Are Teachers too Strict with Squirmy Kids?

Does the student who can’t sit still drive you CRAZY? You know, the movers and the shakers? The ADHD types who can’t seem to help themselves? Answer- YES! I am sure they drive us all crazy… But often I wonder.

Are teachers too hard on squirmy kids? 

Sometimes I think I am too strict with the students who just can’t sit still.  I will give warnings right away to kids to blurt out, or mess around while I am talking. I find other students can’t learn with those distractions, therefore, that student’s need to move gets sidelined by the 25 other kids needs to learn. This has been my philosophy for quite some time now. However, after teaching the AOE classes “Creativity in Crisis” and “The Element” my mind has changed a little. Maybe. Conversations in both courses revolved around ADHD and how we treat students who don’t fit the norm. Often these are the most creative students, but we are constantly De-Sensitizing them with meds, constantly disciplining them so they will sit still, removing them from the group to work alone the whole class period. We are guilty on all accounts and who can blame us.

How can we balance this? What could the active student be doing? Passing something out? Sorting papers? give them a stress ball? Give them a job in the classroom. What if, at the beginning of the year, the teacher kept track of the students who had the hardest time sitting still and focusing the whole week. This list would turn into an action plan to come up with creative solutions for these students in the art room. I am not sure what those solutions might be, but I like the idea of identifying the problem and trying to find a solution, instead of suffering through the 45 minute class period, only to have the same exact problem pop up next week in a habitual manner.

So, the other day, I tried some of the above strategies to see what would happen (spoiler alert – epic fail).

I had a student in 1st grade who brought a toy helicopter into the art room and was flying it around on the carpet (First day of art mind you). I of course, took the toy and talked with him about not bringing toys to school. After I took the toy, the kid just kept rolling around on the carpet, bothering neighbors and squirming constantly.  So… I decided that while I finished up the directions this individual would help me pass out papers to keep him busy. He obviously had a need to move and I attempted to solve this in a creative way by giving him a job. So he seems pretty excited to be doing this job for me. So I get the rest of the class going while he passes out papers. After about 5 minutes I look around and, all the kids are back at their seats and supposed to be getting to work, but there was only ONE PAPER at each table (passed out by squirmy) and I had told him to put 4 on each table. So fidgety kid can’t follow directions, either! GREAT! Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. I do know one thing, teachers need some solutions!

This might be that one creative kid who has lots of ideas but just can’t sit still.  Maybe he or she learns better in other ways then verbal directions? Maybe they have home issues or didn’t get any sleep and concentrate.  We do need solutions, however, the classroom rules and norms still apply. So….

So my question becomes – What can we do about this? 

Any ideas, suggestions or solutions? I know it’s a common problem, so please share!

(Like this type of chatter!? We are running The Element again in October! Don’t miss out- class starts October 1st. Learn more and sign up here.)

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Kim Hyman

    We all have a great number of students who fit your description and I do not claim to have any sort of solution. I do have an example to share with you.

    Last year I had a Kindergarten just like this….couldn’t control his body for anything. I had him sit next to me in circle and tried to give him the “special” desk so he wouldn’t be distracted by others and could concentrate better. One day in the Spring I had gotten to the end of my wits and looked at him sternly and said, very quietly and privately, “this is enough, you are not behaving like this in my class any longer.” He smile up with his most precious smile and replied, “okay, I think I will behave”. He was an model of behavior for the rest of the year and quickly became a favorite student. I don’t know to this day what worked that day that I have never achieved with him prior. So this is just a share; take it for what you want.

    • Jessica Balsley

      Great story, Kim! You just never know what will work and what won’t!

  • Deb Hastings

    This is definitely a larger concern every year. In some ways, I think modern conveniences have added to this. With remote controls, microwave ovens, cell phones, e-mail, etc., we all have to wait less, and thus less opportunity to exercise our ability to be patient and attend to one thing at a time. There are probably a lot more impacting sources for the increase of ADHD type behaviors, but this one seems to present itself to all of us.
    I do think consistency in our expectations helps. I have also found that a basket of “Listening tools” is sometimes helpful. Things like the squeeze balls, or silent finger manilpulatives have sometimes given these kids something to help with the fidgety body. I am really clear about them not being used during work time, and that we don’t all need the same things to be successful (otherwise everyone wants one).

    • Jessica Balsley

      Deb- I totally agree – the listening tools are such a great idea. You could keep a little basket with them on your desk and as you said, set clear expectations. I am totally stealing this idea! Thanks for sharing.

