Teaching Kids who Can’t Sit Still

Rascal: 7 years old. Highly imaginative. Fidgety. Fun-loving. Full of energy. Easily distracted. Affectionate. Attention-seeking.

Sound familiar?

He’s the lovable little guy who is smarter than you think but is so wiggly and easily distracted that trying to teach him is…. well,  let’s be honest… sometimes plain torture.

How can we teach these kids who can’t seem to sit still? Here are some ideas that have helped with my irrepressible, spirited Rascal.

For all his fidgetiness, I find it hard to believe that Rascal truly has a short attention span. He can spend hours immersed in imaginary play, building with Lego and lining up action figures. Rascal’s attention span is not truly short; it’s just highly selective. I figured that out when I caught him focussing deeply for hours on building a K’nex kit designed for kids older than him. He only pays attention and concentrates when he’s interested. So the key to holding his attention is to capture his interest.

While this is true of most people, it is especially true of children like Rascal. Some children are pleasers. They do  their work to please their parents (God bless them!). Some children are perfectionists. They work hard because they want to excel.  But the spirited, fun-loving kids? Their main motivations for doing anything are FUN and ATTENTION. And if a task is not fun or does not draw attention, it’s simply not worth their attention.

These are the kids for whom games and hands-on activities are the most effective ways of learning. When he was learning to read, Rascal and I played all sorts of phonetic games. For math, we  use a variety of manipulatives – Unifix cubes, base ten blocks, pattern blocks, Lego, etc. For all other subjects, I try to spark his interest with the most appealing books I can find and with my own enthusiasm. Here’s a great trick: if your fun-loving child has older siblings, get them to tell him how awesome that book or topic is. Let your older kids give your sales pitch. I love it when mine say things like, “Oh, I remember reading that book. I really liked it!” All of a sudden, I  have Rascal’s undivided attention.

Unfortunately, there are times when I still can’t seem to hold his attention. Sometimes, this no-nonsense, straight-forward, get-it-done tiger mom simply isn’t in the mood for fun and games. After all, I do have other kids to teach, which means I can’t spend half the morning playing games. Other times, Rascal, for whatever reason, just can’t concentrate on anything that requires mental exertion. Perhaps it’s because he has left half his brain in the land of Nexo-Knights. On such days, I have found it helpful to alternate bite-sized lessons with short breaks. I’ll tell Rascal, “If you complete this page of math quickly, I’ll give you a break.” There is a condition, though: Rascal has to come to me right away when I call him at the end of his break, or else he doesn’t get any more breaks. This arrangement usually works really well. It motivates him to focus during the short lessons and to come back promptly when I call him. Still, there are days when he has problems transitioning from breaks to school work.  So this plan sometimes backfires.

It helps to keep Rascal’s assignments short and varied. Don’t require your wiggly kid to spend a lot of time on any one task. This may mean breaking up the math so he does a bit in the morning and a bit in the afternoon. It may mean mixing up the more bookish type work with hands-on activities. Whatever you do, keep the lessons short. Short lessons or assignments generally don’t overwhelm, and that’s important. For if Rascal considers a task to be too hard or too long, he will do anything (sing, wiggle, doodle, roll on the floor) other than begin the task.

If you have a child like Rascal who is generally obedient but sometimes just can’t seem to get his work started, let alone done, it may be that he’s genuinely overwhelmed.  These are the kids who really balk at starting something they’re afraid they can’t do. With children who easily get frustrated or discouraged, we need to simplify their work or break their assignments into smaller steps in order to boost their confidence and motivate them.

However,  as we see their confidence grow and as they begin to do their work with more ease and ability, we also need to challenge them. Kids like Rascal are smarter than they would have us believe. All summer long, I doubted that Rascal would be able to handle grade two math. As it turns out, he’s doing just fine! It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? On the one hand, we don’t want to frustrate our kids to the point of squelching their confidence and utterly demotivating them. On the other hand, we need to challenge these smarty-pants and teach them how to cope with their frustrations. I think that with these children we need to be highly flexible in our expectations of them.  Sometimes we ease up on them, other times we gently push.

