What to do when: Your student is distracted or fidgety

When a student is distracted or fidgety in class, they’re presenting a problem behavior that you need to address. Students can sometimes be naturally wiggly, and that alone may not be a problem. Some students may also have a hard time focusing for long periods of time. But, when those wiggles come along with a continual lack of focus, lack of comprehension follows, and other students don’t seem to struggle in the same way or at the same times, then you might be looking at a bigger problem you need to address.

When a student is distracted or fidgety, they’re not engaging with your class in an appropriate way. They might also be presenting a distraction for other students, leading to further disruptions for your class. Maybe their fidgeting means they’re tapping their feet or pencil in a noisy way. They might be more focused on picking at a loose part of their notebook than the material you’re presenting. Your next step after identifying this problem behavior is to effectively manage it, and help prevent it from happening.

Make your expectations crystal clear

Students need you to be specific. When you speak in general terms, like saying, “don’t fidget in your chair,” you’re not being specific enough. Students don’t necessarily have the comprehension skills to understand what you mean by that. They also won’t automatically connect that understanding with how you’re expecting them to adjust their behavior. Telling students what not to do isn’t as effective as telling them what to do instead.

If you’re struggling with a student who is consistently disruptive, try giving them very direct steps like, “I need you to sit still in your chair. Put your pencil to the paper, put your eyes on the paper and both feet on the floor.”

Pay attention to the timing

When you have a student who’s acting distracted or fidgety, you need to determine what’s triggering that behavior. Do you notice the student starts being extra fidgety or distracted when you transition from one activity to another? Maybe when you move from math to reading, your student gets unplugged somehow. They may seem uncomfortable, agitated, or preoccupied with anything other than what you need them to pay attention to.

What is it about this time or activity that creates a problem situation or leads to these problem behaviors? Look at the conditions that are bringing about this behavior. Maybe this student really doesn’t like reading because they need some extra help. Maybe they’re uncomfortable with the material, and that’s why they want to create a disruption. Maybe there’s an environmental trigger, like a really tempting item to fidget with nearby that could be moved and to help eliminate the urge.

Try to isolate the conditions that bring on the problem behavior. That way, you’ll have a better understanding of when it’s most likely to happen, and identify the root cause. Then, you can make more targeted adjustments from there that speak to what is causing the student to fidget more than usual and disengage.

Consider function over form: attention or escape

You might have three different students who are distracted or wiggly, and the reasons why they’re doing it could also be completely different. Pay attention to what each student is getting out of this problem behavior. When you consider the function of the problem behavior, you’re considering: What’s the payoff for them? Try not to be as concerned with the details of what they’re doing, so much as why they’re doing it.

You need to figure out the root cause behind the behavior before you can best determine where to go next. Maybe the work isn’t challenging enough for them, and they’re bored. On the other hand, maybe the work is too difficult, and they want to disappear and escape your attention. Maybe it has nothing to do with the subject matter at all. But the more clues you get about their motives, the better equipped you’ll be to effectively address the problem and find solutions that work.

For example, they might be distracted or fidgety to get attention. Do you find that you’re giving them undivided attention more often when they’re behaving that way? You’ve got to get them to stop fidgeting so the rest of the class can continue. They might consider that a payoff for this problem behavior. If you give them attention every time they’re making too much noise fidgeting with their pen, even if that attention is negative and includes adverse consequences, you may be unwittingly reinforcing the problem behavior. The function of being really fidgety, in this case, may be getting more access to your dedicated attention.

If it looks like the student wants more attention, consider how you can encourage use of more appropriate behaviors to get it. You might minimize or remove all of your attention from that student until they behave the way you need them to. You might also use differential reinforcement, which is to increase your positive feedback with other students who are appropriately engaging. Your challenging student isn’t receiving attention. When you increase the level or quality attention to other students, you’re sending a message that appropriate behavior is rewarded with the attention that your attention-seeking student is after.

The student might be distracted or fidgety because they’re trying to escape. Do you see they have difficulty with the subject matter, or struggle with the material? Maybe they want to avoid the topic or deflect attention away from their other deficiencies by creating new ones to address instead. The function of being distracted for this student may be to avoid having to struggle with something they’d rather not deal with. Maybe they don't want to be singled out in front of peers.

If they’re trying to escape, try to get them to communicate about what’s going on. Acknowledge that this seems like a difficult time for them, and start with where they are. Ask, “What about this time or activity is creating this situation where you seem so distracted (or can’t sit still)?” Offer them a chance to ask for a break, and let them know when you’ll expect them to come back ready to participate in a more productive way.

You can also empower them with a choice. For example, let them know, “You have these two things that need to get done, and you can decide which one you need to do first.” You might also let them know it’s ok to ask for help, even write you a note, and make yourself available. Again, getting down to the core of why they’re being disruptive will help you develop an appropriate response.

Implement behavioral interventions

These steps can help as you work through how to handle a student who is unusually distracted or fidgety:

  1. Stay calm. Stay neutral. Assess in the moment what seems to be driving this behavior.
  2. Verify your concern. Try to get your student to communicate about what’s going on. “It looks like you’re having a difficult time. What is it about this time/activity that is causing you to show these behaviors?”
  3. Ask the student to help you understand what they need. They might not have the language to say it on their own, so be ready to offer some suggestions and teach them how to ask for help.
  4. Give specific examples of support. Students thrive when they feel empowered and can exercise some choice.
  5. Provide an alternative for that student and get everybody else set up and go back to the student having the problem.

When to get more help

Your student might be acting distracted or fidgety because they have a developmental or emotional disorder that needs diagnosis and further intervention. It’s not up to you to singlehandedly discover and treat what’s going on with students who don’t respond to your efforts to manage their behavior.

That’s why it’s important to implement behavioral interventions sooner rather than later. Don’t wait longer than a few weeks to address problem behaviors in your classroom. If you’ve got a student who’s distracted or fidgety, and you’re not seeing progress after a week or two or interventions, then it’s time to engage a team for more support. Your school psychologist or counselor, behavioral specialist, principal, along with the student’s parents can all start looking at the problem behavior and consider what variables they can control to create the best environment for that student to succeed. Early intervention is key to a successful outcome, and will help you manage your classroom better in the long run.