Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How to Get Your Child to Sit Still

I have a piece of code embedded in my website that tells me why people visit my blog.  Almost every inquiry is the along the same lines:  My child can't sit still.

There may be other reasons preventing the child from being able to attend, but first and foremost, a child who is unable to sit still and focus is a child who needs to move.  

Children cannot be taught how to sit still.  They cannot be instructed to sit still and be expected to follow through for more than a few moments.  Sitting still is not a cognitive task like spelling.  It is an inherent physical ability that depends on a great number of factors, like balance, strength, mental alertness, the amount of exercise the child has had recently, sufficient breath control, nutrition, and rest, and mature neurological functioning. If these things are not solidly in place in the child's body, the child won't be capable of sitting quietly and being available for learning.

Recently I had to say goodbye to a little boy I had been treating for several years.  He was doing beautifully and ready to graduate!  Amid the tears and hugs, his mother said something that caught me completely off guard.  She said, "So much of what we learned here was counterintuitive."


At this little boy's school, a high premium is placed on the children's ability to be "steady."  They were expected to manage their own behavior, to sit still upon command, to internalize and follow the rules, and to be quiet and respectful and correct in what they do and what they say to each other at all times.

This little boy couldn't come close to being able to do all that.  He was impulsive, clumsy, and primitive.  He bit and hit instead of being able to "use his words," and when he did use words, they were often not acceptable either in volume or content.  He rarely initiated any activities, especially when the room was noisy, could not keep his hands to himself during circle time, nor meet the grownups' expectations regarding the social and academic demands of the classroom.  I thought he was very bright, but no one at school seemed to think so, judging from the carefully neutral, unenthusiastic reports from his teachers.

His mother explained that she and her husband had tried to teach him to follow the schools' expectations by reminding him, over and over, to "be steady."  They reasoned that to help him sit still, he had to be taught how to sit still.

Then they were referred to OT, and instead of encouraging him verbally to control his body, I hardly spoke to him at all.  Instead, I quietly provided one intense movement experience after another on the suspended equipment, encouraged him to scream as loudly as he wanted and to jump and crash as hard as he needed, and convinced his parents, after much cajoling, to take him outside to play in the mornings before school began.

To their amazement, on the mornings when they got him to school twenty minutes early and played tag with him in the schoolyard  {many of the other children in his class started coming early as well and joining in} he was able to go directly to his seat and stay focused all morning.

There were other things we did, of course, to improve the functioning of his nervous system and reduce his sensory defensiveness, but the more I could convince his parents to keep him active, the better his behavior both in and out of school.

His mother said, "We didn't realize that in order for him to be able to be still, first he had to move!"

Living in the city and lacking lawns, yards, and natural habitats, we habitually spend our time indoors.  We forget how necessary it is for children to move their bodies and explore their environments freely.  It's not healthy for babies and toddlers to be constantly strapped into strollers and car seats and play pens and forced to be passive.  It impedes their physical, emotional, and cognitive development!

Humans are biologically designed to hunt, fish, plant, gather, chop wood, carry water, walk long distances, keep watch for predators, and to use our bodies and hands to build and make things in order to survive.  We were not designed to sit in chairs all day, and the bad posture, obesity, depression, poor health, and chronic pain suffered by so many of the people who drive themselves to work and sit all day long in artificial light, year after year, is telling.

It's not realistic to expect a child to sit still all day long, rarely get any exercise or time outside, eat a lot of sweets and nutritionally empty processed foods, and then be present and focused and available for learning.

The ability to sit still for long periods, control impulses, filter distractions, maintain flexible attention, and focus on high level skills like reading, writing and solving problems demands a high degree of internal organization, postural stability, and excellent respiratory functioning.  Without these things firmly in place, the child's body has a limited ability to support the work of his brain, eyes, and hands.

In order to "be steady" mentally and emotionally, a child  first has to be physically steady.  In order for a child to be able to "hang in there,"  a child literally has to be able to hang in there.

