ADVICE: Why Can’t My Kid Sit Still?

3 reasons why your child is a wiggle worm
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When our children repeatedly turn a deaf ear to our requests to “sit still!” our tendency is to label them as bad or disobedient or assume something must be wrong with them. Let me assure you they are not bad kids and there is typically a good reason why sitting still seems impossible.

The child may be seeking sensory input. We all have different sensory needs and require different amounts of sensory input to help us focus best. Some of us require complete stillness and silence while others work best after a long workout and with background noise.

Kids who cannot sit still often fall into the latter category. They are seeking sensory input to get to what we call their “optimum level of arousal,” or that place where they can focus and function at their best. When we recognize this, we can promote the right type of movement and sensory input that will help them get to that place.

Solution: Give kids “movement breaks” ahead of those times when they’re expected to sit still. Refer to my article Why Can’t My Kid Focus?” for ideas to promote stillness during schoolwork.

The child has a weak core. Believe it or not, it takes more strength to maintain stillness then it does to move. Stillness requires all the postural muscles to kick in at the same time and hold us up against gravity. Kids with a weak core will move because it wears them out trying to be still.

In a day and age when our kids play outside less and spend more time doing sedentary activities, their core strength can suffer.

Solution: Children who seek sensory input or who have a weak core need exercise and time outside to run and play. If getting outside isn’t an option, create an indoor obstacle course. Encourage spinning, swinging, sliding, being upside down, running, climbing, jumping, pushing, pulling, animal walks (i.e. bear crawl, crab walk, or frog jump), and heavy work activities. Household chores are also great opportunities to get some needed sensory input and movement. Ask your kids to help with chores like yard work, carrying a full laundry basket or grocery bags, vacuuming, or mopping.

Our expectations are too high. There is a natural timeline in which kids develop certain skills. A lot is being asked of them these days (especially with academics and organized activities) that requires them to jump ahead of this timeline. This can make kids antsy in settings like the classroom, and they can grow frustrated and overwhelmed.

Solution: When your child appears frustrated, give them a movement break and help them find words to verbalize their feelings. And always remember to keep your expectations in check.

Knowledge is power. When we as parents, caregivers, and teachers understand why our kids are doing what they are doing, we become empowered to help them and manage our own frustrations.


CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior