The Truth About Fidget Spinners and Anxiety

Teachers across the country are grappling with whether fidget spinners and fidget cubes belong in the classroom. Here’s why.

fidget-spinners
Photo by Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As I researched this story, several friends told me that their children had come home from school in the last few weeks saying they had to have a fidget spinner or fidget cube—even going so far as to diagnose themselves. “I tried to explain to my daughter that they are designed to help some kids pay attention,” said one second grade mom in Westchester County, New York whose daughter wanted a cube. “She proceeded to say that she fidgets and needs help paying attention. Within a week, everyone had them, and they had spread throughout the school, so I just gave up,” the mom says. “And then last week, her teacher announced the ban.”

Likewise, A Los Angeles father told me that his fifth grader declared that he had attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and had to have a spinner. The dad explained to his son that he does not in fact have ADHD, but did agree to buy him one at Walgreen’s for $6, even though his school just respectfully asked parents for their help in communicating to their children that fidget spinners are no longer allowed on campus.

Perhaps these children—and others like them—have gotten wind of the fact that spinners did not originate as toys, but rather as tools for people with special needs. Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD, a psychologist in San Diego, California, and author of Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers, theorizes that University of California, Davis professor Julie Schweitzer’s study, which was published in the June 2015 issue of Child Neuropsychology: A Journal on Normal and Abnormal Development in Childhood and Adolescence and publicized in The New York Times, is the one many people point to in their defense of fidget tools. In the study, Schweitzer found that letting hyperactive children fidget allows them to concentrate better. “This has become the chapter and verse for evidence that [fidget tools] help kids with ADHD,” explains Palladino.

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The low price of these in-demand toys also plays a large part in their success. Many parents, myself included, would probably put up a fight if the latest fad cost upwards of $20, or was hard to come by, but knowing that my grande latte costs about the same as a drugstore spinner, I didn’t have a problem granting my children’s wish. Though some retailers, like Toys R Us, are still waiting on their shipments to come in, a search for “fidget spinner” on Amazon yields more than 39,000 results, so there are plenty to choose from. Even gas stations and convenience stores are carrying inexpensive versions. Most sellers are marketing them as tools to ease anxiety or help those diagnosed with ADHD or autism. The parents buying them for their children may not believe that, but attention-grabbing descriptors like “stress reducer” and “anxiety relief” are no doubt helping drive sales both in stores and online.

Fidget Toys for ADHD

John Paul Garrison, Psy.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist in Roswell, Georgia says, “In principle, it makes sense that fidget spinners could soothe people with ADHD or enhance concentration. Given that being kinetic (e.g., moving around) helps facilitate enhanced cognition for people who struggle with attention, something like a fidget spinner may provide a satisfying visual and kinetic experience.” For children, there is a social aspect to it as well, which is probably the healthiest benefit they provide. For adults, there is a visual and tactile reward when using a fidget spinner, which may actually help when problem-solving at work, explains Garrison. “That said, it is also conceivable that playing with an ink pen or tapping one’s fingers may provide the same benefits. There has not been any research on fidget spinners specifically,” he reminds us.

Fidget Toys for Anxiety

Robert Duff, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in Camarillo, California, believes they can help in several ways. “For people who live with anxiety, fidget toys serve a couple different purposes,” he says. “Anxiety often leads to agitation and a desperate yearning to do something about the internal discomfort that anxiety brings. Without a proper outlet of coping strategies, this discomfort can lead to things like skin picking, scratching, or other disruptive behaviors. Putting a fidget toy in someone’s hand can sometimes help them channel this nervous energy into a more constructive outlet,” he says.

Fidget Toys for Autism

Duff also believes that fidget tools can help people who have autism spectrum disorders. “A common characteristic of these disorders is a tendency to engage in self-stimulatory behavior, commonly referred to as 'stimming,’” he explains. “These are repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, excessive blinking, rocking, or playing with fingers and objects in shining light,” says Duff. “For individuals who have autism spectrum disorders that allow them to participate in mainstream school or work, stimming can cause concern or distraction in their peers, and ultimately lead to embarrassment for the person with the disorder. Fidget toys provide a less distracting, more socially acceptable means to stim,” he says.

