Bad Habits and Fidgeting at School

A boy playing with a pencil during class.
A little fidgeting is much less disruptive than playing with a pencil or other things kids might do in school. Photo by Getty Images

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.

Bad Habits and Fidgeting

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.

How to Help Stop Bad Habits

One option is to try and convince the teachers to try and be a little more forgiving and ignore the behavior.

You can explain to your child's teachers that this behavior is a habit and that you are working on helping them 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 them anxious and drawing so much attention to the fidgeting will likely just make them 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, finger squeezer, would help. Or rubbing a bracelet, coiled keychain, or pencil grip. Anything that your child can do silently and that your teacher and others maybe won't notice — silent classroom fidgets.

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 stopping 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 they don't have any specific medical problems, may help you convince their teachers to work with you a little more productively on eliminating the behavior.

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.

You might even tell his teacher than the latest studies find benefits for people who fidget.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.