Friend or Foe? Fidget Toys in the Classroom

Fidget Toys: the very thought can make teachers (and parents) groan and roll their eyes. From stress balls to fidget spinners, there always seems to be some new gadget taking over your classroom. Should they be banned? Should they be embraced? The debate has been ongoing ever since stress balls first gained popularity in the 1980s. The practice of using sensory tools, however, has been around for much longer. Baoding balls originated during the Ming dynasty and were used to reduce stress, improve brain function, and aid in dexterity development. Before weighted blankets, there were Turkish yorgans which date back to the 16th century. The average winter yorgan weighed anywhere from nine to thirteen pounds. Komboloi, or “worry beads”, were used in Ancient Greece to promote relaxation.

While these sensory tools might have been around for centuries, the science behind them has only recently been looked into. Dr. Anna Jean Ayres first identified Sensory Integration in the 1960’s when she noticed there were children who struggled with functional tasks who didn’t fit into the specific categories of disability that were used at the time. She developed the term “Sensory Integrative Dysfunction” to describe the problems faced by children whose brains struggle to receive, process, or respond to sensory input. Sensory input instructs us on how to respond to our environment and there are consequences from being over or under-stimulated, especially for children who are still learning how to process these cues. When confronted with bright lights, messy or cluttered spaces, and loud noises, children can become agitated and retreat to quieter spaces; whether that is physically finding relief in a less stimulating area or by shutting off their sensory receptors and essentially shutting down. When stimulation is restricted, as is common in a traditional classroom, children will find their own ways to meet their sensory needs. Teachers know exactly what this looks like: tapping, bouncing up and down, kicking, touching everything and everyone, chewing on pencils, making noises, or getting out of their seat to go on some made-up “but I really needed to throw this away” mission.

This is exactly where fidget toys come in handy. (Ha! I didn’t even realize that was a pun until revising this post). And I’m not talking about fidget spinners in all their noisy, distracting glory.

It might be counter-intuitive to think that doing two things at once can enhance a student’s ability to focus on their lessons but evidence is slowly backing it up. One study demonstrated how increased movement boosted the cognitive performance of children with ADHD. Another found that students who used stress balls had improved focus, attitude, social interactions, and even writing abilities. The trick with fidget toys is finding those that don’t require so much brain power that they pull focus from the main task. How many of you have your own fidget methods that you revert to without realizing? Do you chew on pencils or repeatedly click your pen? Perhaps you doodle or bounce your leg. We all have different ideas of what an optimal “focus zone” looks like and it’s important to help students discover their own learning styles and preferences. It’s important for adults too–I decided to invest in my own fidget toys a few months ago and I always keep one at my desk. 

Looking out over your sea of pupils, it can be a little overwhelming to try and figure out their individual needs but as I always say, “When in doubt, ask it out!” As you go into a new school year, reach out to the parents and ask what has helped their child calm down in the past. Do they have a history of thumb-sucking? They would probably respond well to chewelry or rubber pencil toppers. Having a quiet space in your classroom or noise-canceling headphones would be good options for children who need time alone in their room to defuse. Some students need physical contact in order to stay grounded so pressure vests or weighted lap pads would benefit them the most. 

Another great way to learn your students’ individual learning styles is to involve them! Have them complete a task while adjusting the volume of background noise and have a discussion about which one was easiest for them to work with. Give them fidget toys to use while reading to them or showing them a video and then ask them if they were able to focus better or if it was a distraction. This also helps your students develop self-regulation skills. Giving your students access to different sensory tools allows them to stop seeing them as toys and start to recognize when they really need them.

If this sounds like wishful thinking, there are lots of people who would agree with you. Fortunately there are also lots of tips and tricks out there to help you integrate fidget toys into your classroom. Here are some of the most common ones that I encountered in my research:

  1. BOUNDARIES. Work with your students to come up with rules for the fidget toys that they are willing to follow. Post the rules somewhere in your classroom as a visual reminder.
  2. Have a variety of tools available to the class. This can prevent jealousy among students and allows you to use discretion in deciding what toys are actually beneficial. 
  3. Find toys that don’t produce noise or require sight to use. The kids should be able to use their hands or feet to fidget while using their eyes and ears to learn.
  4. Be patient! Once your students get used to the sensory tools in the classroom, the novelty will wear off and they’ll be less of a distraction.
  5. Remind your students that “fair” isn’t the same thing as “equal”. Different people have different needs and it’s important to support those needs.

Ultimately the choice to integrate sensory tools into your classroom is up to you! The fad fidget toys will come and go, but there are plenty of tried and true options that can really work wonders when properly used.

Are fidget toys a menace to society or a misunderstood ally? What challenges or successes have you seen come from them?

Making Kindergarten Decisions

kindergarten decisions

Late last winter I wrote a post about when I should send my late summer birthday daughter to Kindergarten and how hard the decision was for us. From what I’ve gathered, it’s a fairly common debate parents have when their children are late-summer birthdays. One of the hardest parts is that there are so many pros and cons that go into the two different options, and you never will be able to know what the better decision is because you can’t choose them both and compare and contrast the situations. You just have to dive right in with what you feel is best and go with it! 

It was one day after my daughter came home from preschool with a few extra letter activities from the days she missed school that my husband and I really started talking about it. We had participated in plenty of discussions up until that point, but watching her sit there and carry out what she was excited to call “homework” as she wrote her letters to the best of her ability, really made us dig deep to discuss it. 

I had always been leaning towards holding her back and instead of sending her to kindergarten, filling her days with other enriching activities like preschool and tumbling classes during that year instead. However, after seeing her excitement and love for learning, it helped me feel better about placing her in a classroom a little sooner. My husband had always leaned towards the same as I, but I think his perspective was changed as well at that moment. 

