Meet eight-year-old Jonathan. He doesn’t like to sit up straight in his chair at school and prefers to work with his knee on the chair, his behind in the air and his forearms resting on the table. His mom says at home they call him the “upside-down boy’’ because when he reads, does homework or watches TV—his feet are always higher than his stomach and he often changes positions.
All across the U.S., parents and teachers are wondering if and why kids are wigglier now than they used to be. According to the Center for Disease Control, 11% of all kids (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an increase of 43% between 2003 and 2011 (the last year for which figures are available.)
While ADHD experts attribute these increases to greater awareness of the condition, there are also other things going on in a child’s world that can create hyperactivity, distractibility and impulsivity—the three key symptoms of ADHD.
According to human development pioneer, Dr. David Elkind, author of the classic best-seller The Hurried Child, we’ve narrowed the range of normality. A child who used to be called wiggly now is considered attention deficit disordered. But not every wiggly child has ADHD. Some do, and that’s OK! (And please do consult your child’s pediatrician if you think this is a concern.)
Either way—ADHD or no ADHD—there are some strategies you can try at home or at at school to help your kiddo focus.
Here are seven ways to help your wiggly child succeed:
1. Promote exercise
There’s increasing evidence that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity reduces ADHD-related behaviors. Make sure your child gets a chance to expel some energy before school, perhaps by playing catch in the backyard, seeing how fast he can sprint down the street, or going for a quick walk with mom or dad before the school bus arrives.
2. Offer a nourishing diet
Sending your child off to school with a balanced breakfast consisting of carbohydrates and protein (e.g. eggs and toast, bean burrito, or oatmeal and yogurt) will help him pay better attention in class. Also, cut down on fast-food as much as possible since new research is suggesting an association between junk food and ADHD-related behaviors.
3. Teach relaxation skills
Whenever your child feels especially wiggly at school, teach him some key relaxation techniques. For example, suggest that whenever he feels the need to move in class, he should take a deep breath, hold it for a count of five, and then exhale (and repeat this 2-3 times.) He could also make his arms and legs stiff like a robot, then let them totally relax like a rag doll (and repeat this 2-3 times.) Or, you might suggest that he visualize a positive, relaxing scene (for kids with an ADHD diagnosis, it might be something quite active, like a monster truck rally!). These strategies can reduce stress and provide a constructive channel for pent up energy.
4. Speak with your child’s teacher about the value of fidgeting
There’s new evidence suggesting that kids diagnosed with ADHD actually focus better on their schoolwork if they’re allowed to fidget in class. Of course the fidgeting should be done in a manner that’s not disturbing to others. Some teachers use “bouncy bands’’ which are elastic strips attached to the legs of a desk that the child can bounce his feet off of silently (bungee cords might work as well.) Meet with your child’s teacher and see what options, if any, are available for her.
5. Make sure your child gets enough sleep
Insufficient sleep at night (less than 8 or 9 hours) can set your child up for inattention and irritability the next day. Set consistent times for getting to bed, restrict media in the hour before sleep, and help your child establish comfy bedtime rituals with soft pillows, stuffed animals and anything else that helps him relax.
6. Promote a strong physical education (PE) program at your child’s school
One likely reason for the surge in ADHD diagnoses over the past decade has to do with the way schools have cut back on recess and physical education programs in an effort to devote more time to academics. As we noted in strategy #1, kids with an ADHD diagnosis need to have regular times for expending surplus energy and exercise. PE is an important part of that effort.
Work with your school officials, PTA chapter, or other school group to establish a PE program that is more than just waiting for one’s turn at kickball. Or, try to prioritize after-school activity and movement—get your child involved in a sport that she loves like soccer, basketball, or track and field (either as an extracurricular activity or with a community team.)
7. Foster good home-school communication
Sometimes a child’s behavioral problems at school can be tied to a poor relationship with his teacher. Start the year out by introducing yourself to his teacher(s), inform her of his strengths and his unique style of learning (e.g. ask if he can be allowed to sit with one knee on his chair seat if that really helps him focus), and set up lines of communication where the teacher can report on how things are going at school (texting can be a quick and easy channel.)
Wiggly children exist and they are wonderful and smart and excellent additions to the classroom. They just need some guidance and assistance from the adults around them. Unless your child’s teacher has “wiggle furniture’’ (e.g. stand-up desks, stability balls to sit on, or wobble chairs that move in all directions), you’ll need to be diplomatic in suggesting ways in which your child’s energetic nature can be softened in the classroom.