The only way for children to be able to mature and develop their nervous systems, improve their  motor planning, strengthen their core muscles, and maximize their balance and coordination, all of which are vital to learning and attention, is through movement.  Do you want your young child to excel?  Forget the enrichment classes, which I consider a waste of time and money, and take him outside.  I'm not talking about Saturday morning soccer practice.  I'm talking about going to the park, playing on the swings, slide, merry go round, teeter totters, playing tag and statues, having a catch, playing Frisbee, messing around in the sandbox, climbing on the jungle gym, making snowmen, sledding, skating, roller blading, swimming, riding a bike or scooter, hopscotch, jumprope, etc.

 In order to do and be their best, children need a lot of unstructured time to play outdoors. They need to be able to coordinate themselves with their heads and bodies in all kinds of different positions and situations.

If your child has a hard time sitting still, try this:  give him lots and lots of intense exercise and time outside every single day, drastically reduce screen time, make sure he gets plenty of sleep, and minimize sweets and nutritionally empty foods, substituting whole, fresh, organic, unprocessed foods.   Turn off  your electronic devices when you're with him and give him your full, undivided attention.  If you're nervous about not giving him all the enrichment classes, here are some ideas: play lots of classical music at home, read to him regularly, provide craft activities,  and do things together as a family.

If he is still having problems, there are most likely underlying causes  such as sensory defensiveness, an under responsive vestibular system, or allergies that an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration issues can help you uncover and correct.

  Let me know how it's going.


Shar said...

Thanks for posting this, I am a teacher and you have given me some great ideas for helping some of the little guys in my class :)

Babajeza said...

Back after a looooooong time. It's nice to ready again. :-)

Christine said...

Thank you Loren. Great Article.

Karen said...

Thanks for this! I have been feeling guilty that I didn't manage to build in time during the summer for my 2 kids to review what they had learned in school, but instead let them play all summer at camps and with their neighborhood friends. Now, I'm hoping that they have teachers who don't send too much homework for them, so they have time to "play" after school instead.

Unknown said...

thank you for this article and thank God!!!

[ said...

Hey! I'm a fairly new OT who just found your blog. Thank you for taking the time to share all this information. Going though your blog is helping me to better understand so many things I do, but don't exactly know why. Excited to keep learning!

[ said...

Hey! I'm a fairly new OT who just found your blog. Thank you for taking the time to share all this information. Going though your blog is helping me to better understand so many things I do, but don't exactly know why. Excited to keep learning!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article. Does your article refer to all ages of children? My son is 5 years old and I see so many others in his class that don't sit still and am wondering if it's normal for this age group.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this wonderful information! I have 4 children, 6 grandkids and have spent most of my life raising chilren. I have not once doubted the incorrectnes of educational institution system administrations in thier forcing of childen to "sit still". I have infact always felt it was mostly rediculous and counterproductive. I haven't the education to prove it, but have witnessed the ill effects of this for years. I just wonder how we can stop this debilitating practice as it is truely damaging our childrens' health. I have a gandson who was diagnosed with ADHD and is heavily medicated in order for him to attend school and "sit still". When he is with me, we do mostly outdoor activities. I live in the country and have a 10 acre area where he can romp and play. You may not believe this but, he is so sensitive in nature, he can actually catch a fish with his hands! I'm not talking about a small fish either. He's even caught fish in the ocean by hand. It's amazing! Also amazing is how calm he is when fishing, on a hike in the woods, or even just outdoors under the big starry sky by a campfire. When he is outdoors,especially in water he is in his element and it is good. It is what is right for him. He is one with nature. I consider him gifted, not flawed. I expect that someday, due to his interest, he will become a marine biologist. I fear though that his many wonderful physical abilities are at risk due to the medications. I also feel that we as a society have lost the nesessary appreciation for the naturally gifted individual. We as a society must recognize what is truely happening here and stop allowing governments, school administrations and teachers to systematically diagnose our children, as they are not qualified to do so. We need to recognize and understand that teachers and school adminisrations are under a great deal of stress to "meet the quota" set in place by government funding requirements set mostly by a bunch of grouchy, fat, old men who eat mostly junk food, watch too much T.V. and have deep seated control issues. Sorry but it's just the truth. I would like to begin educating myself in order to address these issues, so that I can open a nature school for the naturally adept because I believe that some children are meant to be accountants, engineers, legislators and politicians and traditional schools are designed with only those and certain other limited interest in mind. But the many children who are meant to be explorers, our future tree climbing forrest rangers, ship navigating marine biologists,cave exploring geologists, jungle habitating botonists, and sand digging, story loving, archeologists are truely being denied thier natural gifts and even being forced to sacrifice thier health. Can you name one child who has found a lichen in the woods, a fiddler crab on the beach, a bouquet of beautyberry or even a small turtle and eagerly brought it to school to study? My point exactly. Most teachers cannot identify these wonders of nature and most administrators disallow these practices, ruling them "dangerous and unhealthy, not to mention the all important "disruptive" or "unsanitary"! But then look what they serve for lunch! Concerning the education systems that be, I believe we should promtly point out thier mistakes, graciously forgive thier tresspasses and by all means, educate immediately. Don't you?

