Six-year-old Timothy likes to stand up and walk around while eating his dinner. He plays basketball or hockey while watching TV. When reading with his mother, he moves the book up and down, swings his legs back and forth, and makes it hard for her to focus on the words that they’re reading together.
Nine-year-old Caleb doesn’t like to sit straight in his chair at school, preferring instead to work with his knee on the chair, his behind in the air, and his forearms resting on the table. His mom says at home they call him ”our upside-down boy” because when he reads or watches TV his feet are always higher than his stomach and he frequently switches positions.
All across America, parents and teachers are wondering if kids (in particular, boys) aren’t wigglier these days than they’ve ever been before. Statistics seem to bear this out. The number of kids who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States rose from 4.4 million in 2003 to 6.1 million in 2016. The world ADHD drug market is expected to reach $25 billion by 2024.
While some authorities attribute these increases to greater awareness about attention problems and hyperactivity on the part of parents and better detection methods among diagnosticians, other experts aren’t so sure. According to David Elkind, professor and department chairman of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, ”there are a lot of different pressures on kids that could make them anxious and wiggly for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with what’s going on in their brains.”
Elkind points to stresses such as divorce, violence, and working parents with less time to spend with their kids. He also notes that many kids are wiggly because they’re busy just being kids. ”Six and seven year olds are very active, that’s part of being a child,” he says. ”We’ve narrowed the range of normality. A child who used to be called wiggly or ‘all boy’ now is considered attention deficit disordered.”
Learning expert Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds, blames mass media for a large part of America’s epidemic of wiggly children. She says: ”TV, computers, and video game culture create greater expectations of fast-paced fun for kids, expectations that schools and frazzled parents often can’t fulfill.” Healy suggests that parents help kids develop concentration and control through family-based projects such as building a bookcase together, or through simple activities such as washing dishes as a family.
Here are 30 other ways to help your child work out the wiggles and develop self-control and concentration in the process!
- Teach your child to physically relax by having him make his arms stiff like a robot for 10 seconds, then limp like a rag doll for 10 seconds, then have him do the same routine (stiffening and relaxing) for other parts of his body: face, neck, chest, stomach, legs, and arms.
- Make sure your child has a balanced breakfast (protein and carbohydrates), for example, eggs and toast, or a burrito and a piece of fruit. Research suggests that this combo can help reduce wandering attention during the rest of the day.
- On car trips, provide games, puzzles, picture books, and small toys to keep your child’s hands and minds busy (and yes, mobile devices are okay here!).
- Limit television and video games to a maximum of an hour or two a day (the current average is around seven hours). Eliminate all violent programming, or at least watch it with your child and help him make sense of it and think about it reflectively.
- Find out what interests your child (for example, lizards, astronomy, football, or bubbles), and provide opportunities for her to channel her energies into more of these types of constructive activities at home and in school.
- Sign your child up for martial arts instruction (for example, Karate, Aikido, or Tae Kwon Do), which can teach self-discipline, respect for others, physical mastery, and focused attention.
- Encourage your child’s teacher to use highly active approaches to learning, including role play (for example, acting out a scene from a story), hands-on projects (for example, building a 3-D map showing geographical features of your child’s home state with flour dough), and physical movement activities (for example, learning spelling words by standing up on the vowels and sitting down on the consonants as he spells the word out loud). These activities all help discharge the wiggles in a way that promotes learning too.
- Teach your child how to focus her attention through simple meditation, or mindfulness techniques (for example, focus on one’s breath or gaze at a candle for 3 minutes). Or, have her think of a favorite place in her imagination, and keep focused on it for as long as she can.
- Find out what kind of music calms your child down. Allow him to play this music when he feels restless (with earphones on if it turns out that his calming music is not calming to you!).
- Encourage your child to teach something he knows how to do to a younger child (for example, reading, riding a bike, drawing cartoons). This requires him to be the responsible party in the relationship.
- Teach your child ”self-talk” skills (for example, when he feels restless, have him say to himself, ”Calm down,” or ”Whoa!” or ”Hit the pause button!”.
- Give your child special jobs around the house to keep him busy and involved (for example, watering the planets, cooking a family meal, or recycling garbage).
- Show your child how to visualize so he can imagine moving around and not have to wiggle around so much in real life (for example, ”Imagine yourself going outside and running around the block three times”).
- Provide your child with a ”reading rocking chair” (a place where she can read and move rhythmically at the same time). Let her read her wiggles away!
- Use touch to help calm an agitated child. Sometimes a light touch on the back can do wonders to reassure him. For a younger child, holding him in a comforting way can help provide a safe container for his out of control energies.
- Give your child choices (for example, ”Would you like to wash dishes, or take out the garbage?” or ”Do you want to work on the science project, or do your reading homework first?”). Choices empower kids and help them learn self-control.
- Provide immediate feedback to your child on his behavior. For example, videotape your child having a tantrum and then play the video back to him and ask him how it is for him looking at himself in this way (do this in a non-judgmental manner, otherwise he’s likely to become reactive). You can also do this in a simple verbal way: ”I notice that you’re jumping up and down and falling on the floor.”
- Find out your child’s best and worst times of the day for being calm and schedule activities accordingly (for example, if he’s calmer in the morning, plan homework sessions for before breakfast, and let him play after school).
- Hold a positive image of your child. Don’t look at him as ”hyper,” ”attention deficit disordered,” or as a ”holy terror,” but instead, see him as ”energetic,” ”spontaneous,” or ”highly spirited.”
- Put on high-action plays or dramas as a family. Videotape them for later viewing. These activities require planning and cooperation that can help direct wiggly behavior.
- Engage your child in expressive arts activities such as painting, drawing, sculpting, and dancing. These activities channel distraction and hyperactivity into creativity and spontaneity.
- Provide your child with lots of hands-on activities including: origami, carpentry, gardening, construction kits like Legos or D-Stix, 3-D puzzles, or model building.
- Show your child that there are many positive careers out there for highly active people in life. Examples: carpenter, surveyor, recreational worker, emergency room physician, train engineer, forest ranger, fire fighter.
- Show your child how to use the camera and videocam features of your (or your child’s) mobile device, and then let him roam around taking pictures or making movies. This gives him permission to wiggle to his heart’s content and at the same time an opportunity to create something tangible and meaningful that can be shared with others.
- Provide positive role models of relatives, friends, celebrities, and athletes who were very wiggly as children and became successful (for example, Winston Churchill, Louis Armstrong, Steven Spielberg).
- Help your child locate a special ”chill out” center somewhere in the house where he can go to when he gets too agitated (for example, a corner of his bedroom, or a special place in the family room). Permit him to decorate the center as he wishes and let him make the decision to go there whenever he needs a little time to mellow out.
- Spend positive times together with your child doing active things. Examples: go for a walk, do a crafts project together, put on music and dance, play a sport. Be wiggly with your child and it won’t bother you so much!
- Encourage your child’s school to institute a strong physical education program that every child participates in every day.
- Consider seeing a licensed mental health professional if your child’s wiggliness seems to be due to underlying emotional conflicts.
- For some very wiggly kids (and where all of the above have not helped), consider talking with your physician about the potential benefits of medications. When used in conjunction with the types of suggestions described above, the right medication(s) might prove to be a powerful aid to your child’s (and your) well being. If you can, consider working with a behavioral or developmental pediatrician who will usually take a more holistic perspective and not see medications as the only solution.
For more activities, suggestions, and tips to help your child work out the wiggles, see my book The Myth of the ADHD Child, Revised Edition: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion.
This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong