Fidget spinners have been wildly popular since they burst on the scene in December 2016. Touted as a way to alleviate anxiety and the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, spinners have also created not a little controversy. Teachers have had to ban them from the classroom, since the toys tend to distract, well, anyone who isn’t using one. And that would include the teachers.
Imagine a classroom filled with kids turning these things around in their hands all day long, and you begin to get a picture of what today’s classroom looks like. Unless the teacher should intervene to ban the toys. How do you teach students to conjugate French verbs or draw an isosceles triangle while 30 of them are spinning their fidget spinners?
In case you live in a cave, and have no idea what a fidget spinner might be, these handheld devices are like small propellers attached to ball-bearings. The user rotates the toy between the fingers to make it spin. The vibrations of the ever-cycling fidget spinner provide a sensory experience. The sensations help relieve sensory overload, enabling the user to regain focus, for instance in the classroom.
Fidget spinner marketing may describe the toys as aids for those with learning disabilities like ADHD, or as a device that can free up the mind to reach its fullest potential. Scientists and experts remain unimpressed. Marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar is concerned with children developing a dependency on spinners. “The goal is to have a mindful and participatory experience in life situations. If a student is focusing on the fidget spinner the pupil is not engaged in the moment with the full sensory experience.
“Fidget Spinners are good for a beginning, but ideally children would be encouraged not to depend on them for the long process and to taper off with mindfulness practice and being present and participating. This takes practice,” says Bahar.
Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, disagrees. “Fidget spinners are intended to help children with ADHD and Sensory Integration Disorder focus their attention. Squeezing a golf ball-sized Nerf ball or spinning a spinner helps distract the jittery, impulsive child from acting out of turn in the classroom.
“For example, if the impulsive child quickly calls out answers to the teacher’s questions before giving his classmates a chance to raise their hands, he can try spinning a fidget spinner to serve as a helpful reminder to ‘Stop, spin, raise your hand, and wait for the teacher to call your name.'”
There are, on the other hand, other toys that provide sensory stimulation without causing so much disruption. Fidget cubes, for instance are quiet and don’t draw the eye like a spinner. These dice-shaped objects fit in the palm of the hand and have various interactive doodads on the sides, for example dials and push buttons. Users simply press, click, or dial, to release pent up nervous energy. The cubes have a modest following among executives, who like to fiddle with the cubes during dull conference call meetings or while stuck in traffic jams.
Teachers might prefer their students use fidget cubes. But the fidget spinner is the runaway bestseller. It’s a fad, a trend, and the irony is that what is supposed to help kids focus, is distracting the heck out of everyone else. Especially those who must confront a classroom full of fidget spinning students each day. Dr. Wendy Hirsch Weiner, a principal and social studies teacher at a small school with an outsized population of students with ADHD finds fidget spinners make learning impossible. “Several of our students came to school with the spinners last semester and we as teachers all found that the students became very focused on the spinners and were not able to concentrate on anything else. The spinners would drop from their hands and the students would spend time finding them on the floor. Several of the kids had light-up spinners, which became even more of a stimulant and increased the hyperactivity of our already distracted students. Our school will be banning spinners this coming fall.”
Dr. John Mayer, a leading expert on kids and families and the author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance In Life, says it even stronger. “Horrible, horrible, horrible!
“First, even if they have some therapeutic benefit, a diversion device like this, takes the person away from developing ‘compensation techniques’ that are necessary for the long-term control of their condition and better functioning.
“Second, by allowing spinners in the classroom and other settings such as activities, clubs, church, what effect do these have on the remainder of the kids??
“Third, in that same respect, these spinners have disastrous effects on classroom discipline and order.”
Asked what parents should do to help their children with special needs, Mayer says, “Work with them to overcome their lack of focus in ways that are socially appropriate and build life-long skills, such as taking more time to read the material; have them make notes in the margins of books; help them to memorize material; and work with them using flash-cards and learning drills rather than toys and gimmicks.”
The fidget spinner may be the bane of every teacher’s existence, but the toys have accomplished something positive. There’s more awareness of attention deficit. There’s more awareness of the need of some children (and adults) for extra sensory stimulation as a result of the fidget spinner’s popularity.
There are some parents of children with disabilities who praise the fidget spinner to the skies. Children and adults with autism engage in repetitive behaviors to relieve sensory overload. This is called “stimming.”
Chewing on chewelry, or handling items like Koosh balls or even something as simple as a rubber ice cube tray, can help those with autism self-treat and calm their sensory overload. The fidget spinner is just the latest iteration of an old-school group of toys for this purpose. But children with autism who are mainstreamed may depend on such sensory toys to relieve the stress that builds up during the school day. It may, in fact, not be possible for the child with autism to be mainstreamed without that crutch. For such a child, stimming with a fidget spinner tends to level the playing field and make the child with autism feel less different, less stand-out, and more cool; more like her neurotypical classmates.
That’s why banning the fidget spinner can seem almost cruel. Some educators and therapists see the fidget spinners as tools rather than toys. These experts believe that fidget spinners can enhance classroom performance if accepted as part of classroom culture. In this sense, fidget spinners would be considered part and parcel of a student’s learning strategy.
Most teachers believe, however, that the spinner is thought of as a toy, used like a toy, and an annoying toy at that.
Research suggests that children with ADHD who are allowed to move around the classroom may do better at tasks that involve the working memory. This is the type of memory that is used to process new information. Another study found that children with ADHD do better in their schoolwork after exercising. “Ensuring that children, with or without special needs, have opportunities to move, stretch, and release energy throughout the school day is critical to managing anxiety, boosting focus, and helping children manage their impulses. Building in extra recess time, ensuring that kids are encouraged to move and play during breaks and recess (as opposed to habitually losing time as a punishment), and implementing curriculum that teaches stress management skills such as meditation and mindfulness are excellent ways to help students cope with restlessness and improve focus,” says Stephanie O’Leary, Psy.D., a clinical child neuropsychologist, expert in child behavior, and author of Parenting in the Real World.
Fidget Spinners Too New For Research
While no studies have specifically targeted fidget spinners—they’re too new—at least one study suggests that fidget spinners can improve the academic performance in children with ADHD. The aforementioned study found that children with ADHD who receive sensory intervention therapy sessions were better able to focus and learn without distraction in a noisy classroom environment. The therapy sessions for the students in this study included brushing the skin both lightly and deeply, swinging on swings, and working with an exercise ball.
The research does suggest that both movement and sensory stimulation improve academic performance in children with ADHD. These same studies would also appear to suggest, however, that a child who uses a fidget spinner outside of the classroom for a long enough time may also receive the full benefit from fiddling with a spinner. If your child’s teacher bans spinners from the classroom, this may be the way to go: have your child use his spinner outside the classroom at every opportunity and then see if his classroom performance improves.
Using a spinner in the hours outside of school would also solve the problem of creating a distraction for neurotypical students and teachers. Not to mention that fidget spinners are arguably dangerous. Some fidget spinners have been found to contain unacceptable levels of lead and/or mercury. Some children have choked on the small parts of broken spinners. One child had to have a piece of a spinner removed from his finger under general anesthesia. And the spinners aren’t sturdy. They break all too easily, increasing the danger to children from choking on small parts.
Experts suggest that parents read and follow age labels on fidget spinners and only purchase them at reputable toy shops. The better shops only stock toys that have undergone U.S. testing. Fidget spinners that light up should have a locked in battery. After purchase, look over the toy at least daily, keeping an eye out for broken parts that can serve as choking hazards. If the spinner breaks, replace it with a new one, following the same guidelines.