Classroom Benefits of Fidgets and Sensory Tools. How effective are they?
Updated: Nov 11
Implementing effective strategies to engage all students and increase learning is an ongoing concern for educators. This can be especially true for neurodiverse students, such as those with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. A parent survey conducted in 2016 by the CDC estimates ADHD affects 6.1 million children ages 2 to 17. And in 2020, the CDC reported 1 in 54 U.S. children were diagnosed with ASD, with males being four times as likely to be diagnosed than females.
There are three different types of ADHD, but it's important to note that no two children are the same. In general, children with ADHD may struggle with attention, details, listening, initiating or finishing work, regulating their level of activity, organizing tasks, and other executive functioning skills.
If you have a student who struggles with focus, executive functioning skills, sensory processing, or self-regulation skills, you may want to consider using fidget tools and sensory tools to help them self-regulate to achieve their learning goals. When implemented correctly, these tools can help students (and adults) self-regulate their levels of attention and arousal, self-soothe, and focus.
What are fidget tools?
Fidget tools are self-regulation devices that can increase a person’s focus and attention to a task at hand (Ferry, 2017). These tools can provide a calming effect for a student who is feeling dysregulated, such as agitated, or anxious. Fidget tools should not be confused with toys that provide entertainment and take focus away from an important task (Understood, 2019).
Fidget tools come in various shapes, sizes, and textures and are referred to by multiple names. Examples of fidget tools can include stress balls, tangles, and fidget cubes. These devices can also encourage movement and sensory input, which are important for children's development.
Are fidget spinners toys or learning tools?
You probably remember fidget spinners which became widely popular a few years ago. People have debated if these devices were helpful or if they were just another distracting toy. Many schools have banned fidget spinners due to their distractable nature. A study in 2018 concluded fidget spinners negatively affected young children with ADHD’s attentional functioning, even in the context of evidence-based classroom intervention (Garcia, Grazino, Landis, 2018, p. 7).
So, based on the research I've read, and what I've experienced in schools, I'd say in general (these may be different for different children), a fidget spinner is likely more of a toy, rather than a tool. I think one of the reasons for this is because fidget spinners are so fun and visually stimulating that the child keeps their gaze focused at the spinning motion and might become passively inattentive.
Can I play in the kinetic sand? What are sensory tools?
Sensory tools are items that focus on one or more of a person's natural senses to help bring them a level of comfort. Sensory tools often help with self-regulation, and often, when a student has become self-regulated, they can focus and complete assignments. We often use sensory tools in our Calm Corners and in our Mindful Moment Room.
An example of a sensory tool that we often use when a child has an aversion to loud sounds is noise-canceling headphones. Some students can become highly agitated by certain or loud noises. Having these headphones available can create a soothing atmosphere that helps relax the student.
Through consultation with an occupational therapist, you might find you have students who benefit from the use a weighted vest, lap pad, or weighted blanket. These tools help give the child sensory input (like a big hug) and help their proprioception. The proprioceptive system is located in our muscles and joints and provides us with a sense of body awareness and detects/controls force and pressure.
Having weighted material can reassure students of grounded feelings of security and well-being (Hitch, Wilson, Hillman, 2020). And outside of school, many people (including me!) sleep with weighted blankets. Be sure you consult with an OT before using a weighted device for a student, as there are regulations and they are supposed to be a certain percentage of the student's body weight.
Keep in mind, many students need other sensory systems addressed at different times. This is why a sensory diet is so useful for many students. Other sensory systems include visual, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), tactile (skin receptors), and vestibule (inner ear and brain that control balance, eye movement, and spatial orientation).
People learn through our senses, and learning can be impacted if sensory concerns aren't addressed.
Fidget tool vs. Sensory tool. What’s the difference?
Many people do not see any differences between a fidget tool and a sensory tool. When we think of a fidget or fidgeting, we think of tinkering with something through an unconscious impulse. Everyone fidgets, whether it’s tapping their foot, twirling their hair, or clicking a pen. The body needs to release that jittery energy in a satisfying way for the mind to remain focused and productive.
A fidget tool is a device that becomes the outlet for this unconscious behavior. An excellent example of something that can help is the fidget cube. Designed for restless hands, fidget cubes help the person perform an assortment of “fidgeting” movements to focus. This tool does not necessarily engage a person’s senses, but it does fulfill the need to be active in something.
A sensory tool addresses a specific sense or a combination of a person’s senses. Kinetic sand, for example, is a sensory tool. It moves and crumbles like wet sand but is completely dry. Molding this special sand brings a sense of control, satisfaction, and relief which when used for a brief break in a calm corner can help de-escalate a student.
The terms fidget tools and sensory tools (and toys) are often used interchangeably. In short, a fidget tool is an outlet device for movement and impulsivity of the body. A sensory tool serves as a therapeutic outlet for physiological and psychological relief.
