Why Do I Focus Better When I Fidget?

Fidgeting has often been seen in a negative light, especially in classroom settings where students are expected to sit still and pay attention. However, emerging research suggests fidgeting may actually help some people concentrate better. So why might moving around help boost focus and concentration for certain individuals? There are several potential explanations.

First, fidgeting may help some people self-regulate and release excess energy. Sitting completely motionless can feel unnatural for many individuals, especially those naturally inclined towards high activity levels. Fidgeting allows the release of nervous energy and can put the body in a more relaxed, optimal state for focusing. The movements stimulate the senses and can help occupy parts of the brain not involved in learning, freeing up cognitive resources to absorb information.

Second, fidgeting may activate parts of the brain associated with focus. Cognitive neuroscience research using brain scans shows that movements like doodling can activate areas like the prefrontal cortex which are involved in attention and concentration. Simple repetitive motions may stimulate blood flow and arousal in these regions, essentially “priming” the brain for heightened focus.

Third, fidgeting could enhance recall and memory formation. Memory encoding appears to work best when the brain is moderately stimulated by environmental cues and sensory information. The light cognitive load generated by small fidgeting motions may provide just enough stimulation to the brain to activate attentional networks, without being so distracting that it impairs learning. This may lead to better memory formation and recall.

Fourth, certain types of fidgeting may give an outlet for nervous energy and anxiety. Foot tapping, pencil twirling and other repetitive actions seem to provide a release for nervous tension in some individuals. This may calm the mind, reduce anxiety levels that could otherwise interfere with concentration, and allow for better absorption of information.

Fifth, permitting fidgeting in moderation can demonstrate empathy for students’ needs. Strict no-fidget policies may communicate that a student’s natural inclinations are wrong and undeserving of accommodation. Permitting minor fidgeting shows validation of students as individuals with unique focus needs. This empathetic approach can lead to greater pupil engagement and motivation to concentrate to the best of their ability.

While frequent large disruptive movements should still be discouraged, minor fidgeting should not be instinctively suppressed. Emerging evidence points to the cognitive and stress-relieving benefits it can provide during learning. The key is keeping the movements small and non-disruptive.

Each student has unique needs and abilities when it comes to sustaining focus. For some, staying completely still is optimal. For others, small repetitive outlet motions boost their concentration. Just as we celebrate neurodiversity in how individuals think and learn differently, fidgeting is another dimension where students’ needs vary. Permitting non-disruptive fidgeting is an empathetic way teachers can allow students self-regulate in a style that optimizes their learning potential.

Rather than a bad habit to eliminate, minor fidgeting should be seen as a potential cognitive aid. Research continues to unveil the brain science behind behaviors and their impact on learning. For many students, the ability to fidget subtly may unlock enhanced focus and academic performance. Fidgeting keeps the senses engaged, releases nervous energy, stimulates the brain, and demonstrates an inclusive teaching style – all of which can add up to better concentration and more a-ha moments.