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Ilana Danneman
BY Ilana Danneman

Why Kids Have Trouble Sitting Still—and What Parents and Teachers Can Do About It

It’s the second most frequent request I get in my work with teachers and parents: “My student/child has trouble sitting still. Do you have a cushion that will help?”

So what’s the number-one request? “My student/child can’t sit still. Which weighted vest should I get?”

Do you see a pattern? Why can’t our kids sit still?

Let’s Take a Look Back

Let’s go back twenty, thirty, forty years and see what kids were doing with their time. Back in 1971, a typical kid might be watching television while lying on the shag carpet (the original Tummy Time). No recliner or video chair for little Jacob back then. And he spent most of his time outside.

It wasn’t just that the great outdoors was good for his psyche. While out there, he was rolling down hills, jumping off rocks, crossing creeks, and riding his bike—all the while developing a strong set of core muscles and balance reactions (which, among other things, help with sitting still). And he probably climbed a few trees.

Back then, little Jacob may also have spent some time navigating a path in the woods. Maybe he was even barefoot and had a few scratches and bruises at the end of each day. On a regular daily basis, his vestibular, visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems had a thorough workout. And his core was in tiptop shape to handle sitting in a chair.

I’m not suggesting that in my day, we didn’t try to lean back in our chairs or that we didn’t have the wiggles sometimes, but with plenty of exercise, tumbling, and falling, we had a keen sense of balance and a great core to handle a regular chair for a regular amount of time.

Where We Are Today

Today our kids might have an hour of therapy once a week, or a couple hours of soccer or a sport once a week, but they spend a lot of their time reclined in their beds with a laptop or tablet, in a recliner with a game control stick, or on a couch watching a plethora of entertainment. They may even be playing a game on your phone if you’re not using it yourself.

Their core muscles are weak, unresponsive, and, well, lazy. In addition, their balance reactions are not in tune. Sitting up for any period of time is like lifting a fifty-pound weight when you can really only lift five. So we see kids who just cannot sit for any period of time. They may not appear weak or lazy—in fact, they may appear downright fidgety—but their system is not responsive to being still or attentive. Instead of a well-tuned orchestra, their muscles work more like a broken violin.

What Grown-Ups Can Do

Teachers may not be able to do much about what is going on at home—though they can educate parents and encourage them to let children go outside and play. Parents, in turn, cannot have total control over a child’s school day—though they can offer to be involved and get to know the teacher and school.

Perhaps we all can work together to make a child’s day less stressful and more engaging by offering more movement in the classroom, out of the classroom, at recess, and at home. Consider how you can do the following:

• Offer more jumping, sliding, swinging, rolling, and eye-hand games.

• Make standing, moving, and breaks more available in the classroom. A space on the floor to work, read, and interact can do wonders for core stability too.

• Offer seats that encourage movement, as well like cushions, ball chairs, and rocker boards.

• Take classroom sensory breaks that use breathing, reaching, bending, stretching, floor exercise, and yoga.

• Make sure that after-school time and time at home is balanced to encourage sports, outdoor time, dance/yoga. or gym time.

How Are You Doing?

It’s also worth taking a moment to check in with ourselves. How are you doing? When’s the last time you stretched out on the floor to read a book? Went for a walk? Took a class? You might want to assess your own time and how much of it is spent on a couch, chair, or recliner.

We can all do better at this. So let’s get up and move! The time is now.

Ilana Danneman

Written on March 8, 2017 by:

Ilana Danneman is a pediatric physical therapist with over 25 years experience in the special needs field developing 100's of products, blogging, providing customer education, and catalog direction. She has worked for both School Specialty and Fun and Function and currently is a contract blogger and product developer as well as home health pediatric and geriatric physical therapist. She is currently the owner of the idea therapist and can be reached at [email protected]