...

Trampolines aren't just for kids anymore; bouncing on a trampoline is an excellent cardio workout that burns as many calories per hour as running. You can check for the top rated safe trampoline, they have helpful buying guides and unbiased reviews.

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