Why children need to squirm to learn

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A topic of conversation that comes up all the time in school staff rooms is children that squirm – fidget – jiggle – fiddle – twist and turn! Those who cannot sit still: they jump, spin, flop around on the classroom floor, lay down or slump over a table. Children like this aren’t usually misbehaving, it’s their body’s way of communicating a need. These children can have an under-responsive vestibular system resulting in poor core strength, balance and spatial awareness. A vestibular system that is under-performing doesn’t allow for smooth, easy, controlled and efficient muscle movements.

The Vestibular System 101

The vestibular system is located in the inner ear. The fluid inside our ears provide feedback and information for our balance and spatial awareness. A healthy vestibular system relies on the integration of the other sensory systems. When functioning optimally, it supports the development of other sensory systems such as touch, vision and sound. When children have a vestibular system that is hyposensitive (under-responsive), it requires constant movement to feel secure and satisfied. This can be problematic making learning much more challenging due to the body and brain having to work much harder at sensory input and interacting in the environment.

What role does the vestibular system play in eating?

The vestibular system is important when eating. Sitting in an upright position helps keep the head in a neutral and safe position to open the airway. A fully operational breathing system is essential because the body needs to work harder at breathing when eating. It has to coordinate adequate oxygen reaching vital organs to function well, and the stomach filling, putting pressure on the diaphragm and lungs.

A weak vestibular system (poor core strength and balance) results in having poor visual tracking, coordination and chewing patterns. It will present as messy eating with children missing their mouths and dropping food. This poor sensory input interferes with mealtime experiences. Parents often think their child is being inattentive and playing around at the table but this can be due to low postural strength. This constant movement causes the child not to truly engage with the body’s fullness (satiety) cues.  

How do teachers and parents counteract squirming and fidgeting?

It’s a matter of, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Free play without structure where children can explore their environment is one way this can happen; running, climbing, hanging upside down, spinning, jumping, crawling, dancing and flipping all help develop and work the vestibular system. Frequent classroom movement breaks help keep the body calm and reduces stress. Developing routines with fun movement patterns involving all of the large muscles and trunk help with motor planning for more intricate and complex tasks. Repetition of actions along with progression to integrating more complex body challenges help build a sensory system that communicates more effectively. Productivity levels also improve due to the increased oxygenation from blood flow to the brain. The body thrives on movement! The best part is, this benefits ALL children, not just children that fidget and squirm. 

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