May 19, 2017, 12:33:42 PM CDT Jan 30, 2023, 11:42:20 AM CST

Fidget spinners Q & A with Children's Health experts

A fidget spinner may be a great way to help your child focus. It can also be a distraction when used too much.

Young boy plays with fidget spinner stress relieving toy Young boy plays with fidget spinner stress relieving toy

Fidget spinners are the most popular gadgets of the moment amongst middle schoolers. But many teachers are finding them very distracting and banning them in the classroom, despite some people believing that they can improve focus in children with ADHD. Roshini Kumar, Clinical Therapist, LPC, in the Pediatric Outpatient Psychiatry department at Children's Health℠ answers some questions about the choking hazards of fidget spinners and healthier ways hyperactive children can burn off excess energy.

What is ADHD?

ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is a persistent pattern of six or more symptoms of inattention and/or six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity. The symptoms must be present before age 12, must be present in two or more settings (e.g. school, home), must show clear evidence that symptoms impair social or academic functioning (e.g. losing friends, failing grades), and cannot be better explained by another mental disorder, like anxiety or substance intoxication. Symptoms must persist for at least six months to qualify for the diagnosis, and must be inconsistent with developmental level. It's possible for children diagnosed with ADHD to have more inattentive symptoms, more hyperactive symptoms, or a combination of both. There are also certain degrees of the disorder, and the ranges are mild, moderate and severe. Fidget spinners generally target children with more hyperactive symptoms, as fidgeting is part of the hyperactivity criteria.

What are the benefits of playing with a toy for a child with hyperactivity or ADHD? 

Tactile (touch) stimulation can be effective for children who are hyperactive, as they are more prone to fidgeting, a symptom of hyperactivity. It can provide sensory stimulation, which is often very calming and relaxing. Many children feel that it’s calming to keep their hands and fingers busy, while talking about stressful or anxiety provoking topics.

What are the drawbacks of using a fidget spinner?

Sometimes it can go beyond the benefits of calming or relaxing to being a little bit distracting when used a little bit too much. For children without extra energy to burn off, or for children that are very hyper-focused, it can cause them to lose focus on the activity at hand.

Is it really a distraction for those without ADHD?

For children without ADHD that do not struggle with fidgeting, and do not require added stimulation in order to focus, a fidget toy can be distracting instead of helpful. 

What are the risks of swallowing small parts of a toy like those from the fidget spinner?

The biggest risk is choking and asphyxia, as small toy parts can become lodged in the throat or the esophagus or inhaled into lungs.  Another risk is that if these small parts get past the throat, they sometimes can become lodged in the esophagus which can cause pain among other problems.  In either of these situations, the item must be removed.  Most of the time, if the item passes into the stomach, it will be passed eventually in a bowel movement.  Exceptions to this are batteries.  Batteries, even if they are swallowed and land in the stomach, need to be removed as these can cause problems like tissue tears, burning and internal bleeding. 

Could there be any other risks of this toy, in particular? I read about a case of a girl that chipped her tooth on the toy while playing with it.

Not to my knowledge. Some of the spinners have external bearings which may fall apart easily, and can then pose a choking hazard. Other spinners have one central bearing, which I think is safer to use, especially if there are young children in the home. 

 How can children with ADHD burn excessive energy?

Organized sports such as basketball, soccer, gymnastics, etc. can be helpful for burning off energy. Not only do organized sports help channel hyperactive energy, but they also teach important lessons in turn-taking, impulse control, social skills, teamwork, and regulating energy; skills that children with ADHD have difficulty with.

How can children with ADHD learn to focus better?

Children with ADHD have difficulty sustaining attention, so a helpful strategy is to break up tasks into small and manageable goals, with room to burn the hyperactive energy. For example, if a child has 15 minutes to clean their room or complete a homework assignment, break the work into 5 minute increments with 2 minutes in between of squeezing a stress ball, running in place, running a few circles in the yard, etc. This can be effective when children know they can earn a fun privilege when they complete these 5 minute tasks (e.g. watch 15 minutes of a favorite show or talk on the phone with a friend).

How can I help my child remember to complete a task?

Writing tasks down like a to-do list can be very helpful, as children with ADHD can be forgetful. Let them earn a fun sticker to put next to the completed tasks. Any fun physical representation of progress can be helpful. Positive verbal reinforcement is encouraged and generally very well received.

Are there any activities or objects proven to help children focus?

There are studies primarily on treatments such as meditation or yoga (inconclusive), interactive online games (mixed results), and medication and therapy (often effective). Occupational therapists often will prescribe the use of toys for certain sensory integration disorders or autism, but I'm unaware of any they prescribe for ADHD. Social skills groups focused on impulse control are also effective.

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