Dr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, MBA
When Kids Can't Sit Still: 5 Reasons and 5 Solutions
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
They're up. They're down. They're lying on their tummies, their sides, and their backs at circle time when they're supposed to be sitting.
Some children struggle to sit still, and we feel for them. Sometimes even adults need to move. But the problem is that a child who can't sit still distracts other children, puts them at risk for bumping into something (or someone), and they don't seem to be paying attention.
So, what to do?
First, let's step back and think a moment. There is a reason for every child's behavior. I love this quote that puts challenging behavior into perspective:
"What we sometimes see as a failure to BEHAVE properly, is actually a failure to COMMUNICATE properly." - Author Unknown
The challenge is that we often don't know WHY a child is behaving a certain way. As parents, teachers, and therapists, it is up to us to try to understand and figure this out. Below are 5 common reasons a child can't sit still, along with possible solutions/supports for each of these.
1- Weak Core Strength
In today's world, children don't play the way they used to.
To fully understand the reason for weak core strength with many children, think back to the way children used to move: They rolled down hills, played with hula-hoops, rode on teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds. Even though there are swings in every park still, children spend less time than ever before just hanging on and pumping.
Weak core strength makes it challenging for kids to hold themselves upright - and so they move, constantly shifting positions and wiggling. Sitting still tires them out.
The solution here is twofold. First, try to encourage kids to move daily. Get them running, jumping, spinning in circles. Encourage them to climb and swing and somersault. Second, in the classroom or during circle time, try positioning this child beside a wall to give him something to lean against. Or provide other alternative seating, like a big beanbag to sit in. These seating options, and others like it, will provide support for this child's weak core muscles and will better enable him to pay attention.
2- Sensory-Seeking Behavior
We are all born with different likes and dislikes. This includes our preferences for food and music and movies and reading materials. It also includes our sensory preferences. We all know people who love movement - the faster, the better. They love amusement park rides and would choose a fast motor boat over a quiet paddle-board ride. Others feel an adverse reaction to intense movement input.
Sensory-seeking behavior is seen when a child "seeks out" a specific type of movement. For these kids, sitting still is hard. As occupational therapists, we say that these kids are seeking "vestibular" (movement) sensory input. They may be hanging on their chairs, rocking back and forth, jumping to the ground and then crawling on the floor.
Again, the suggestion here is twofold:
First, give this child the movement she needs. At the start of their day, encourage this child to run and run about the playground, to play on equipment, to swing. This may satisfy some of her need for vestibular movement so she is ready to listen and learn.
Second, offer this child "appropriate" vestibular movement within the classroom setting. This is the ideal child to sit on a therapy ball (providing she can use it safely) or a move and sit cushion (a small, inflated cushion placed on her chair that allows a child to wiggle as much as she wants). Allow this child to stand, to take "walks" around the classroom, to do wall-pushups, to stretch and bend. (This is a child who would benefit from Brain Breaks worked into her daily routine).
3- Sensory-Avoiding Behavior
This reason represents another type of sensory concern, but has little to do with movement. Often these are children who are overly sensitive to noise and touch. In order to function well in a classroom, a student must be able to ignore and filter out sensory input that is irrelevant. These might include blocking out the sounds of shuffling feet on the carpet or the sniffles of another child, the discomfort of his shirt tag on his neck, the feel of a child brushing against him, again and again, during circle time. These children don't know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. It leaves them uncomfortable and more often then not, we see them shifting about, struggling to sit still, clearly unhappy.
Help a child like this understand himself better. Ask questions when you have him alone: What do you like about your spot in the classroom? What bothers you? What is the toughest thing about meeting time? A child may help by offering some insight. This can provide you with some quick fixes such as moving him away from the busier part of the classroom or not sitting him next to a particularly chatty peer. But he also may not be able to answer these questions.
Offer this child sensory supports. Would a pillow on his lap comfort him during stressful times? Can this child sit in a place at the end of the group so he won't be bumped by anyone? Play detective and try to find solutions to help him cope. Ironically, sometimes helping a child to understand himself better is the biggest help of all. Using simple stories may help him get through. "Meeting time is hard. But it only lasts ten minutes and you can sit in the rocking chair if you feel sad or worried."
4- Child Immaturity The Reason:
It is important to remember that we work with a range of students in regards to age, life experience, and exposure to books and learning. A given child may simply be too immature for a given lesson. The lesson may be too long. Or she may be struggling with simply being in a classroom with other children, dealing with issues, such as social pressures, sharing, and the classroom schedule's demands.
Provide a child like this some accommodations during times when she is expected to sit, but can't. Perhaps give her a beanbag chair to make it easier for her to stay in her spot and set up a reward system for when she manages to make it through fifteen minutes of meeting time. Alternatively, if you have an assistant, this person can take the younger students to another part of the classroom during the last half of circle when their young attention span has already faded.
5- Unrealistic Expectations
We all know that the academic standards for preschool and kindergarten students have shifted, with children expected to master more skills and knowledge than ever before. The problem is that children haven't changed. Developmentally, what a child was capable of twenty years ago, is what a child the same age can master today. Feeling overwhelmed by classroom instruction may make a child frustrated. This could make any child wiggle and squirm!
This is where your judgement as a parent, teacher, or therapist comes in. You already know, I'm sure, which child feels frustrated by classroom material. I recommend you offer this child opportunities to move about and release some of the tension he is feeling. Also, do what you can, as you are likely doing, to lessen the academic demands.
Let me leave you with a final thought: Consider more flexible seating throughout your classroom. There need to be ground rules, but it often helps to let a child stand, to let him use a move and sit cushion, to allow kids to lie in a quiet corner when reading books or to curl up in a beanbag chair or blankets.
I hope this blog is helpful. Feel welcome to share any of your favorite coping strategies in the comments. I would love to hear them!
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Lisa Marnell MS, OTR/L