What are the benefits and advantages of fidgets and sensory tools?
We cannot think of a fidget or sensory tool as a one-size-fits-all approach. In some instances, an excellent device for one student can easily be a distraction for another student. But, when a student does find the right fidget or sensory tool, it can be beneficial. Sometimes there is trial and error involved.
If using a fidget tool, benefits may include:
An outlet for unchanneled energy.
The repetitive movement is familiar and calming.
Improves readiness to participate in learning.
Creates a safe space for the student to readjust.
Supports participation and engagement.
Helps with interactions that promote skill development.
Develop social skills with peers.
Develop organization skills.
Creating a conducive environment for learning is a dynamic and ever-changing process for teachers and educators. Everyone learns differently, and giving every advantage to our students struggling with attention or initiating and completing work, should be prioritized.
Setting Up Rules for Using Fidget and Sensory Tools to Understand and Avoid Distractions
Let's be honest, if a student doesn't use the tool appropriately, at times there may be problems with distractions involving both fidgets and sensory tools. You may have students try to use a fidget or sensory tool to get out of doing work. It happens, and sometimes the students are successful at this. Work avoidance can derive from a variety of sources - including an issue with confidence or ability, and the student may be trying to avoid work to mask their struggles.
Teachers need to create rules for students to understand using these tools. The Therapy Shoppe has excellent rules such as:
Please use fidgets only during listening activities for focus and relaxation.
Fidgets are never to leave your hands, no tossing, throwing, or dropping them.
Fidgets should not distract other students.
If a fidget is not being used, it needs to be out of sight or in the fidget/sensory box.
Reviewing fidget rules each time before a student uses the fidget will help make the incorporation of fidgets and sensory tools a seamless and positive experience for the students in the classroom!
I have created this visual for you to use with your students to review rules before using a fidget tool. Just scroll up to the top of this page to subscribe to my email list and you'll receive access to my free resource library with this free fidget tool visual and many other social-emotional learning resources!
This fidget tool social story says:
I can make good choices with my fidget. (When first introducing it, you will want to review what both good and poor choices are with specific examples.)
A fidget is a tool, not a toy.
I will use my fidget quietly.
I will keep my fidget on my lap or on my desk.
The last one says: I will stay focused while using my fidget instead of"keep my eyes on the teacher" because I want to respect that for some kids forcing eye contact is not beneficial.
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What makes a good fidget or sensory tool and how to find an effective one?
First, you need to determine if the student fidgets and needs a tool for an outlet. Or does the student have sensory concerns? There are factors to consider here, and you may consider a consultation with your school's occupational therapist.
Depending on how the child presents, it might make sense to create a sensory profile for your student, which your occupational therapist could assess and complete if needed. When the student support team comes together, this may help guide the team in choosing the most appropriate tools to try for the student. Sensory tools and fidget tools may also be a part of the student’s 504 or IEP as one of their accommodations.
If you want to accommodate your student with a fidget or sensory device, here are some questions to consider:
What is the device made of? Will the device be wood, rubber, metal, stone?
Does it have a motion? What kind?
What is the size of the tool?
Is it visually appealing?
Is it quiet or loud when in operation?
Is it expensive?
Is it durable?
Is it heavy?
Is it a tool or a toy?
Is it regulating or will it be more distracting?
Remember, a tool helps a person stay on task or relieve overstimulation. A toy is for entertainment. I've listed some of my favorite fidget tools and sensory toys below!
Adults, Fidgeting, and Fidgets
Adults can benefit from having these tools at their disposal also! As grown-ups having self-regulation tools in our day-to-day lives to get through meetings, sitting down for prolonged periods, and attending long lectures or workshops can help with our attention and focus as well.
Like kids, adults also like to fiddle with things. I’ve seen people construct origami during meetings, and when asked a question, they accurately answered because they remained focused the entire session. Others like to tinker with mechanical puzzles as they speak to another person. Or even draw! Check out this blog post to learn more about how drawing impacts attention, memory, and focus.
Many adults continue to struggle with ADHD and/or sensory issues, and they may have never been diagnosed as children but they still may struggle today (Gyuro, 2021). With all the cool gadgets available today, finding a relieving outlet can bring welcomed benefits to a person’s professional and personal life.
I know of a school counselor who cannot stand overhead lights, so he put these beautiful filters over them! He keeps his room dim, and his students have told him his room looks like a wonderland. The filter not only helps him to remain calm but his students as well. He also uses various fidget tools and sensory tools in his office personally and professionally.
He says, "It's not easy having sensory issues or dealing with ADHD. I know this firsthand, but there are some great tools for educators and adults to use, and we should take advantage of them.”
20 Favorite Fidget and Sensory Tools
Pencil Top Fidgets: I love these because they are so discrete and not an extra thing to lose or misplace.
