Can we think about fidgets …

… Like a little bit of beauty, rising from the muck? I think so. 

I’ve been following the press about fidget devices (spinners and cubes), with quite a bit of interest, both personal and professional. The purpose of my blog is, after all, to comment on educational trends. As it turns out too though, I am also very well acquainted with a 10-year-old girl with a “504 plan” and giving certain youth room to move, fidget, or wiggle is on that list of reasonable classroom accommodations. So, back to the fidget devices – I’m interested in them and am a little frustrated with the direction I see the media taking the conversation about fidget devices.

It appears that we have a fidget war on our hands. There are indeed kids who need to move, and just telling them not too gets them nowhere. What do you do, instead? Let them pace? Let them rock back in their chairs? Let them jiggle their legs? All those options are disruptive and thus not favored. So you can see the appeal of a fidget device (cube or spinner).

The potential to channel their energy for good? Sounds great!

But we know kids, and can see how those devices can also become disruptive, to say the least. Hence, the “war.” How do we settle it? Throw out the devices? Maybe…but maybe not so fast.

So far, the press on devices – mostly the spinners — is quite negative. Clinical science doesn’t lend the devices much credibility. The cover the lacking science quite well here, and NPR has taken up the conversation as well, with the recent report titled “Whirring, purring fidget spinners provide entertainment, not ADHD help.” Plenty of negativity from teachers’ points of view also exists out there in social-media. On a facebook group I host, for example, the conversation was pretty lively when I shared the blog titled “I’m a teacher and trust me when I say that fidget spinners are the effing worst” and invited comment. It didn’t take teachers in the group long at all to start venting their frustrations. However, in that conversation stream an OT friend of mine spoke up about the fact that teachers’ complaints come from “off-label” use – that is, their frustrations come from management issues, not from the intended use of the devices.

I put “off-label” in quotes because, as stated earlier, spinners and cubes aren’t medical devices and their effectiveness as a treatment option hasn’t really been put to empirical test. Clinical science is slow and is often, when it comes to issues like this, reactive rather than pro-active. And even though the NPR report linked above ends with a remark that there are “well studied and documented treatments that work” for youth with ADHD, I wonder what methods, exactly, the author is referring to, because I haven’t come across much at all in my own search for support. The class we took (called “pay attention to attention”) at the clinic where my daughter was evaluated was an expensive, frustrating, complete waste of our time. Insurance didn’t cover a penny and when we asked about efficacy or assessment research on the coursework we got nothing in response. And, I beg to differ with the claim that medical treatments are proven effective. The science is not clear at all with regard to safety or proven long-term effectiveness of medication, either. Rather, scientists are debating in the literature right now about whether and how medication works, and whether it works differently for the different sub-types of attentional disorders, and so on.

So here we are, in a culture war about fidget devices. An idea is taken to market, and chaos ensues. I completely understand teachers’ frustrations with the fidget-spinner craze. It sounds terrible. And the marketing the point out is shameful and of questionable ethics. However, I believe there is a middle way here worth considering. I don’t necessarily think we need to hastily throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And that’s because while the science isn’t clear — as in, it hasn’t even started yet– on tackling the question of efficacy with fidget devices, much less whether spinning or clicking afford the same or different outcomes (as an aside, OTs think they might – my friend gave a reasoned explanation as to why a cube is better than a spinner, when attentional overstimulation is the issue at hand), the reality is that there are kids in classrooms who need help with self-regulation now. They don’t have time to wait for science. So my frustration, as a parent, is the lack of reasoned discussion about the issue of how to best support kids in busy classrooms now, today.

The recommendations on the “504” documentation you get from your therapist or from the school district are understandably vague, and are really just starting points. They require further refinement in order for them to be of any benefit whatsoever. As a parent, 504-plan specialist, or teacher, you are left with relying on reason and ingenuity to guide you as you support the learners in your charge.

Personally I’ve been putting my mind to the task of creating specific operational steps my daughter can enact in school to help her quietly and more effectively channel her energy for good. I’ve focused most on teaching her mindfulness exercises, and they work great at home, but they haven’t worked at school. I realize it’s a lot to manage at school – the moments when she needs a mindful-check-in are the moments when she has the least amount of brain-space to spare, after all. It’s proved to be too much to notice overstimulation, stop what she’s

doing, and attend instead to her breathing. Doodling hasn’t worked either – it’s too visible. Glux-fidgeting worked only just a little, but in reality it’s too fun and it quickly became a distraction.


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But then I saw an add for the Fidget Cube and I decided to try it.

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As it turns out, I didn’t yet know about the spinner-wars when I purchased the cube. But I got a little nervous after noting the wars, while waiting for the cube to arrive.

And yet, the cube arrived, she started using it, and it’s been great. Here’s why.

Given what I know and what I do for a living, I didn’t just send her to school with the cube and hope for the best. I didn’t assume she’d know what to do, and I didn’t assume the cube itself had healing properties. Instead, I thought about how the cube could fit into those moments when she needed to stop and check in. I thought through some scenarios and then we practiced at home with, for example, ways of using the cube to track her breathing. And then we practiced – how to keep it subtle when using it, how to use it quietly versus loudly, and we talked about appropriate versus inappropriate use. I reminded her that the cube isn’t a toy, it’s a tool, and it’s for her not for her classmates. And she took it from there. Her teacher looked a little nervous when she showed up with it that first day, but we assured her that it wouldn’t be a problem. And it hasn’t been.

After the first week, the verdict for her was: “this is life changing!” The cube has acted for her as a channel to get from point a (over stimulated) to point b (mindful re-refresh) to point c (getting to work). The little tangible artifact itself is not a magic bullet, but it sure is serving a purpose for her, in the process of learning to regulate herself at school. I like to think of it in terms of the auspicious symbolism of the lotus flower – a little bit of beauty rising up from the muck.

Will this work for other kids? I don’t know – science will tell us that in time. But with judicious consideration, it’s working for us, now. And that’s awesome.

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