5 Reasons some kids can’t sit still

Do you have a child who just loves to move and won’t sit still?

Well, the truth is your son or daughter is probably not making a conscious decision to move – it is likely that they just can’t sit still. Occupational Therapists in Sydney’s northern beaches explain why.

Many teachers and parents struggle to manage kids who seem to be constantly on the move.

Sometimes, it can be hard to understand why your child finds it so hard to focus on one thing at a time, but it’s  important to remember that children of all ages need to move far more than adults do.

Even when it seems like your child might have a ‘need for speed’ that’s different to their peers, there is definitely an element of ‘typical’ in kids who struggle to be still.

However, for some kids, there are underlying causes that contribute to the struggles they have to control their level of activity.

If any of the causes below are affecting your child, knowing what to do to help is the first step toward making things better at home and in the classroom. 

Possible causes of your child’s high levels of activity:

1.Your child’s postural muscles may be unable to hold him/her upright for an extended period of time.

We have muscles that are powerful for a short time and are responsible for fast bursts of movement (fast burst muscles). We also have muscles that are closer to the skeleton that are not as powerful but they are able to ‘switch on’ and stay ‘on’ for an extended period of time (slow burst muscles).

Often, kids’ slow-burst muscles are not as strong as they need to be and do not provide the necessary stability required for staying in one place for an extended period of time. If this sounds like your child, you might notice that they can either look very ‘hunched’ or they tend to move around very quickly.

Children who move around because their muscles can’t hold them upright are relying solely on their ‘fast-burst’ muscles, which is why they need to move. Supporting them to build ‘core strength’ is one way to overcome these challenges so that staying in one spot is easier.

2.Your child may not be able to ‘turn down the volume’ on certain sensations.
Our environment is full of sensations that are unimportant to our functioning and survival. Most of us are able to ignore these sensations and pay attention to the important things, such as the teacher’s voice and the worksheet on the desk, but for kids who can’t sit still, this inability to ‘filter’ stimulus out might be part of the problem.If your child cannot ‘turn down the volume’ on the sights, sounds, touches and feelings that are part of their environment, they may ‘over-orient’ to sounds and visual input in their environment and feel the need to investigate EVERYTHING.

When this happens, it’s hard for them to know what they should pay attention to, and what they should ignore. Supporting them as they desensitize their body to the things that distract them is part of helping them to concentrate on the tasks they need to learn and complete.

3.Your child may not be getting enough sensory input from their vestibular (movement and balance) processing system.
Our vestibular system is located in the inner ear and gives us information about where we are in space and how we are moving. If your child is one of the many kids who seem to be constantly swinging on their chairs, rocking back and forth, jumping up and down and rolling around on the floor, their body might be seeking this kind of input in order to feel calm.Think of a grown-up who doesn’t feel ‘right’ unless they start their day with a physical workout at the gym or bracing walk around the block. For some people, the brain doesn’t work well unless their body is in sync.

As crazy as it may sound, your inattentive child who can’t sit still might just be seeking movement in order to feel settled and could benefit from planned movement in order to stay in control of their thinking and behaviour.

4.Your child may not be getting enough input from their proprioceptive (body awareness) system.
Here’s another big word for you to get your head around! Your child’s proprioceptive system is made up of the muscles and joints of the body and some kids find it hard to pay attention when this system is not getting the work out it needs to stay on task.
When children use their muscles and joints against resistance, they ‘activate’ this system which gives them comforting messages about where their bodies are in space.If your child drives you and teachers just a little bit crazy with their need to fiddle with small objects, bump into their peers, run their hands along walls, lean on others and run around, it may just be that the they need more in put in order to get their brain and body to work together well. if this sounds like your child, simple tactics like giving movement breaks when they have been sitting and not moving for a long time can make a big difference to their ability to concentrate.

5.A combination of all of these, or none of these.

That’s right – unfortunately these are only some of the things that have an impact on a child’s ability to sit still. 
If your child unwell, has a headache, is tired or even very excited or angry, sitting still (and paying attention!) is much more difficult. They key for parents and teachers is to work out if a child’s attention challenges are  the result of factors like fatigue, or whether there is something else at play, such as poor core strength or inefficient sensory processing.


Motivation is a huge driver of attention.

Many kids can play with Lego for hours, but find it hard to sit at the table for a meal, much less sit still during circle time at preschool or stay engaged with a sedentary science lesson at school.

If you think that your child’s inability to sit still in having a negative impact on his or her learning or behaviour, seek professional advice.

© 2018 Kids First Children’s Services

What can you do to help your child?

If you are concerned that your child cannot sit still during non-preferred tasks, or moves around more than his/her peers, it is advisable to seek advice from a health professional.

Occupational Therapists who have experience in supporting children with sensory processing can often suggest strategies that will help your child to ‘harness’ their natural enthusiasm for life and stay calm, focused and be able to concentrate when they need to.

Contact Kids First by email or phone on (02) 9938 5419 now to find out how our experienced Occupational Therapists can help your child

Learn more about occupational therapy for kids here

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