Ono Roller: I orginally got this for my son but was pleasantly surprised to realize that it’s super helpful as a massage tool for my hand too! I had hand surgery and I’ve recently started back up at OT because the scar tissue was causing me pain and reduced range of motion. I think this would be useful for kids who get sore hands from writing as well... Not to mention that giving yourself a hand massage is a nice self-regulation strategy too.
Tangle Jr: I like these because they are heavy-duty and also small, fun, stimulating, and also quiet. Kids may think they break them sometimes, but they snap back together easily. You can even link multiple ones together to make a larger tangle!
Wacky Tracks: these have a similar feeling to the tangle except they can be straightened out and folded up. These are also affordable.
Mermaid Flip Sequin Bracelets: I LOVE these! I keep some in my desk and let kids borrow them if they're having a hard day. They are sooo soothing! I teach kids to push the sequins in one direction while breathing in, and then smooth them out in the opposite direction while breathing out. This is very calming. You can get these flip sequins in other things too like pillows or keychains, but I think the bracelets are so special!
Infinity Cubes: There is something SO satisfying about these fidgets.
Fidget Cube: The cool thing about this tool is that each side does a different thing. And the other nice thing about this is that it is discrete because it is so small (less than 2" wide) but the downside of that is that it might be lost.
Pop Its: These are all the rage right now and come in all different sizes. I think the bracelets are fun because they're always with the student. The downside is that they make a very quiet sound, that could potentially be distracting to other students.
Stretchy String: These are awesome but can get kind of dirty over time. Also, they can stretch sooo long so could be distracting. I see this more as a sensory tool (rather than a fidget.)
Pin Art: You might remember these from when you were a kid. They are fascinating and satisfying!
Kinetic Sand: This is one of my own personal favorite sensory tools. Some kids don't like the feeling on their hands so I have sand tools for it as well.
Scented Play Doh: This play-doh comes in different scents so you get the kineshetic and olfactory components!
Pop Tubes: My students LOVE these but they are loud so not a good choice for a classroom fidget, but good for a counseling office as a sensory tool!
Water Beads: This is a fun sensory tool. If kids like slime, they might enjoy the feeling of these water beads.
Water Timers: We have these in our Calm Corners as they are very soothing to watch.
Weighted Lap Pad: During the COVID-19 pandemic when I was working on telehealth and fully remote, I actually started using a weighted lap pad myself!
Wiggle Seats: I love these and so do many of my students! You might need an air pump because over time they need to be blown up a bit.
Chair Bands: These are great for kids who need to move and wiggle! They can put their feet on the bands and jiggle around.
Theraputty: These sets are great because they're antimicrobial too! I like to hide small beads or rhinestones in them. They can help with hand strength too which can be helpful with fine motor skill concerns.
Additional Resources to Help with Self-Regulation, Attention, and More
If you're looking for more resources to help kids with self-regulation, executive functioning, or those that need movement to regulate, I think you'll enjoy these blog posts:
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The Benefits of Sensory Toys and Support Tools: Sensory Store NADO. Nepean Area Disabilities Organisation Limited. (2020, December 8). https://nado.org.au/2020/10/22/the-benefits-of-sensory-toys-and-support-tools/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, November 16). Data and Statistics About ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 25). Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
Centre For Autism- Middletown. (n.d.). Proprioceptive - Best Practice. Proprioceptive. https://sensory-processing.middletownautism.com/sensory-strategies/strategies-according-to-sense/proprioceptive/.
Ferry, M. (2017, May 5). Fidgets: What are they and how can they help? - Friendship Circle - Special Needs Blog. Friendship Circle -- Special Needs Blog. https://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2011/10/31/fidgets-what-are-they-and-how-can-they-help/
Graziano, P. A., Garcia, A. M., & Landis, T. D. (2018). To Fidget or Not to Fidget, That Is the Question: A Systematic Classroom Evaluation of Fidget Spinners Among Young Children With ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 24(1), 163–171. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054718770009
Hitch D, Wilson C, Hillman A. (2020) Sensory Modulation in Mental Health Practice. Mental Health Practice. 23(3), 10-16. https://doi.org/10.7748/mhp.2020.e1422
Gyuro, C. (2021, April 16). Fighting the Fidget: How Occupational Therapy Can Help. The DCA Page. https://thedcapage.blog/2021/04/16/fighting-the-fidget-how-occupational-therapy-can-help/
Therapy Shoppe. (n.d.). The benefits of fidget tools. https://therapyshoppe.com/therapists-corner/117-the-benefits-of-fidget-tools
Understood. (2019, October 4). Video: How to Tell the Difference Between a Fidget and a Toy. Understood. https://www.understood.org/articles/en/video-how-to-tell-the-difference-between-a-fidget-and-a-toy