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Our bodies can consciously and subconsciously reflect our emotions and indicate what’s going on in our minds.

Reading non-verbal communication is so vital in various professional fields, including education. For example, leaning forward could suggest focusing, while leaning back can appear as disinterest or lack of attention. Even folding your arms can be ‘read’ as a body language indicator.

One of the most common physical gestures used as a non-verbal cue is fidgeting. Fidgeting in all its forms can easily be read as a sign of a wandering mind. Or, repetitive movements, such as shuffling feet and squirming in a chair, can appear as discomfort or embarrassment.

There is a degree of stigma attached to constant and precise fidgeting too. Sitting on a bus or in a theater doing repetitive movements can be treated as ‘odd’ or annoying. However, fidgeting is a far more complex behavior than many realize, and it is not always a harmful habit or response.

This article explores whether these non-verbal cues are open to misinterpretation, particularly whether fidgeting could be a natural system of renewing and reinforcing attention.

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What is meant by fidgeting?

This term covers a wide range of quirky, repetitive, and often apparently random movements. For example, tugging or chewing on hair, twirling and tapping pens and pencils, tapping a foot, or blinking rapidly. The general perception is that it indicates someone distancing themselves from what is happening around them. This could include displaying restlessness, boredom, or even defiance in educational settings.

Fidgeting is certainly often viewed as a distraction for educators and other learners and therefore discouraged in classrooms. Some forms of fidgeting are mild and infrequent, while others are regular movements. In the latter case, the individual can find their sleep, work, and interaction with other people are impacted by their involuntary movements. In this case, it is important to seek advice from a medical professional.

There is more on the medical conditions linked to fidgeting later, but could it be misread in education and employment settings?

Fidgeting to improve attention and information retention

There is growing evidence to suggest that fidgeting is a way people either unconsciously or purposefully increase their attention and alertness when time and distractions are becoming an issue.

A joint study entitled ‘Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering’ – by the Department of Psychology at three Canadian universities – found “fidgeting makes a unique contribution to retention of lecture material over and above that contributed by an individual’s attention.“

The report puts forward the view: “Fidgeting may also help individuals sustain attention by increasing physiological change and arousal.” For example, doodling can be seen as a way for individual to arouse their cognitive abilities rather than distract themselves from what is happening around them.

According to Billy Roberts of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling in Columbus, “While in the past fidgeting had been viewed as a problematic symptom that needed ‘healing,’ there is an emerging perspective that indicates it can be channeled to help with focus.”

Fidgeting as a self-soothing mechanism

Some children and adults make involuntary, repetitive, and unusual movements as a ‘self-soothing’ mechanism. This is particularly true of those on the autism spectrum or with severe anxiety.

This resulted in the wealth of toys and gadgets created to actively encourage fidgeting or provide a safe, contained way to channel the urge to fidget.

In the case of autism, stimming (self-stimulatory behavior) is a way to manage emotions like fear and excitement and focus attention on something physical.

According to Autism Speaks: “Many autistic people use stimming as a form of sensory seeking to keep their sensory systems in balance. Repetitive movements, sounds, or fidgeting can help people with autism stay calm, relieve stress, or block out uncomfortable sensory input.”

Could the same be true of many other incidents of fidgeting? Is it a coping mechanism and a way of restoring balance and focus rather than showing an absence of concentration?

Involuntary fidgeting and medical conditions

What are other medical conditions linked to chronic fidgeting?

ADHD

In children, constant fidgeting may indicate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.

Interestingly, Justin Fernandez, associate professor at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute in New Zealand, conducted research using MRI technology into how fidgeting affects the brain of someone with ADHD. This was partly to explore whether ‘above average levels of hyperactive and impulsive behavior’ could be a way to diagnose ADHD.

The tests showed that when someone with ADHD fidgeted, their prefrontal cortex showed increased activity, which looked more like a ‘neurotypical brain’. In other words, their movements were linked to attempts to concentrate (which leads to increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex).

Tourette’s Syndrome

This condition is associated with vocal and motor tics, sudden, unwanted, and rapid sounds, twitches, or movements done repeatedly. They are involuntary and challenging for the individual to prevent.

For example, a simple tic could be sniffing or fidgeting, while a complex tic involves several sounds or gestures in a pattern.

According to the CDC: “Symptoms usually begin when a child is 5 to 10 years of age. The first symptoms often are motor tics that occur in the head and neck area. Tics usually are worse during times that are stressful or exciting. They tend to improve when a person is calm or focused on an activity.”

Restless Leg Syndrome

Fidgeting due to restless leg syndrome would essentially be a night-time behavior. RLS is common and has several causes. It can be a temporary or chronic condition that requires medical help, though regular exercise often alleviates it.

Psychomotor Agitation

This is the medical term for someone who displays excessive energy levels, which they release by constant fidgeting or general movement, including pacing. The causes include post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, Bipolar Disorder, and substance withdrawal.

If someone fidgets excessively, medical professionals may test for undiagnosed mood disorders, for example.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People with OCD can display anxiety in actions similar to common ‘fidgets’. Such as tapping and repeatedly turning their head to look at something like a door or window. These involuntary and distressing movements are a form of tics.

Nervous system disorders

This covers a wide range of medical issues, which lead to muscle twitches and spasms. This includes, for instance, Parkinson’s Disease.

Choreoathetosis

Choreoathetosis refers to involuntary body movements that occur frequently and persistently. It is associated with muscle tightness, jerking or twitching, fixed hand position, or other abnormal issues with movement.

Episodes can be shortlived and due to stimulation from caffeine or alcohol, for example. Or they can result from an injury or response to medication. When it is longer term, Choreoathetosis could be caused by conditions such as tumors, cerebral palsy, Huntington’s disease, and Wilson’s disease.

Purposeful fidgeting

Of course, not all fidgeting is a sign or symptom of a medical condition. Also, no one is arguing. It is always a subconscious way for an individual to improve their focus or calm themselves!

Sometimes, it does indicate a degree of restlessness and boredom, especially in young children. Therefore, if nothing else, fidgeting indicates that your audience is ready for a break or that you need to alter your delivery or content to bring wandering minds back to their task.