Saturday, November 7, 2015

In Defense of Fidgety Kids

Funny story: As I boarded a plane in Kansas for a late-night trip back to Houston, I found myself in the mood for neither sleep nor reading. Instead, I decided I’d spend the entire flight enjoying some great music with earbuds in my ears. I fastened my seatbelt, closed my eyes and disappeared into my playlist. Two or three songs into my private concert, I opened my eyes and discovered the guy next to me visibly annoyed. To be clear, the guy seemed to be annoyed with me.
Before I say any more, I probably should give a little history here. For twenty years, my wife has been somewhat amused by my involuntary tapping of my fingers, thumbs, hands and/or feet when listening to music. In truth, she’s been pretty amused by my tapping and fidgeting even when I’m not listening to music. It happens when I watch football, when I talk on the phone and when I read, when I’m waiting for a page to load on my laptop. On top of that, I usually have something in my hands - a pen, my phone, a paperclip - when I’m in meetings or when I’m talking in my office. What can I say? People who don’t fidget don’t always get it when other people can’t sit still or be still.
Back to the annoyed guy on the plane… In my defense, I’ve flown plenty of times and I have a pretty keen sense of self-awareness. I realized how close I was sitting to the gentleman last night and, because our knees practically touched, I made an extra effort to keep my feet still even though the music made me want to move. I suppose, however, my hands tapped away involuntarily on my legs and my neighbor didn’t like it. I don’t know why it bothered him so much but clearly it did. Once I realized what was happening, I noticed he continued to look over and stare. He never said anything out loud, but I knew he was sending me a laser-beam stare and bad vibes. Maybe he was easily distracted. Not sure. I am sure he didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit still.
Truth be told, the guy next to me on the plane last night reminds me of teachers who can’t stand it when kids can’t be still. I’m pretty sure you know the type. “Be still.” “Quit tapping.” “Don’t move.” “Sit like a statue no matter how uninteresting I am or how God wired you.” These are teachers who don’t really understand kids and don’t know all the latest research on why kids fidget and why fidgeting is not a bad thing. I didn’t say these teachers don’t like kids. I said they don’t understand, and I stand by that. There’s a greater implication here than teachers simply wanting kids to be still all the time, though, and that’s really what I want to address.
The teachers who can’t stand the fidgeting will be the same teachers who make assumptions about kids’ intelligence, future success, character and more based on how much wriggling and wiggling happens in chairs, at desks, and in lines. Think I’m overstating? My twenty-plus years in education begs to differ with you. The truth is that fidgeting has nothing to do with intelligence or any of the things I mentioned above. At all. And here’s another truth for teachers who don’t get and can’t handle the fidgeting: kids who can’t sit still just might grow up to be adults who can’t sit still, and that will be OK.
When the exec team at my school meets once a week, a dozen sharp and capable professionals gather around a big conference table to discuss policy, practice and more that affects the life of our school. Each member of the exec team sits quietly and attentively in a fancy leather swivel chair through the entire meeting each week. Each team member except for one, that is… Yours truly swivels back and forth in my fancy chair through the entire meeting. Why? I have no idea, except that’s just how I’m wired. I’m sure I swivel in my chair for the same reason I tap my fingers or my feet when listening to music. Surely my boss and colleagues don’t question my attentiveness or intelligence or character. So why does that happen when kids fidget?
Here’s the bottom line. As long as a kid isn’t stabbing a neighbor with his protractor or drumming on his desk so loudly that no one else in class can hear the teacher, teachers need to let a fidgety kid fidget. A fidgety kid who can’t fidget is almost like a kid with vision issues who’s not allowed to wear glasses. Kids need to have the freedom to move a little, to fidget, to stand, to sit differently or to tap their fingers so their brain stays engaged. If you don’t believe me, check the research. It’s not rocket science.
If you’re not buying what I’m telling you, let me leave you with this thought, which just may scare you into early retirement: If you don’t allow kids to fidget a bit and you hang around teaching long enough, you just may end up with one of those fidgety kids as your principal.

You’ve been warned.

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