Advice from the OT: Why It’s So Hard for Children to Sit Still and What You Can Do About It

Advice from the OT: Why It's So Hard for Children to Sit Still and What You Can Do About It


Minds in Bloom is so very honored to welcome guest blogger Loren Shlaes, a registered pediatric occupational therapist and regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff (who were instrumental in making this series possible). This is the first in a series of posts from Loren about how to help students, who may be challenged with attention, sensory, or other issues, be successful in the classroom. Most likely, you have at least a few students with these challenges every year, but even if you don’t, the information in these posts are relevant to all teachers.


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This first post focuses on something that most teachers struggle with around this time of the year…helping students to pay attention! I learned a great deal from this article, and I am sure you will too!

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If You Want Children to Sit Still, You Have to Let Them Move

Children need to move their bodies in order to be able to stay focused and to learn.  A good thing to remember is that a nerve in the inner ear, called the vestibular nerve, serves to tell the body how upright, aroused, and present to be in direct response to movement. The only way to activate the vestibular nerve so that it can do its job is to move.

Normally, a small amount of movement, like a quick stretch and turn of the head, will make the nerve fire and talk to the muscles.  When children are fidgeting and finding it difficult to stay still, they are unconsciously attempting to activate that nerve in the inner ear to improve their ability to sit up and focus.

Are Your Students in the Just Right State or in a Sensory Needs State?

When we are forced to sit still for long periods, we are either in one of two states: the just right state, meaning that our bodies can support our ability to stay present by remaining effortlessly aroused and upright, or in a sensory needs state, which means that we cannot attend because our bodies need something to help our brains stay alert and ready to learn.  The just right state doesn’t last long when we are forced to sit without moving, unless what is happening in the room is highly interesting and engages our full attention. Attention spans in young children are quite short.  Most of the time, they require constant movement and novelty to stay engaged.

Some children don’t have responsive vestibular nerves.  If a child has had a series of ear infections, for example, and has had tubes placed in his ears, his vestibular nerve may not fire with just a little bit of movement. His vestibular system requires a great deal more intensity before it will respond and tell his muscles to sit up.  This child will have an especially hard time sitting for long periods without being allowed to get up.

How Can I Keep My Classroom Alert and Focused?

Think of movement as quick bursts of brain fuel, and try to top off your students’ tanks frequently. Transitions should always be accompanied by some sort of structured movement activity as a class.  Perhaps a quick “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with the accompanying gestures, or put on some rhythmic music and lead the class in  a round of old fashioned calisthenics, like  pushups, toe touches, or jumping jacks.  Accompany this with a drink of water and the children will be able to stay much more alert and in the right physical state for learning. You’ll feel pretty good, yourself!

If you teach the children to recognize when their attention is flagging and they need to do something for themselves in order to stay present, they will have the tools to recognize when they are drifting out of the just right state and into the sensory needs zone. They can then employ a discreet sensory tool to get themselves back.

Here are some suggestions for things that students can do at their seats to help them pay attention:

  • play with a fidget toy
  • suck on a hard candy
  • stretch
  • squeeze and relax all of their muscles
  • rub your hands on your legs
  • give yourself a big hug
  • quietly blow out all of your breath and hold it, then let the next breath come rushing in.
  • For a child who needs to chew to stay grounded, a few inches of clear plastic fish tank tubing on the end of his pencil is easy and discreet. This can be easily and inexpensively purchased in a pet store or hardware store. If the child doesn’t like the flavor, you can soak it in vanilla extract for a day or two.

Here is an easy way to make a great fidget toy: take a good, thick balloon, and, using a funnel, put some cornstarch and a big squirt of glue inside.  Knot it up and massage it until the cornstarch and glue are mixed.

If the child requires more intensity than what he can get from sitting in his seat, he can get up and get a drink of water or do an errand for the teacher (carrying a box of books to the principal’s office is great exercise).

Advice from the OT: Why It's So Hard for Children to Sit Still and What You Can Do About It

Disc-O-Sit cushions are another very nice way for a child to be able to sit still at his desk and wiggle around at the same time.  Making a few cushions available for anyone who wants them will allow the children who really need them to gravitate towards them without feeling singled out.

Want to read more from Loren? Here are the other posts in this series:


* Minds in Bloom, Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon properties including, but not limited to,,,,, or


Loren ShlaesLoren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration, handwriting remediation, and school-related issues. She is also a manual therapist and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. Her informative site won the “favorite resource for therapists” poll conducted by Your Therapy Source. Her writing has been featured, and she is a regular contributor to the special needs blog at PediaStaff. She is in private practice in Manhattan.



Minds in Bloom would also like to thank PediaStaff for collaborating with Loren to make this series possible. PediaStaff places pediatric therapists in schools, clinics, and hospitals throughout the country. In addition to their highly informative blog, they also have a huge Pinterest presence with over a hundred boards pertaining to education, child rearing, special needs, and various kinds of therapies.

How do you handle wiggly kids? We would love to hear your comments and ideas!

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