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Bad Habits And Fidgeting At School

Question of the Week

By

Updated November 03, 2004

Q. My child, Ben is 8 years old and is routinely questioned by teachers in school to "pay attention" and "stop fidgeting in your desk". He is becoming increasingly agitated by this as he is paying attention, his grades reflect an almost perfect score. Teachers are becoming frustrated with him. He is not disruptive to the class yet appears to be asked to sit on the floor beside his desk or at the back of the class because of his fidgeting. Ben likes to play with his fingers. It appears he is not listening but he is. We have attempted to problem solve with the school to no avail. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Angela, Chatham, Ontario

A. Unfortunately, some people, including parents, teachers, and doctors, can be quick to jump on a diagnosis of ADHD for children like this. It is important to remember that part of the criteria for making a diagnosis of ADHD is that the symptoms have to cause some kind of impairment. If his grades are good and he is not disrupting the class, then it doesn't sound like it is causing a problem.

So if his fidgeting isn't a sign of ADHD, then maybe it is just a 'bad' habit, like nose picking, hair pulling, and nail biting.

Still, since he is getting in trouble for fidgeting, something needs to be done, especially since it is agitating him.

One option is to try and convince the teachers to try and be a little more forgiving and ignore the behavior. You can explain that this is a habit of his and that you are working on helping him stop. Since getting in trouble is starting to bother him, you can explain that they may turn a normal behavior into a real problem for him by hurting his self esteem and causing anxiety over this. And that making him anxious and drawing so much attention to the fidgeting will likely just make him do it more.

To help him stop, you might give him something else to do with his hands that isn't so noticeable. Maybe holding and squeezing something like a stress ball would help.

As with other 'bad' habits, like thumb sucking, nail biting, and hair twirling, it may also help to:

  • ignore the behavior as much as possible, especially if it isn't disruptive
  • offer lots of praise and attention when he isn't doing it
  • give simple reminders to help your child know when he is doing it. For example, his teacher might give him a special hand signal or tap on his desk when he is fidgeting a lot.
  • offer a substitute for the behavior. In addition to the squeeze ball, he could also simply make a fist, keep both hands on his desk, or use both hands to hold his books.
  • provide an incentive or reward for stopping. A sticker or star chart can also be helpful in stop many bad habits.
A child psychologist may also be able to work him and help him stop fidgeting so much. An evaluation by a child psychologist may also help you figure out why he does it so much. Is he just bored or anxious?

It may also help to have a formal evaluation with your Pediatrician or a child psychologist to make sure that he doesn't have ADHD or something else, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Having an evaluation, even if it is negative and shows that he doesn't have any specific medical problems, may help you convince his teachers to work with you a little more on this.

If possible, you could also try to set up a meeting at school to talk with more school personnel. Maybe getting the school counselor involved would be helpful.

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