  • katherinesimms

    I like Deb’s idea of the listening tools. I also think that kids with attention issues just need a little more room to breathe. Does he have to sit or can he stand at a table? Can you offer some other distractions like soft music during work time or put out a timer for a time when they can talk and when the timer goes off they need to work by themselves. When I taught spec. ed I always went by the rule that if the student was distracted we could find ways to help get them to focused, listen, and work. But if the student distracted others, we had to go down a disciplinary road. Being distracted is fine, distracting others is not. I also like Deb’s comment about consistency. If the student knows where the boundaries are it takes the guess work out and allows you to act in the same way every time. Good lick with this. I am interested to know what other people have to say. If I think of other ideas I will add them.

    • Jessica Balsley

      Great way to explain the difference between a personal issue and an issue that impacts all the student’s learning. I just feel so sorry for these kiddos sometimes because you know they can’t help themselves!

  • Ms. Melanie

    I have a couple of kids like this and really wonder how to handle them sometimes. They CLEARLY need to move, so as long as they aren’t distracting others and are safe, I let them move. There’s always the kid who can attend but sees another kid rolling on the floor and feels that gives him license to as well, but in general, nobody wants to be the kid rolling on the floor. The kids get this.

    I did have some luck with setting boundaries. One young man was a floor roller but was doing it for fun, not because he had to, He and his brother ‘just like to wrestle’. So I explained that an art studio was not a place for rolling around. If he really felt the need to do that he could roll around on the floor in the hallway, just outside the door. But there was nothing fun in the hallway. No friends or art supplies. Just hard floor. He nodded, went back to his work, and a few minutes later he stopped, walked into the hall, rolled around a couple of times, came back in and finished his art!

    • Jessica Balsley

      I am laughing SO hard at this one! I can just see the kid rolling in the hallway.

  • Marge

    I bought I few squeeze/stress balls this year just for this situation. Of course today I spot the kid who has pull the scissor out of the supply basket and is spinning them around a pencil. I pulled him aside and showed him the squeeze ball and where he could find it. He got really excited and started showing everyone and it ended up rolling on the ground and being tossed in the air as I was talking and I asked him to put it back. A few minutes later he raised his hand as I was giving directions and asked if he could get it again. I told him not now. After I was done talking to the class, I pulled him aside again and gave him more explanation. He did not have to ask to use it, but he had to keep it in his hands or on the table. Not in the air or floor. I am not sure how this is going to play out, but hopefully after he, and any other student, understand my expectations for the fidget, it will be a helpful tool in my room.

    • Jessica Balsley

      I would be willing to try the stress ball idea and see what happens. For the right kid it could be perfect.

  • artprojectgirl

    Such a timely subject. The beginning of the year is tough for the fidgeters. I had one kid today who during our carpet time must have stopped us 5 times. I ended up going to my desk getting my hot pink duct tape. . . ha ha ha this story is not going where it sounds. . . and I made a square on the carpet. I didn’t say a word but the kids were all silent and shocked and you could only hear the loud sound of the tape. They asked me what I was doing and I said nothing. When I was done I told the little squirmer his spot was the square. It worked okay. He tried to put a pinky out to be defiant:) Some kids need visual boundaries. I feel like if I gave any of these kids a squeeze ball it would be a reward and end up getting thrown to friends. The problem seems to be self control with a lot of the kids.

    Also I think a lot of call and response works. When I notice they are getting ancy I have them do a cheer (for a good work time) or a repeat after me (when we’re doing a lesson on the carpet) that way everyone can participate without hand raising and all that jazz.

    Let me know what ends up working for you!

    1 more thing. If any behavior really gets on my nerves I try to seat the child as far away from me as possible (this one really works). Usually if I am not obsessing over their behavior they fix it. It is strange how this works. I think kids can sense what bugs you and try to do it all the more!

    • Jessica Balsley

      The tape is a great idea!

  • Barb

    Last year I stumbled upon an sub who had amazing control of my classroom and the kids loved her-I was so impressed I used my prep to watch her teach in another classroom. I asked what her secret was and she said go to youtube and watch Chris Biffle, founder of Whole Brain Teaching. I did and realized immediatly that finally THIS was a classroom mangement system I could maintain! I HATE keeping track of marks, charts, stars etc. This method may not be for everyone, but I sincerely believe it is PERFECT especially for these ADHD types-all kids need to move and have short attention spans-duh why do we all try to make them sit still quietly? (well, I know why!) I can’t sit quietly either! Today was only our 2nd day back, obviously time will tell, but I’m sold on this method! I felt that I was no longer ‘fighting’ their tendancies but capitalizing on them!

    • Jessica Balsley

      I have done a little research on whole brain teaching (I think we are all doing some of it, but learning a little more can really help bring it to the next level) and I plan to look into it more. Thank you so much for sharing something that works for you! I also commend you for looking and learning from other teachers, that is what good, reflective teachers do. I love it.

  • artprojectgirl

    So true I had to share with you Jessica. A teacher told me the other day we think a lot of kids have ADD (attention deficit disorder) but some just have ADD (adult didn’t discipline) after the summer.