Dustin Miller, head of sales and marketing for Legit Fidget (legitfidget.com) has stumbled upon an entirely unexpected benefit of these popular toys. “Based on our social media metrics, sales, and analytics, we realized the potential for targeting people who need fidget tools to help quit smoking. We have had lots of one-on-one phone calls with our customers and truly believe that they are helping people.” Given that the chemical dependency to nicotine ceases in a matter of days, providing people with something to hold in their hands can help a great deal.

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Lastly, Duff adds that there is also a meditative effect that can happen. “There is something therapeutic and rhythmic about the action of fidget spinners that is satisfying and trancelike,” he says. “This can help someone get out of their head a bit and actually lower their overall level of anxiety, which theoretically would enable them to better focus on school or work.”

Palladino, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that any studies support a fidget tool’s effectiveness in reducing anxiety and recommends an entirely different course of action. “As a clinician,” she says, “I would encourage parents who want to reduce their child’s anxiety to use tools based on cognitive-behavioral strategies, which are evidence-based. These include techniques like stopping to take a deep breath, strength-centered, calming self-talk, modeling effective stress-management, keeping reasonable schedules and realistic expectations, and making healthy life style choices, such as sleep, nutrition, physical exercise, limiting screen time, and having supportive family time together that’s relaxing, fun, and provides undivided attention,” she says.

Classroom Fidgets

So where does that leave teachers? While some schools are outright banning them, others are taking a more thoughtful approach, considering both the child and the circumstances. “The challenge becomes harnessing the child’s physical energy in a constructive way,” says Jillian Schuh, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist in Appleton, Wisconsin. “In the school setting, children who exhibit excess energy are often making noises, tapping their pencils, rummaging through their desks, or frequently moving about the room. This disrupts their learning as well as the learning of others in their classroom,” explains Schuh. “Sensory tools, such as fidgets, provide an energy outlet that, when used properly, can help a child be more engaged and less disruptive. This includes teaching students the purpose of the tool, as well as the appropriate times to use it,” she says. “The ideal sensory tool will provide enough stimulation so that it helps to control movement, while at the same time not being so engaging or fun that it distracts from learning.”

In addition to sensory tools, Schuh says there are a variety of behavioral strategies that can be used to promote emotional and behavioral regulation. “Modifications that can help with attention include requesting eye contact from children when giving a direction, keeping instructions brief, having children repeat or teach back what they just heard, and frequent breaks,” she explains. “In a classroom environment, having a child sit near the front of the room can reduce distractions and give the teacher opportunity to provide subtle redirection and guidance. There are also programs that have been designed to teach children about better controlling their emotions and behaviors.”

Duff believes that fidget toys should be used in schools, but not by everyone. “They should not be made into toys,” he insists. “To be most effective, fidget tools should actually be treated as tools. When they are used as a cool toy, these gadgets start to serve a different purpose. Instead of serving as a coping tool for some legitimate issue, they begin to serve the purpose of gaining the person attention,” he says. “That can be counterproductive because then the person is focusing their attention on the reactions of others rather than on school or work.”

Ashanti W. Woods, MD of Baltimore, Maryland, recognizes that there are probably some situations in which spinners should be banned. “However, when graphing calculators were new,” he points out, “they too were considered to be a distraction in some instances, and banning those today would seem a bit silly. So, perhaps a little more time for schools, parents, and students to get used to fidget spinners is all that is needed. Either way, parents should have a good talk with their children regarding respectful use of fidget spinners. In my opinion,” Woods says, “fidget spinners are harmless fun—when used responsibly. They are similar to the hype of the yo-yo, slinky, and butterfly knockers. While I expect the excitement of fidget spinners to die down some, I also anticipate people of all ages will find ways to not be bored.”