Another hard part of the decision-making process was that she is our first child, and we have other children with late summer birthdays in our family to consider as well. If we sent her next year to kindergarten but ended up holding our son back a year from school, it would make them 3 grades apart in school, but only 2 years apart in age! There are just way too many factors to take into consideration! It’s stressful! 

And my last biggest worry was…. Will she be ready for kindergarten next year? 

Both Mary and I have written multiple articles on kindergarten prep and why we need to stop buying into the idea that our kids aren’t ready because they aren’t ready academically. I’ll link a few. 

How Kindergarten Prep Frenzy Changed My Teaching Perspective

10 Signs That Your Child Is More Ready for Kindergarten Than You Might Think Spoiler alert: none of these have to do with letters, numbers, or writing their name! 

Reading Before Kindergarten- Is It Really Necessary?

However, even though I know this information is out there and the research behind it stands strong about how our children should be learning and growing at this age, I still have that parent guilt that I’ve bought into. The second the possibility of my child attending kindergarten near year came up, my first thoughts turned to letters. She can name the majority of the letters, but not all. And as far as what sounds they make… yeesh. Not sure about that! Also, she has a LONG name and she can only write the first half of her name unassisted! And what about numbers? I actually don’t even know if she can identify her numbers… Is she even going to be ready?! 

Okay, deep breaths. 

First, it is currently November, meaning the school year is not even halfway over yet. She still has so much time to continue learning and growing in preschool. And on top of that, she can still go into kindergarten with the knowledge she currently has academically, because her social/emotional skills are there. Her ability to play with others and independently is where it needs to be. She knows how to pick up a book and turn the pages the correct way, even if she can’t read it yet. She can get her shoes on and off by herself, use the bathroom on her own, take care of her own jacket and backpack, and more. She’s more ready than I will EVER give her credit for. 

I’ve said from the day she was born, “If there’s any child that’s going to walk early, it will be her.” and when she took her first steps at 9 months old, walking independently by 10 months old, she proved me right. 

“If there’s any child that is going to ride her bike early, it’s going to be her.” and just a few weeks shy of her 4th birthday, she was taking off on her two-wheeler! 

“If there’s any kid that is going to excel and do great at kindergarten, regardless of her age, it’s going to be her.” and I absolutely know that to be true. So at last, we have come to a decision. Our daughter will be starting her journey to school in the 2022-23 school year, and she’s going to do amazing. I can already tell. Even if she doesn’t know all of her letters and numbers yet. 

The Pros And Cons of Public School

When sending your child to school, there are a lot of options out there, not just public schools. It can be overwhelming to make a decision with so many options, what are the differences between public schools and charter schools? What about private schools? Is homeschool an option for your family? 

Over the next few weeks I am going to break down facts about different types of schools, listing pros and cons and points that may help you better make a decision. For today- let’s talk about public schools. 

Public schools are scattered throughout the nation, typically with boundaries throughout neighborhoods saying which homes attend which schools. Because they are open to the public, they are inexpensive. Usually, only a small fee for registration, if that. 

However, with the boundaries public schools bring, oftentimes it can mean lower-income students are clumped together and higher-income students are clumped together, which can lead to lower diversity levels. This stems from redlining. 

Public schools can create a sense of community for kids because they go to school with the same kids in their neighborhood. They walk together, play together, and go to school together. Another great aspect of public schools is oftentimes they are located close enough to homes that your child can walk or bike to school. 

A downside to public school is the amount of time it takes for new innovation to be adopted into the curriculum. Typically charter or private schools are more likely to bring in these methods before public schools do. 

It can also be hard to obtain a more individualized education because of larger class sizes, many parents can find concerns in not enough time and attention on their student and the help they need. 

Public schools are government funded, therefore the government plays a big role in not only the funding, but the teaching, the policies, etc. 

Overall, public schools have multiple pros and cons. And while some of these points may be a positive aspect to one person, it could mean a negative point to another. The purpose of this article is not to sway you one way or another, but to simply inform. 

What else would you include about public schools that might help a parent make a decision about what type of school they would choose for their children? 

Four Day School Week: The Pros And Cons

Your typical school week: Monday-Friday with the hours sometime between 7 am- 4 pm. But slowly over the nation, schools are switching to a four day school week. Class runs Monday- Thursday with an added 40-60 minutes each day to compensate for the lost time by not having the schools run on Fridays. Sometimes even starting school earlier in the school year, or keeping kids a few days later in the spring to again, make up for the lost time. 

At first, this may not seem worth it. In the end, the time spent at school is the same, just spread differently. So what are the pros and cons? 

Pros: 

Schools that have shortened to four days saw an increase in student attendance. 

Utility bills were less, as well as a decrease in labor costs and bus expenses. 

Teachers are less stressed and happier because they have an extra day for their weekend. 

The fifth day of the week can be used for tutoring, school activities, and collaboration between teachers and peers, still leaving Saturday for free time, instead of taking up the entire weekend. 

Cons: 

Students who are special needs or behind academically had a harder transition to the shorter week. 

Juvenile crime rates went up significantly. 

Longer days of school can be harder on the students, especially the younger grades. 

Childcare expenses can become a problem for working parents. 

The research is scattered for four day school weeks, a study in one state shows thousands of dollars saved, with reading and math scores going up, while another school shows no money saved and test scores dropping for a few years before they start to rise again. 

One thing that does seem fairly consistent in the research is the first five or so years of adapting to the new schedule for schools with negative side effects before seeing improvement in the later years. This alone is a big reason districts are hesitant to change. But overall, will the change improve long-term results? Is it worth it at the cost of potentially putting students through a few hard years? Some are saying no, others are saying yes. 

What side of the fence are you on? What other pros and cons do you see?