  • Dee

    I didn’t read all the responses, so I apologize if I am repeating something someone else has already suggested. But I’d like to challenge the idea of “discipline” and replace it with the idea of “training.” We cannot expect kids to learn what is expected of them with a warning or two. We must train them. Think of the Dog Whisperer. He says that most doggie misbehaviors are because the animal doesn’t get enough exercise (I found this to be true with kids, too) and a lot of doggie training is actually “owner training” which I believe applies to teaching as well.

    Punitive discipline only makes the teacher feel more and more frustrated because she can’t control those difficult students. Punitive discipline puts more and more pressure on the child and ends up causing even worse behavior! (I am a parent of two ADHA sons who are now full grown and one was also Asperger’s).

    Here is what I’d like to suggest teachers try… you are the person who is going to help train this student how to control themselves. And you can do it in a fun way. When a student blurts out, instead of scolding or warning, say “Oops! Let’s try that again!” Then say “Raise your hand quietly and wait until I call on you! Let’s see if you can do it this time.” and do it again. Each time a child forgets… find a fun way to moan and groan and sigh (make it fun! Kids can really sense if you are frustrated!) and repeat the process.

    Give kids shorter time periods of focus. About 7 minutes for younger students. Then have them talk to their neighbor and explain their own project. Or do a “pair and share” – have students discuss whatever and then call the class back to attention to raise their hands and share with the class (you must practice your attention-getter such as “Everybody clap their hands…” and clap a certain number of times or a certain pattern). If they don’t immediately stop talking, say Oops! That didn’t work. Let’s try that again.” Have them talk again and then give the “call back signal.” You’ll be surprised that after practicing procedures such as these with no scolding (making it a light-hearted reminder) they will respond and want to please you. ESPECIALLY if you say “I know you can do it perfectly this time! Let’s try it!”

    Another idea for the squirmers is to tape out a square around their seating area and explain that they can chose to stand or sit but they must stay within that square on the floor. I have some students how like to spin on their rear ends while we are at the carpet. So instead of “punishing” them by putting them in the chair, I ask them if they need a little help sitting still and allow them to choose to sit in a chair. If they spin again, I silently move a chair into their area and have them sit. No scolding, no warning, NO PUNISHMENT! These students just need a little help!

    I have found that when I am positive and encouraging and I let the students know it is ok if they mess up and forget or get a little out of control. I don’t come down hard on them. They can’t help it!! THEY CAN’T help it! You wouldn’t want someone else getting on your case for something you can’t control (like your health, your weight, your twitching eyelid that just won’t stop!!!). These are little people who already feel so badly about themselves. You can provide a safe, fun and encouraging environment to help them to grow and learn. In a few years, you will find that these same students will grow out of their squirminess!

    And lastly – Watch the movie “The Ron Clark Movie.” I am not an advocate of many class rules at the elementary level, but I love his techniques for training these students in a positive, upbeat way! Very heartwarming!

  • artprojectgirl

    So interesting that discipline comes off as a bad word.

    I looked up the definition because I don’t think of it as a negative thing. I think kids (and puppies as you were talking about) crave discipline. I am a messy artist with a baby and all that comes with and teacher and even I NEED DISCIPLINE ( to get everything I need to done to survive.)

    Without further ado here’s the definition from Webster

    Discipline: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character

    So, correct me if I’m wrong but discipline and training go hand in hand. I think we’re talking about the same things.

    I didn’t see anyone else use the word discipline besides me so I assume you’re referring to my “adult didn’t discipline” during the summer comment. If you met me I’m not a stickler BUT when I see kids in the supermarket at 9:00 at night screaming their heads off I begin to thing that the focus problem and behaviors we’re seeing aren’t solely the kids fault. Although when it comes down to it the kids have to be responsible for their actions no matter how unfair.

    My husband told me something that will stick with me for a long time. His father passed when he was a kid so teachers gave him a pass. He had learning challenges so they gave him a pass. He said “if someone had got on my case and made me do what I should have been doing I wouldn’t be working all hours because my writing is not good enough and everything else they let me pass on.” His behavior wasn’t the best either. . . but teachers moved on and let him slide. Now he feels cheated that no one was bold enough to be tough on him so he could have more earning potential now (and get to see him family now) . . . Instead he has to back track and try to catch up now with a baby, full time job, overtime, etc. Just a thought.

  • Anita

    “They CLEARLY need to move, so as long as they aren’t distracting others and are safe, I let them move.” – many researches these days show that kids become hyperactive also cos of non healthy food. Food that contains a lot of sugar and salt and other aditives has a deep effect on our body, especially hard one on young and adolescent.
    So a few people pay attention to this fact and not a lot was told in media about that.

    one of many articles u should check:

    big hello from primary school teacher from SLOVENIA (europe)