In the spring, fidget spinners were spinning through classrooms across the country, much to many teachers’ annoyance. They were the latest craze in a series of educational products to help students focus in class: exercise balls in lieu of chairs, pedal desks, standing desks, and fidget cubes, putty, and other tools students can play with at their desks.
A new independent study, “Wiggle While You Work: The Effect of Bouncy Band Use on Classroom Outcomes,” looks at one of these fidget tools: Bouncy Bands, which strap to a desk so students can stretch their feet back and forth while sitting. The study found that students who are typically less engaged in class stay on task when using the bands.
Clemson psychology lecturer Jennifer Bisson, with professor June Pilcher and lecturer Sarah Sanborn, studied 25 elementary students who were enrolled in a daily after-school tutoring and educational enhancement program. The students, in grades 3 and 4, were in class for two hours a day, five days a week.
Students were given tests on attention, numerosity, and reading comprehension at three points during their four-week time period with the Bouncy Bands—before, midway through, and at the end of the four weeks. When students were taking these assessments, a software program categorized and coded their behaviors to monitor off-task behaviors—passive (like students putting their head on the desk or not looking at the assignment), verbal (as in students talking to peers or humming), and motor (like students walking around or playing with something on the desk).
The study found that students who exhibited passive off-task behaviors at the beginning of the four-week period benefitted most from the bands. When using the bands, these students were more on task. Student performance in reading comprehension and math didn’t improve, but Bisson noted that the use of the bands didn’t harm those outcomes, either.
Bisson attributes the findings to the Yerkes-Dodson law, which is a curve that shows that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When students are at the low end of arousal—falling asleep, bored—their performance will suffer. But when students are overly aroused—say, anxious or stressed—their performance will also suffer.
The bands, Bisson said, could help students stay engaged while releasing some anxiety, keeping them at the optimal point in the curve.
Educators have said that it’s important to prevent fidget tools from becoming a distraction to other students. Bisson said one of the teachers she worked with said that “every item can either be a toy or a tool. A pencil can tap on the desk and disturb everyone, or it can be a tool to write answers.”
Fidget spinners, Bisson said, are the same way. When they’re used as a tool, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, or other conditions can relieve tension and focus better. When they’re used as a toy, they can be a classroom-wide distraction for both students and teachers.
But Bouncy Bands don’t make noise, making them harder to become a distraction to others (although that’s an area that Bisson identified as ripe for future research).
“Anecdotally, the teachers tend to like them, because they’re relatively out of view compared to other things that allow [students] to fidget,” she said.
Past studies have found that when students use equipment like standing desks, they are healthier and can concentrate better. To see if the Bouncy Band effects extend beyond after-school programs, Bisson has also collected data from students in a traditional classroom during the school year, which is currently being analyzed.
However, Education Week Teacher blogger Nancy Flanagan wrote that fidget toys and equipment like Bouncy Bands, pedal desks, and seat balls are treating the symptoms, not the causes of students’ twitchiness.
”...Somehow it feels right to put kids’ noses to the grindstone, rather than letting them run around, talk to each other, and make stuff,” she wrote. “Out with activity-based courses—choir, art, orchestra, physical education, auto shop, and life skills. Recess? We can’t afford it. I keep thinking about Finland’s traditional practice for elementary children: 15 minutes in every hour are set aside for active, free play. One in 1,000 children in Finland is medicated for ADHD, compared with 1 in 10 in the United States. No matter how you spin that, it’s breathtaking.”
More on Fidgeting and Movement:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.