What about the “can’t sit still” part? Like all of his siblings, Rascal has his own desk. But he rarely sits at it. Last year he did most of his work standing up or lying on the floor. When the weather is good, the kids study outside. Since he is the third of three boys in a row, I know that it is only a matter of time before he settles down. In the meanwhile, there is no reason to restrain him to a desk.

In fact, the more physical activity they get, the better my boys can focus. Only a few days ago, Fiesty was complaining that he couldn’t memorize his vocabulary words. I began to wonder if I should assign him fewer words. Instead, we took a lunch break and all the kids played outside for an hour. As soon as he came in, Feisty reviewed his vocab words and ten minutes later regurgitated all the definitions with ease. Fresh air and oxygen to the brain does wonders.

You might be interested to know that Finland has performed extremely well on the  PISA Assessments (Program for International Student Assessment). And yet, formal schooling does not begin there until the age of seven! So if you’re really struggling with an active kindergartener or first grader who can’t seem to concentrate, consider that many children are not ready for formal schooling until the age of seven, and  that formal schooling is not truly necessary until the age of seven. The rise of Forest Kindergartens in Europe, where children spend their entire kindergarten days out in the woods, rain or shine, may be further evidence that many young children are better off exploring nature than sitting restlessly at a desk.

Waiting for maturity and readiness makes a world of difference: it can be the difference between frustration and confidence or drudgery and enthusiasm. I think I might have spared Rascal a lot of frustration if last year I had waited and trusted more, and had let him spend more time whacking trees and building Lego instead of doing math. An early start is not necessarily a better start; often it’s a rough start. We need to trust that in a nurturing environment conducive to learning, our kids will learn when they are ready. Yes, some children are lazy and need to be pushed. But always before we push, we need to discern and respect where they’re at emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Finally, it’s good to remember that kids like Rascal love to test what they can get away with. Maybe that’s because they know we’re bending over backwards to accommodate their lively personalities. Even though they require a lot of patience and flexibility, these children also need firm limits, because they will test those limits again and again. For example, when Rascal takes a fit over doing a small assignment that hitherto he’s been doing with ease, I know he’s  probably just testing what he can get away with. Often I just have to be really firm and say, “Listen. You get this work done, and don’t say a word until its finished.” Of course, I have to back this up with a consequence if he so much as makes a peep.  It’s remarkable how smart and studious Rascal  can suddenly become when he knows that he might be banned from the Lego room. This is the same highly energetic kid who used to all of a sudden get “very tired” as soon as I would call him for a reading lesson. After being sent up to his room to take a nap several days in a row because of his feigned fatigue, he suddenly stopped claiming to be tired.

So, when teaching kids who can’t sit still:

  • Capture their interest
  • Use lots of games and hands-on activities
  • Alternate bite-size lessons with short breaks
  • Minimize frustration and boost confidence with shorter, simpler assignments, and then
  • Challenge them when you see their confidence grow
  • Send them outside to play
  • Remember some children aren’t ready for formal schooling until the age of seven.
  • So wait for maturity and readiness.
  • Set firm limits and know when they’re testing you

Unfortunately, there are no quick and easy solutions to dealing with highly active, easily distracted kids. But the good news is that they do mature and settle down.

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with kids like Rascal? Chime in and share your experience!











2 thoughts on “Teaching Kids who Can’t Sit Still

  1. This sounds like it was written about my fourth kid, first son. All of it sounds right on point. I’ve also found that he is mesmerized by factual information, anything and everything about the natural world. So if I launch into a long lecture about the moons of Saturn and insert instructions about setting the table or getting dressed, he seems to do what he needs to do on auto-pilot, while listening intently to all the data he can cram into his brain. I’m holding you to the “they do mature and settle down” bit…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. They really do settle down… in about twenty years! Juust kidding! Seriously, my two older boys are now pretty good at working hard and focussing… except when Rascal distracts them.


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