The Functional Fidget
As any teacher can tell you, kids love new things. In my seven years as a middle school teacher I have seen different things come and go, with some new thing showing up as the perennial rage for my students. The items that stand out the most are Pokemon cards, which ebb and flow in popularity like the tides of the ocean, since they were pretty big when younger siblings were in middle school; kendamas, which were fun until some kids started hitting other kids with them; and lastly, the fidget spinner. Any teacher worth his or her salt just rolled their eyes at the mention of these less than beloved items.
For a time the fidget spinner was touted as THE solution to attention struggles, as THE stress relief tool for kids and adults alike. These symmetrical and obnoxious toys have been the bane of any educator’s existence because of two things: great marketing, and the fact that for some people they work. Those individuals, however, are few and far between in my experience. The problem is that when a single item or idea is talked about like it is a blanket solution to related problems, the varying results can result in ultimate rejection of the idea and object, while those who it really does benefit either suffer and are forgotten. Our addiction to novelty, and its correlating addiction to preferring the simple (or simple minded) answer is such that we miss the big picture. In this case, we can forget that fidget spinners do work, but not for everyone. Entertaining nuanced notions is not an easy skill set to gain, and requires hard work, so heuristics get us the mentally-inexpensive but often wrong answer.
Having spent seven years as a special education teacher, I have seen this. What works for one kid does not work for another. It was guesswork to figure kids out. Sure, I got training. Sure, there are all sorts of theories and ideas that people have. The current rage isn’t a toy but “mindfulness rooms”. And like the fidget spinners, they are being applied mindlessly. The mindless mindfulness rooms are backfiring too. And that is why I am here talking about functional fidgets.
I was introduced to applied behavior analysis in a surprisingly good class near the culmination of my bachelor’s degree. A mishmash of concepts essential to Applied Behavior Analysis were simplified into the time limits of a single semester, which left me wanting. Don’t get me wrong: the teacher was amazing! She did her best to make the class interested and involved; but she only had so much time, and there wasn’t time left to actually practice the discipline, what with all the busy work that other classes foisted on us, that were, in my opinion, completely worthless. They pulled me away from something that actually proves useful for educating children. But it wasn’t until year later, after my Master’s of Education that I reencountered the wonderful world of Applied Behavior Analysis. Except, in this case, I was learning from people who practiced the science daily. They knew it better than they know the backs of their own hands. And it was exciting, so I dove in, learning from books and others alike. I got to practice the skills, get direct feedback, and more. It was priceless experience, and my skills as a special education teacher grew as a direct result of the practical knowledge I was gaining. But the one thing that bugged me about the process is how narrow the examples I was getting were. So I started branching out. I found more folks who had the same frustration and I started learning from them, then applying what I knew. So, when I saw another example of the problem mentioned above with fidget spinners and mindless mindfulness earlier this week, I couldn’t resist myself. It is time to put the magnifying glass over this subject.
Fidgets work, but only for some people. How do you know who they work for? Easy. Experimenting. You test and see if when an individual is using one if they can focus on the task at hand. Imagine if a pilot were to walk into work one day and say he NEEDED this fidget spinner to fly the plane well. The airline is resistant to the idea but the FAA intervenes and says that he should be allowed to. Then he is playing with it during a time when he should be focusing on the task of flying the plane, and since he is not an individual who can fidget while focusing the plane crashes. Hundreds are now dead and injured. Miraculously, he survives without a scratch. The next day he is back in the pilot’s seat with that stupid piece of spinning plastic and metal in his hands. THAT is what happens every time someone insists that a fidget spinner is needed without first testing to see if it is functional for that individual. Their education crashes and burns at the expense of good marketing and the silly idea that if it applies to one person it applies to all.
Functionality, on the other hand, is a pretty easy measuring stick to apply. It starts with a simple question: can this person do this thing while doing that thing? Simple, right? Not really, because it takes a little time to test, which is time that teachers usually just don’t have. Then there is the fact that parents rarely test it themselves. Why not? Lack of time. It’s a valuable thing. Time is money. Yet, without that testing we have a big problem. The problem is this cycle of boom and bust that we go through with children. Some “expert” says fidget spinners are good for ADHD and anxiety, and maybe someone else reads it and applies this information without diving into the functionality of the interaction. It doesn’t matter if the “expert” says it helps for some people. The idea is grabbed by the media. Articles are written. People read the articles. Only part of the information is conveyed or understood. And here we go again. A multiplied misunderstanding becomes yet another stupid fad that schools will have to tolerate for at least a little while before finally having enough. Then they will blanket ban, because they are tired of dealing with whatever this invasive device is, because it ultimately negatively impacts the learning of enough students. The solution is to test,o track the behavior of the individual to see if it helps or not. This idea is as commonplace as water in the ocean in Applied Behavior Analysis. It is called Single Subject Case Design. It is why ABA works so well. It takes the individual as an individual rather than making blanket statements base off of blanket research. ABA uses such research, certainly, but the principles are applied on an individual basis. The preferences of the individual are taken into consideration and the behaviors are tracked. If the undesirable behavior (the target behavior) increases, we know we need to adjust things. If the undesirable behaviors go down, we think we might be onto something, but we continue to test, observe, and record.
But who has time for that? Well, it doesn’t really need to be complex when we are talking about something as simple as whether a spinning object helps or hinders someone’s attention. It takes me almost no time at all to figure that out in my classroom. I make a clear statement that it is allowed IF the assigned task is getting done. I offer prompts and reminders to stay on task (these are kids, after all), but if the task is something that just isn’t then that particular individual does not have access to that particular item or activity while working. They can play with it during their time, sure, but when it is learning time that is my time. Parents can do this too. And in fact, I encourage doing this sort of thing, because one of the skills that a child is being taught by modeling this process consistently is this. Sometimes we must test to see if something works or not. And if not, it is okay to move on to the next thing.
At the end of the day, the question of whether a behavior, an idea, or an item is worth keeping or not comes down to the big question. WTF? What is the function? If the function is something that harms the individual, or others around that person, perhaps it's not worth holding on to. This is a question I had to ask myself many, many times. Just because I am autistic does not mean I have blanket permission or right to be non-functional. Quite the opposite is true. It means that it is vital for me to be both the subject and the scientist, and the same applies to everyone. The problems of the world will be resolved when everyone takes responsibility for themselves. And a good place to start that conversation is with the simple question of whether it is functional. Then we can see past all the distractions to those individuals who succeed with the functional fidget.