Fidget Toys: Do they really work?

When we offer training to teachers and volunteers, we’re often asked if fidget toys, like stress balls and tangles, really work to help students to focus and manage behavior. Our answer? Yes. And no. Some days, beautifully. Other days? Not so much. Certain kids? You bet. Others? Hardly ever.

Helpful, aren’t we?

Special education professionals agree that the effectiveness of fidget toys largely depends on the needs of the child. While fidgets are a popular recommendation at IEP planning meetings and workshops, they are not a cure-all. Sheri Halagan, a National Board Certified Teacher comments, “I wish they were the answer for every child. They’re not.”  Intervention Specialist Amy Belew, also a National Board Certified Teacher agrees: “They become a distraction for so many kids.”

Teachers and volunteers wonder, then, why fidget toys work like “magic” for some kids, but not others. Child psychologist Dr. Sherri McClurg explains that this is based on the strengths and needs of the child.”Fidgets are great for kids with anxiety or spectrum disorders; kids with ADHD will struggle to use them.” She continues by explaining that fidget toys may fill a sensory need for students on the spectrum, and also can reduce tension and nervousness in kids who struggle with anxiety. Students with ADHD, however, may become focused on the fidget toy to the exclusion of the class discussion or activity.

Unfortunately, many volunteers and pastors don’t have the luxury of knowing students’ diagnoses in order to apply a “diagnostic and prescriptive” approach to intervention. So, then, what can the church folks do to help all students pay attention and participate effectively?

  • Be a good student of your students. Observe them carefully and decide what strategies might be appropriate based on what you see and hear.
  • Teach them HOW to fidget. “Kids don’t know as much as we think they know about how to act in the classroom,” Halagan shares. Before handing out fidget toys, she advises, teachers should demonstrate their use and allow kids to practice. Later, if a student’s fidget toy is becoming a distraction (e.g. the stress ball is being thrown a target across the room…), Halagan recommends cueing the child with, “Show me how to use that in our class.” This kind of prompt allows the child to remember the rules and practice them.
  • Set limits. If the misuse of the fidget toy continues, Halagan asserts that it is okay to take the toy away with the assurance, “We’ll try this again next time.”
  • Look at yourself. Dr. Rachel Jones, an elementary school principal remarks, “Instead of scrutinizing THEIR behavior, change YOURS.” If students consistently struggle with inattention, teachers should take a look at the pace and content of lessons, the classroom environment and arrangement, and their own interactions with students. Often, changes in teacher behavior can yield great increases in students’ participation and attention.

So, what’s the bottom line? Fidget toys DO work, but they’re not a panacea…and that is something to celebrate, because every child is a unique and fabulous creation.


 PS My favorite source for fidget toys: