Image by Ian Ransley, flickr.com
By Samantha Godbout

Recently, a friend chaperoned a school field trip and remarked that every child appeared to have a fidget spinner. Before boarding the bus, the children sat in the cafeteria with a row of fidget spinners lining the table in every color of the rainbow, spinning and swapping them from child to child. On the bus rides to and from their destination, the children continued to play with their fidget spinners. My friend noted that it was the quietest bus ride she had ever experienced on a school field trip. The fidget spinners seemed like a miracle tool.

But are these popular toys the miracle they promised to be? Do they really help children focus attention, or are they simply the latest gizmo to gain popularity — the newest distraction in a long line of fads, from Pogs and Tomagotchis, to Silly Bands and rubber band looms? Many teachers have cited fidget spinners as distractions in the classroom, and many schools have decided to ban the toy. But not all parents agree with these decisions, as many claim these toys really do help their child focus during classroom activity. Where does the truth lie?

As is often the case, the answer is: It depends. In 2015 and 2016, several studies in premier psychology research journals demonstrated that children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do perform significantly better on tasks involving working memory, organization, and other cognitive tasks when they are engaged in physical movement and allowed to “fidget.” However, these same studies found that children who were not diagnosed with ADHD performed significantly worse on academic tasks when allowed to “fidget.”

“But my child doesn’t have ADHD and the fidget spinner really helps!” There will be cries of protest, I am certain. And to these I wonder what symptom the spinner is addressing. For some children, inattention at school is a sign of stress or anxiety. When these are the sources of a child’s difficulty, a fidget spinner provides a temporary mask for the problem. The spinner appeals to the masses because it is relatively inexpensive, easy to implement, and touted as one-size-fits-all. But fidget spinners have no empirical evidence to support claims of their utility, and it is highly likely that the toy will lose its magic fairly quickly, and an anxious or stressed child will return to a state of struggle.

If we are to help children who are struggling to “focus,” it is important to first understand why an individual child is having trouble. Once we identify the source of the struggle, we should rely on interventions that have more scientific support, such as cognitive behavioral strategies for anxiety or stress, than the current fad toy. There is no universal intervention or toy that will provide stress relief, anxiety reduction, and help for attention deficits. Our goal is to provide each child with an individualized toolbag of coping skills that will be long-lasting and apply across situations.

In the meantime, if your child wants a fidget spinner to alleviate boredom, go for it! It’s a fun new toy. But, yes, it is just a toy.

Samantha Godbout is a graduate student clinician at the Counselor Training Clinic at Becker College (mhcclinic.becker.edu), where she is available to provide counseling services to children, adolescents, adults, couples and families from Leicester and surrounding communities. For more information about low-cost counseling services at the CTC with Godbout or any of the other qualified counselors, contact Clinical Director Beth Greenberg at 508-373-9752.