Can Fidgets Really Help Attention?

Let’s talk about fidgeting – how it impacts our ability to pay attention, whether fidget toys can help and how you can figure out whether they’re useful for you or your classroom.

Group of colorful fidget spinners

If you’re a person with autism, ADHD or other sensory needs (or the parent or teacher of one), you’ll be no stranger to the concept of fidgets. But with the recent stratospheric rise of the fidget spinner, it’s become a hot topic of conversation in schools. Are fidget toys just a distraction? How could they possibly improve concentration?

In all of this hubbub there’s been a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what a fidget tool actually does. So let’s talk about fidgeting – where it comes from, what fidget tools can do and how you can figure out whether they’re useful for you or your classroom.

Why do people fidget?

The ability to sit still for long stretches of time, staring at a screen or a book or a teacher, is a skill that’s only become useful to us in the modern world. Our brains are actually designed to be good at multi-tasking, to pay attention to lots of things at once to ensure our survival. The early humans who lived long enough to reproduce were the ones that stayed alert for the sound of an approaching bear while they studiously foraged for food, and responded quickly to attack or run away.

Understanding this natural tendency of our brain to do lots of things at once gives us clues about why we all need to fidget sometimes. And yes, we all do it. Flicking a pen in a meeting, pacing while talking on the phone, doodling while waiting on hold, humming to yourself when nervous or shifting balance between your feet while waiting in line. These are all examples of fidgeting and you’ll notice they have something in common – we’re most likely to fidget when we’re bored, anxious or trying to concentrate.

Why is this?

If you take a look at the kinds of movements we do when we fidget, you’ll notice that they’re almost always small, repetitive motor actions. There’s a reason for this – these specific types of tasks trigger the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, chemicals that help the brain to motivate us, wake us up and control attention. And since our brain wants us to be alert when it needs us to be, it tries to keep a nice healthy balance of these chemicals.

When we’re under-aroused (sitting still or bored) there’s less of these neurotransmitters being released, so the brain nudges us to do something to trigger the release of more. Likewise, feeling anxious is a signal to the body to get ready to fight or run. The brain helps out by kicking us into doing actions that will release the chemicals that help us to stay focused. You need to see where that bear is coming from and formulate a plan to either defend yourself or get to safety, and you can’t do that if you lose focus.

It seems counterintuitive that doing more than one thing can help us to concentrate, right? But that’s exactly what’s happening during these situations.

But wait, there’s more!

The brain is very good at telling us when it needs to release some more dopamine, which translates into an urge to fidget. At certain times and for some people, this urge to move can be really strong. To control urges like this, we need to use the part of our brain that looks after executive functions – planning, memory, organization and attention.

That means that not fidgeting when you need to makes it harder for you to concentrate. Curbing the impulse to fidget diverts mental resources away from anything else that requires executive functions like learning, listening and paying attention.

So to sum up all of that:

Fidgeting releases neurotransmitters that help us to concentrate. Suppressing the urge to move not only prevents the release of these chemicals, it takes brain power away from concentrating on other tasks.

Fidgeting sounds like stimming. Are they the same thing?

No not really, although there are similarities. Here’s a whole article about that.

Why do some people need to fidget more than others?

We all have bodies that respond differently to sensory demands and the information we receive from the world around us. Some nervous systems are naturally in a state of lower arousal than others. Some brains are very sensitive to a drop or surge in neurotransmitters, sending the urge to fidget more often.

It’s common for people who struggle with executive functions (planning, sequencing, memory, organisation) to feel a strong need to fidget, possibly because it’s the brain’s way of relieving the load on those cognitive processes. People with anxiety often fidget, as a possible response to the body being in a heightened state of arousal and preparing to fight or flee.

And of course, some people just find themselves sitting still, bored or disengaged more often than others.

So how do fidget tools help?

First of all there’s a big difference between a toy and a tool, and I think that’s a key point that’s often overlooked in the discussion about using them in classrooms.

A fidget toy is an object to play with that is fun because it’s repetitive. A fidget tool is an object that is helpful because it’s repetitive, and makes you feel calm or focused (for all of the reasons described above).

Fidget toys can also be tools, of course, but sometimes they’re also just toys. So just because something has the word fidget in it doesn’t mean that it will automatically help improve concentration.

Fidget tools can help concentration by:

  • Providing the right type of repetitive motor action to trigger the release of neurotransmitters that improve focus, block out distractions or reduce feelings of anxiety
  • Freeing up the mental resources that would have been needed to curb the impulse to fidget

It’s important to mention too that these kinds of tools are not designed to ‘fix’ ADHD, autism or mental health problems (a commonly cited criticism by ‘experts’ in articles condemning the fidget spinner), they are supports that help with the challenges created by these conditions by improving focus, reducing anxiety and blocking out distractions.

But how can you tell if it’s a tool or a toy?

The effectiveness of a fidget object is very individual to both the person and the situation. The same object might be a tool for one person and a toy for another, it might be useful in some situations and just fun in others. The trick is figuring out which objects are helpful for which people in which situations.

To help you figure out if a fidget object is a toy or a tool, look at the reaction that’s produced by using it. Is it calming? Is it allowing greater focus on other tasks? Or it is causing hyperarousal, distraction or excitement?

Fidget tools work best when they engage a sense or motor skill that isn’t needed for the task on which you’re trying to concentrate. An object that requires visual input won’t work if you’re trying to focus on reading, for example. A toy that makes noise won’t help you to listen to the teacher.

To be effective as a concentration tool, a fidget needs to:

  • Be repetitive and under your control (so not a ball that you have to chase around the room, for example)
  • Be something you don’t have to think too much about or give your whole attention to
  • Be respectful and non-distracting to others (if it helps you focus but distracts people around you then it’s not a useful tool)
  • Not require you to stop everything else to use it
  • Not require senses or skills that you need for the task on which you’re trying to concentrate

Looking at these criteria, fidget spinners probably aren’t a good concentration tool for most people or situations. Some of them make noise and can be distracting to other people, plus they require constant shifts in attention in order to keep it spinning. But they are fun to use and can be incredibly calming for many people, and fidget toys that are not tools are still really useful in the classroom as rewards or for sensory/stimming downtime.

Just keep in mind when talking about fidgets that the range of tools is huge and diverse, and extends much further than only spinners.

Final thought:

Although spinners have cast a bit of a negative shadow on fidget toys, fidgeting itself is neither good nor bad. It’s just something that our brains are built to do, and trying to curb the impulse to fidget robs us of the valuable mental resources we need in order to concentrate.

The bottom line is that bored and anxious brains need input to stay activated, and that input is going to come from somewhere. Used in the right way, fidget objects can be a functional way to provide that input and help improve concentration.


For more ideas about fidgets that work well in a classroom or shared space, download this free booklet 45 Classroom-Friendly Fidget Ideas:

14 August, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.