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A Toy by Any Other Name Is Still a Toy

May 26th, 2017     By Greg Snyder, Ph. D. | Boys Town Staff Psychologist

Parenting Skills, School, Understanding Behavior

Are fidget spinners or other toy-like devices helpful in reducing restlessness, inattention and motor spillover behavior in the classroom setting? My answer is unequivocally, NO. Don’t buy in to the hype.

Fidget spinners, fidget cubes and small handheld manipulative devices produced by toy manufacturers and co-opted by advocacy groups and children themselves are not helpful for children — unless they are used solely for enjoyment during free time. Many children with ADHD and other neurodevelopmental delays oftentimes present with excessive motor behavior that others may interpret as distraction or inattentiveness to classroom material. Although this may occasionally be the case, it also is manifestation of immature brain development. Excessive motor behavior is not inherently bad, although it can be difficult for adults to ignore.

Some initial evidence suggests that excessive motor behavior, if not impeding work completion or distracting others, actually serves to maintain on-task behavior. Keep in mind, this movement does not involve toys or other external items/objects. This finding has not been demonstrated or replicated multiple times, but it does suggest that the possibility that this behavior is benign at its core, and that’s something positive to note.

Over time, these behaviors can develop secondary motivations through access to attention (peers and adults) or avoidance of tasks. It is important for teachers and educators to understand when and where to address excessive motor behavior as it presents in the classroom.

Recommendations

Educators and parents should closely observe the child and determine whether the excessive motor movement is interfering with the classroom environment or other children in the immediate vicinity. Next, monitor the child’s success at efficiently and accurately completing the required classwork or homework. If parents and teachers observe that the behavior does not interfere with other students or impede their ability and capacity to complete work, then I recommend simply ignoring the behavior.

If the excessive motor movement becomes a source of concern, then teachers and parents should initially work toward addressing work completion and effort whenever independent work is required. Also, because children with ADHD are more susceptible to distraction from irrelevant stimuli in their environment, providing a learning atmosphere with fewer potential distractions — such as a clean desk/work environment, a quiet workspace, and only the needed materials present for the tasks at hand — is much more effective than providing a toy that will inevitably result in more distraction, less work and increased resistance during independent work time.

Children have immature brains. Brain areas associated with impulse and attentional control are even more limited when children also have developmental delays. The attentional control piece in particular is important, as it allows someone to be in the presence of distracting information or stimuli in their environment and redirect themselves to the task at hand.

Any child exposed to excessive distraction or given a salient pleasant activity, such as a toy or fidget spinner, would be hard-pressed to ignore or otherwise refrain from engaging in the distracting activity. Giving a child a toy that has normal play value won’t make them more focused. In fact, it will almost certainly result in increased distractibility for the child, as well as peers seated in their immediate environment.

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