Heather said...

Thanks for the great insight!! I home school my five girls. My 6 year old fits the description of your " counterintuitive" patient to a "t". Time to do some hard core playing before school. Do you have any suggestions for indoor playtime during incliment weather?

Kari said...

I just had a new baby in dec and cannot take me 3.5 yr old outside at all in the morning and i cannot focus entirely on him in the mornings. Once it is warmer i can and will bundle up the baby but what can i do now. He has become a bear all the time.

Loren Shlaes said...

I have a few posts about how to give your children lots of movement indoors. Look up "Inside Moves, Part One, Two and Three," in the search engine.

MyaMya said...

Hello Loren, as many have stated, I too thankful for your informative posts. Want to ask you some things, if I may. My school gave approximately 15 minutes of outside play before class start, and that includes putting on shoes time. After play, all of us line up and do a morning assembly for about half an hour, where all students standing up. What I'm going to ask you is this:
1. Do we have a sufficient play time before class or should we add some more? How long is the good range?
2. Does the half an hour standing up after play has a counter-effect for classroom activities readiness? Or shall we go straight to class after play?

Thank you. :-)

Loren Shlaes said...

I can't answer for sure because I don't know how old your students are. Forcing anyone to stand still in one place for half an hour seems excessive to me, though. Can you see how the students do with the time allotted and then add as necessary?

Generally the more movement and time spent outside the better.

Anonymous said...

Thanks you for sharing these ideas. I have been at a loss for what to do for my 7 year old who has trouble focusing and trouble sitting quietly for anything. I think this could really benefit him.

Anonymous said...

great,very helpful

Anonymous said...

My son 31 month old cant sit still at school and this bothers me pls help

Kaylene's Mommy said...

I tottlay needed to stumble across this article. Even as an adult I have issues just sitting still. I feel terrible that I have been putting such pressure on my five year old to be still and steady. Thank your providing this enlightening article. I now just need to figurure out what I could do in the morning to get her acrive active during this time of cold weather.

Rich said...

I like the idea of taking my 5 year old out to play in the morning...of course he doesn't want to sit still in pre-school. He's got way too much energy. Good suggestions...

Anonymous said...

hello to fellow parrents outthere, my 3yrs 4months son won't sit down still as said above, secondly he speak but i can't undestand even a single word, he will speak out many words by himself but i do not understand even single word. he want something from the fridge he will open it and bring to me to give him, he wants water he will bring for me a cup and hold my hand to the cooler so that i can give him water. thirdly he when he was one yr old he spoke dad , mom very well now he is 3yrs 4months old he doesn't speak at all mom,dad the many words he speak by himself when playing is ununderstable at all. He olso like touching things at home dragging , i have to be arround all the time to ensure he does not break up things.
I thought of him being austistic but he does things that are opposite to what i see people say online though i havent taken him.
I'm kindly requesting parrents out there who has the same issue or who may understand and let me know of what might me the cause and what steps i should take.thanks {{('')}}