Both young learners and adult students get distracted in the class. They have things going on in their own lives that means they are not giving all their attention to the class, the teacher, or their work. In the last few years, this discussion has often focused on mobile phones in the classroom, and while it could be a serious factor to being distracted, I outlined some ideas that could help address phones in the classroom in an article for English Teaching professional a few years ago: It’s not the phone!

General awareness of SEND needs and training seems to be increasing and there are good articles dealing with ADHD, technology-assisted learning for SEND learners, recognising SEND issues in the classroom, and training and support for teachers. It is also important to know that both adults and children can show symptoms of and be diagnosed with ADHD and Tourette’s (named here because they are the two most likely conditions to produce what can appear to fidgeting and the two examples later in the post refer to these two conditions). They do not only affect children, but as we deal with so many children in English classes globally, they are the most likely to be noticed. 




Wired differently

If you search for advice online, or ask around in the staff room, you are bound to hear lots of stories of how SEND needs or fidgeting students were supported or issues addressed, albeit some more successful than others. It is important to know that not all students who are fidgety or restless necessarily have ADHD or any other Special Education Need. Sometimes they are just bored or preoccupied. We should not as teachers or managers try to diagnose SEN, but we should realise two important things. Despite the ‘label’, not all ADHD students display exactly the same symptoms and nor should we expect a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. It is possible to incorporate things in your classes that would be pedagogically good for all your learners. Second, it is also critically important to realise that a student with a condition like Tourette’s or ADHD cannot ‘control’ their fidgeting or twitching and their brains are ‘wired differently.’ In simple terms, as much as they would like to comply with your instructions to stop fidgeting, making funny noises, or doing things that annoy you, they cannot. The brain simply overrides the desire, or it creates and increasing amount of anxiety or frustration that means they are even less likely to concentrate on their work.


Success with fidget spinners

The fidget spinner craze, although short lived, provided us with potentially one of the most annoying toys ever made. You could be in a class giving instructions, or trying to get students’ attention, and you could hear the sound of a fidget spinner. They were taken away from students, or banned in some classrooms, but provided a fairly novel idea for keeping students focused on their work.


fidget spinners


The solution: The fidget spinner was used as a timer. Rather than saying you have 3 minutes to read the text and answer the questions, you spin the fidget spinner when I say go, and then you have to be done when it stops. Young learners had the opportunity to spin their fidget spinners (and they sometimes took turns because one person was perhaps better at spinning it) and then focus all their attention on their work with a sense of urgency.

If there were discussions in teen or adult classes, the discussion had to last as long as the spinner was spinning, unless you were not done, then you could spin it again. The objective was to see who could keep the fidget spinner spinning the longest. It was surprising to see how willing students were to remain in the target language if the fidget spinner was still spinning. We used it in Cambridge Exam classes, IELTS classes, and general English classes, and the result was pretty much the same. A silly toy became a source of great joy.


The curious case of gum

Marco (10 years old and not his real name) is in my chess class. His parents told me that his schoolteacher wrote in his communication book that ‘Marco is so bad in class that he is probably not going to get any Christmas presents.’ I was horrified that someone could say something like that about a child, especially one that cannot really control everything that he does. Now, Marco is a handful and he has been diagnosed with ADHD. He is from mixed heritage, which adds an element of isolation at times, and as with lots of people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, struggles a lot at school. I understand the struggles teachers have to go through and how very often they lack support to deal with difficult situations. As the chess class was fairly new to me, I decided to experiment with a few ways of keeping Marco on task, at least for long enough that he could learn what we had set out to learn that week. I should add that chess brings the benefit of it being a game that is engaging in itself, and it is probably a lot easier to keep someone focused on a game than a science or math textbook.


chewing gum


One tip that stood out for me, mostly because I laughed when I saw it, was a study by Baylor college of Medicine that showed chewing gum reduced stress and anxiety in students with ADHD. Unfortunately, this has been spun into chewing gum improves performance and concentration in students with ADHD, which Tucha L., Simpson W., Evans L., Birrel L., Sontag T. A., Lange K. W., and Tucha O. (2010) found to not be the case. Nonetheless, chess class came, and I had gum ready. And it worked wonders. It was not an experiment, so I cannot say if it was the reward, a combination of the gum and me asking the students to leave his desk after each move and notate his move on another table, or if I just got lucky. And granted, there are good days and bad days.

While there are lots of tips and ideas, a few things stood out when I researched how to deal with ADHD. Understanding that young learners, whether they have ADHD or not need to move is key in managing a fidgety classroom. Also, understanding that you are the adult and you can control your emotions and responses are also important. Sometimes, that means unbanning gum in the class, and sometimes just understanding that they have nothing against you as a teacher.


work station


Teacher trainer with Tourette’s

Samantha is a teacher trainer and a teacher. She also helps lots of teachers deal with students with SEND needs in the classroom. She is very organised, but stopped working as an examiner, because she felt embarrassed when students would have a tick or mannerism that inadvertently meant she started blinking her eyes or making sounds with her throat. These actions are involuntary but has limited her perception of her ability to work effectively as an examiner.

One of the teachers that worked with her asked her to observe a class with a student that had regular anger outbursts. Rachel, was a teenager that couldn’t stop fidgeting and making sounds. Her classmates found her annoying and she struggled to make friends with her classmates. Every time the teacher asked her to stop shaking her leg or arm, or to stop making sounds, it would be a few minutes and Rachel would have an outburst, cry, leave the room, and come back looking dejected and depressed. Samantha observed the class and then had a conversation with the teacher afterwards. Samantha recalled in the conversation the extreme frustration she felt in school when she was asked to stop blinking her eyes, pulling her face, or making sounds with her throat. She felt frustrated because she struggled to comply, and angry because she couldn’t stop. Her advice to the teacher was to stop asking Rachel to stop moving or making sounds. The teacher reported that while there were still some issues, it had decreased. The class also spoke about involuntary ticks and how debilitating it could be for people with them, and while Rachel doesn’t have a best friend, she is better accepted by the group, and at least tolerated.




Looking forward

By continuing exploring ways of dealing with SEND students, perhaps one day we can move beyond tolerance and tolerated, to accepted and included. There are currently many models of talking about, discussing and analysing SEND students and their needs. There are also many differing opinions in terms of using people first language or not, and how to integrate and include different people and different needs. The frequency of mental health issues, and co-occurrence (more than one condition diagnosed together, for example, ADHD and Tourette’s often appear together) means that we are a long way off, but for now, maybe we should stop asking students if they can stop fidgeting, and explore ways of reducing anxiety, making our classrooms fidget friendly, and support students who struggle to concentrate and achieve.



Tucha L., Simpson W., Evans L., Birrel L., Sontag T. A., Lange K. W., & Tucha O. (2010). ‘Detrimental effects of gum chewing on vigilance in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.’ Appetite. 55(3):679-84.