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How Can I Help My Fidgety Son Succeed in School?

03/18/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

I have an exuberant 7-year old who is in perpetual motion. Last year he was constantly in trouble for getting out of his seat. How can I help him do better?

As a parenting coach and family therapist, I see a steady stream of "fidgety" kids in my practice. Their parents are often at their wits end after being repeatedly chided by their child's teacher to somehow convince their youngster to manage the disruptions created by his or her constant motion.

The truth is, I have a special fondness in my heart for these kinds of children; they remind me of myself when I was growing up. It was always a challenge for me to sit still and pay attention in the classroom when my body wanted to be moving. When I did manage to be still and quiet, it came at a price: I would end up daydreaming, or losing myself in the doodles in the margins of my paper. Being in motion was somehow contributing to my ability to stay attentive, which I now know is often the case with fidgety children.

I have written extensively on helping the ADD'ish child succeed in school and in life. But whether or not a child's overall behavior warrants that label, many children are fidgety simply because... they're children! The first step in helping restless kids learn to manage themselves is to refrain from judging them as somehow deficient and accept that many children literally think best "on their feet." (To this day, most of the time when I'm being interviewed by phone, I'm pacing the house!)

At an ADD conference I once attended for therapists, a workshop was offered by a teacher who had gained a reputation as being very successful at supporting hyperactive and impulsive children in her classroom. I'll never forget one of her comments: "I give these kinds of children two desks. So if they're out of their seat, I just assume they're on their way to their other one!"

Here are some of the things I recommend for parents whose children are wired to be on the move:

Acknowledge the validity of your child's dilemma. Hundreds of years ago, we wouldn't dream of asking a 7-year old to sit indoors for hours on end.

Try a wiggle seat. Some schools let their fidgety kids sit on a big, inflated exercise ball or wiggle cushion. You may find that the subtle motion is enough to help him feel more focused, without distracting those around him.

Make sure your child has something to fiddle with. A paperclip can work, but one of my favorites is beeswax, a moldable substance that warms in the child's hand and has a grounding and calming effect.

Ensure your son is well rested and fed, without the kinds of sugary foods, additives and simple carbs that can generate restlessness and agitation.

Allow your fidgety boy to move around frequently when he's doing a boring homework task. Break up the job so it's interrupted by pre-sanctioned wiggle time.

As with everything else I teach, when you come alongside a child, rather than making troublesome issues turn into power struggles by coming AT him with threats or lectures, you reinforce your all-important role as Captain of the ship for your child, making them more willing to follow your plan.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the upcoming, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

To learn more about her online parenting courses and support, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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