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Are Fidget Toys Good for Students?

Fidget toys have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among students. These small toys are designed to be manipulated with the hands as a means of releasing nervous energy and staying focused. With many students reporting issues with attention, hyperactivity, and anxiety, fidget toys have emerged as a potential tool to support focus and calmness in the classroom. But are fidget toys actually beneficial for students? There are some key considerations when evaluating the pros and cons of fidget toys for students.

Potential Benefits of Fidget Toys

Proponents of fidget toys argue they can have the following positive impacts for students:

  • Improved focus – Fidget toys can give restless hands and minds an outlet for excess energy, allowing students to channel nervous habits into the toy rather than being distracted. This may promote greater focus on classroom lessons and activities.
  • Support self-regulation – For students prone to restlessness or hyperactivity, having an object to keep their hands occupied can aid self-regulation and impulse control. The tactile stimulation may help calm the nervous system.
  • Stress relief – Anxiety is a major issue for many students. Fidget toys can serve as “worry stones” or “calming tools” to provide relief from stressful thoughts or feelings. The repetitive motions may have a soothing effect.
  • Focus excess energy – Students who are naturally energetic can expend some of that pent-up energy on fidget toys, helping them sit still during lessons. The toys become an alternative to potentially disruptive habits like tapping or getting out of their seat.
  • Improved classroom behavior – If used constructively, fidget toys may support better behavior by reducing off-task habits and fidgeting that could distract peers. Students may feel more attentive and engaged.

Potential Downsides of Fidget Toys

However, there are also some potential downsides of fidget toys to consider:

  • Distraction to others – While they are intended to improve focus, fidget toys may have the opposite effect for some students. Watching or listening to others use these toys could become a source of distraction. Their use may disrupt neighboring students.
  • Classroom disruption – In addition to distracting peers, fidget toys can become a source of disruption for the whole class if they are used noisily or students become overly engrossed with the toys rather than the teacher. Guidelines would need to be in place.
  • Loss of instruction time – Particularly if new fidget toys are introduced, teachers may have to take time to instruct students on proper use and establish rules for appropriate times/ways to fidget. This takes away from academic instruction.
  • Potential stigma – Students who use fidget toys as a classroom accommodation may feel singled out or different from peers, especially if other students do not have access to them. There is potential for fidget toys to carry a stigma.
  • Excuse for off-task behavior – There is a risk students may abuse fidget toys as an excuse to play or be disruptive. Clear expectations would be needed to prevent misuse or classroom disruptions.
  • Diverting focus – While theoretically intended to improve focus, fidget toys could potentially distract students from lessons or become the primary object of focus. Students may pay more attention to the toy than the teacher.
  • Choking hazards – Particularly for younger students, certain fidget toys pose potential choking hazards if small parts or pieces break off. Supervision is required.

Evidence on Effectiveness

Given the potential upsides as well as risks of fidget toys for students, more research is needed to weigh their effectiveness, especially for different age groups. So far studies on the impact of fidget toys present a mixed picture:

  • A 2018 study published in the journal Educational Psychology found that fidget toys had no significant impact on classroom performance for 7th and 8th graders. Neither focus nor behavior improved among students given fidget toys.
  • However, a study in the journal School Psychology Quarterly in 2017 found students with ADHD performed better on computerized attention tasks when they were allowed to use fidget toys while completing them. This applied only to students with clinically diagnosed attention deficits.
  • A systematic review in 2018 concluded there was not enough evidence to determine effectiveness of fidget toys as a classroom intervention. But the authors noted they appear not to be disruptive and may have some benefits for focus. More rigorously designed studies are needed.
  • Teacher surveys suggest mixed reviews on whether fidget toys help or hinder students in their classrooms. Benefits appear most pronounced for students with impulse control challenges.

Best Practices for Implementation

While the jury is still out on their definitive benefits, some tentative best practices have emerged on effectively implementing fidget toys:

  • Co-develop guidelines with students for when and how toys can be used appropriately. Maintain consistent expectations.
  • Limit use to specific times when focus is most needed, such as classroom lessons. Put toys away for independent work time.
  • Allow toys to be used on a case-by-case basis for students who show a need. Do not make compulsory for the whole class.
  • Select quieter, more discreet toys that make little noise or distraction for peers.
  • Store toys when not in use to reduce classroom clutter and disruptions.
  • Model appropriate use and enforce rules consistently to prevent disruption or overuse.
  • Consider student maturity level, especially for younger grades. Monitor for choking hazards.
  • Consult parents, counselors, and specialists to identify students who may benefit most from fidget toys.
  • Emphasize use of fidget toys as a privilege that may be removed if expectations are not met. Reinforce positive behaviors.

While some proponents tout fidget toys as a universal tool to improve student attention, caution is warranted given the limited evidence and potential classroom risks. Implemented strategically and with consistent oversight, however, they may offer a low-cost accommodation for select students prone to restlessness or hyperactivity. More targeted research can reveal best uses cases and help teachers determine if fidget toys have a constructive role in their classrooms.