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fidget spinners
A student plays with a fidget spinner at school. Three research studies find that the objects detract from learning. Credit: Meryl Schenker for The Hechinger Report

The fidget spinner craze may have come and gone. So 2017, right? But the research process is slow and methodical, and finally in 2019, there is more conclusive evidence that the whirring lobes of plastic are harmful to learning. Results from at least three scientific studies argue against allowing students to use fidget spinners in the classroom — even among children with attention disorders — despite marketing claims that the objects can be helpful.

To be sure, many teachers and school administrators figured out on their own that fidget spinners were a mesmerizing distraction. Some schools banned them from classrooms well before researchers had the proof. Seeking alternatives, teachers and students introduced more fidget objects, from squeeze balls to squishy putty, into classrooms. And now top researchers are questioning whether these objects, for which there are many teacher examples online and sometimes official recommendations for teachers to use them, are also counterproductive.

“They might not be called a fidget spinner but it’s the same thing,” said Paulo Graziano, director of the S.E.L.F.-Regulation Laboratory at Florida International University. “Kids with ADHD get distracted. And having something that occupies their attention is likely going to take away from them listening to the teacher and doing their work.”

“Just like with the fidget spinner, you would think they could just spin it in their hands while looking up at the teacher,” Graziano explained to me in an interview. “What we found is no, kids like to see it happening in their hands. So they’re looking down at whatever their hands are holding. If there’s a fun squeezy ball — I haven’t seen a study on it — but my impression is that they’re also looking down at it to see what’s going on….I would strongly recommend against any of these devices.”

First, the evidence. The newest study, “Putting a negative spin on it,” published online Oct. 26, 2019 in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, looked at what happened when researchers randomly gave fidget spinners to college students and had them watch educational videos in a laboratory setting at the University of California, Santa Cruz. One video was about the Hawaiian ruler Kamehameha the Great. Another was about baking bread. Those who had fidget spinners in their hands scored worse on a memory test about the videos afterward. Even students who said they liked fidget spinners and found them helpful suffered from memory impairment.

Related: Teachers often ask youngsters to learn in ways that exceed even adult-sized attention spans

A German study published in January 2019 found that both fidget spinners and doodling impaired memory. But stress balls didn’t negatively affect memory. Still, they didn’t help.

Graziano, the skeptic I quoted above, was one of the first researchers to come out with a scientific study of fidget spinners, titled “To Fidget or Not to Fidget, That is the Question,” and published in the Journal of Attention Disorders in 2018. He decided to study fidget spinners in 2016 after his then five-year-old daughter asked for them for Christmas. He was surprised by the marketing claims that the toys can help kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and anxiety.  He was an expert in research into early interventions for children with behavior disorders, especially ADHD, and had never heard that. When he went to look for the research, “there wasn’t any,” Graziano recalled to me in an interview. “It was false marketing.”

Unlike the 2019 studies that didn’t test the devices on students with disabilities, Graziano specifically wanted to know if fidget spinners helped younger children with ADHD. He randomly gave fidget spinners to preschoolers who were attending a summer treatment program. All the children were videotaped  and researchers watched, coded and counted all the kids’ behaviors. The kids who received fidget spinners had many more moments of inattentiveness. “Attention was definitely impacted by the spinner in a bad way,” said Graziano. “It was harmful. They were more inattentive.”

But those who got the fidget spinners were less hyperactive —  initially. They didn’t run around as much as the other campers who didn’t get the spinners. That behavioral advantage disappeared four weeks later, however, when Graziano handed the spinners out a second time to the same randomly selected group of kids. At the end of the summer program. the two groups — spinners and non-spinners — were equally hyperactive.  (However, the behavior of both the spinners and and the non-spinners improved during the treatment program.)

In sum, Graziano found that while there may be a small behavioral benefit to handing a restless kid a fidget spinner, it is short lived, and outweighed by the harm to the child’s attentiveness.

So what is the source of the marketing claims that fidget spinners can improve focus? Graziano dug into the research history more and found studies showing that the fidgety movements that kids with ADHD sometimes do with their whole bodies can help their cognitive performance in laboratory experiments. Graziano said that the theory is that these excess body movements arouse the prefrontal cortex of their brains, jolting their brains to stay attentive. Why someone thought that a spinning object in the hands might have the same salutary effect on the brain as the whole body fidgeting is anyone’s guess. It’s a leap.

Related: A cheaper, quicker approach to social-emotional learning?

How to handle restless, fidgety kids who have trouble paying attention is an important question for educators. Graziano says the evidence-based literature advises teachers to sit these children in front of the class and give them a lot of positive reinforcement and praise for staying on task. Assigning them active classroom jobs, such as being the door opener, can help too.

In other words, good classroom management skills work. What educators need is more research evidence for how to help kids pay attention. I wish that more education researchers would focus on this and perhaps with the current mania for “social-emotional learning,” more researchers will. Handing kids a fidget toy is easy. Teaching them to build their attention spans and focus is much harder.

This story about fidget spinners was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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