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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Joanna Grace

Caught in a spin

Fidget spinners are the latest craze to cause controversy in schools, but an outright ban won't make the underlying needs disappear.

You’ve planned the perfect lesson, you have a great starter, you know pupils will find it interesting once they get into it. But their attention is elsewhere. Fidget spinners are being spun below the desks. You remember the altercation you had to deal with at break time, involving a stolen spinner. You’re fed up. What to do? Ban them?

On my travels, this is a question that has cropped up time and time again. It’s rarely one more nuanced than ‘To ban or not to ban?’ Such is the extent of teachers’ outrage at this apparent education-endangering device that the matter hit headlines internationally. Stories of American and British schools banning the spinners were reported in USA Today and the Daily Mail, respectively.

In their frustration, some critics of fidget spinners have taken a slightly condescending tone. Teacher and mother Cristina Bolusi Zawaki pointed the finger at parents:

‘Parents, do you really feel your child absolutely, inarguably needs to have something to squeeze, flip, push, tap or spin in order to stay focused for more than a handful of minutes? Frankly, I find that to be ridiculous absurd interesting. Do you think spinners are a good idea, or did you just not feel like arguing with your kid?’

Writing for TES, Jessica Fear, a newly qualified teacher, turned her sights on the spinner’s predecessor, the Fidget Cube.

‘The McLachlan brothers are hoping that its in-class/office benefits will demonstrate that fidgeting ought not to be “stigmatised and mocked as unbecoming or inappropriate.”

‘Oh dear, sweet, innocent Matthew and Mark – I can tell you haven’t spent long in a secondary school classroom!’

I am a sensory specialist who has spent plenty of time in secondary, primary and special school classrooms. I have also inspected schools on their provision for students with SEND.

The ferocity with which some teachers have given their two cents implies a deeper fault in the education system. Crucially, two points have been absent from the discussion so far.

Name of the game

It’s true that fidget spinners are everywhere. Many schools have already banned them, and their reasons for doing so are entirely justified.

But it hasn’t been all schools. In one school I know quite well, the story of fidget spinners has played out quite differently.

When the spinners first appeared in classrooms, their apparent benefit to conditions such as ADHD was touted about with impunity by brash students who were eager to introduce a little drama into their maths lessons. Teachers calmly objected, acknowledging the need to fiddle but citing the potentially disruptive impact spinners would have on learning. What about blue tac, or bits of string instead?

Surprisingly to all, fidget spinners have since vanished from the school without a fuss. While they continue to disrupt the occasional lesson, teachers are relieved to have avoided all-out war.

How did this happen? After all, teenagers aren’t generally renowned for their maturity or reasonableness, and the school had not been especially lucky with its students. They have put time and effort into supporting emotional development and building respectful relationships.

In your own working environment, you may have something you feel helps in your work – whether it does or does not, you like to have it there. It could be a cup of coffee or a packet of biscuits. How would you feel if your boss suddenly banned it outright, without regard for your needs? How would it affect the working relationship the two of you have?

Yes, it would eliminate the offending item, that’s not the name of the game. The teacher’s aim isn’t to win battles but to support students as they grow into adults.

Needs must

It’s quite likely that the pupil who claims to need their fidget spinner because they have a specific diagnosis won’t actually benefit from having one. But this does not mean that the needs are not there.

A growing number of young people have been diagnosed with sensory needs. On a low enough level, you may be able to relate to this. When you concentrate, do you fiddle with a pen or twiddle your hair? Fidgeting calm us down and helps us to focus.

When you concentrate, do you fiddle with a pen or twiddle your hair?

Watching the debate unfurl, I couldn’t help but think about those children below the tip of the iceberg, who have needs but struggle silently to manage them.

As a woman with autism, who was once a student with autism in a secondary school classroom, this is a deeply personal issue. Like my peers with autism, I was quiet and high achieving. I would not have caused you any trouble in the classroom. In fact, I was probably the person you would have pointed to as a role model for other students. But I was a problem to myself.

I struggled to cope with the social world. At no other time in my life have I been placed into a group of over 30 people and expected to cope with being there 24/7. My body still bears the scars of those struggles. Had you been my teacher, you would not have known I had a problem at all. I was so desperate to follow the rules and do the right thing that I would not have shown you my needs.

I cannot help but imagine how different my school life might have been if in my classroom there had been a gadget that helped me to feel calm, without feeling different or drawing attention to myself.

The need for fidget spinners is genuine, but not for obvious reasons. Banning them would be to throw a blunt object into a complex pool.

What's the big deal?

There have always been crazes in the classroom, small things carried in in pockets that disrupt learning. Why have fidget spinners been such a big deal, and why are teachers condemning them with such venom? Are small spinning toys worth so much of our attention?

I can only speculate, but the volatile nature of the debate may reflect a profession under increasingly complex demands – expectations raised but budgets cut. In all settings we see a growing number of pupils with SEND, but this challenge is not being met with additional training.

Many schools now take pride in having all their training delivered in-house. I ask you: if you met a person who declared they knew it all already would you turn to them for advice, or back away? A school may be full of fantastically knowledgeable people but no person, no group, knows it all. If it takes a village to raise a child, it should take a huge network to inform practice in a school and at a time when need is rising those networks are reducing.

The volatile nature of the debate may reflect a profession under increasingly complex demands

After my last post, I received an impassioned message from a teacher I respect enormously. They had taken offence to my suggestion that failure to provide for a child with SEN was the responsibility of a teacher (a point that, were I to have my time again, I would have rewritten with greater care to indicate that the buck does not stop with the person on the frontline).

I will paraphrase for you here what they said, as their words give good insight into the challenges school staff face.

‘There are so many mental health and sickness issues among teachers. Differentiating for need for eight activities a day, five days a week is hard. Meeting the professionals and parents, coming up with strategies, meeting attendance and success, and curriculum criteria for those with SEN at 97 per cent or above and for those who excel as well as everyone else is hard.

'Team meetings, management meetings, statistics. I know so many who sacrifice their own family life and experience of pregnancy for the SEN cause and there can be a huge sense of entitlement and disrespectful treatment of teacher. County want results in data at no financial costs. We are expected to provide for ever more complex students but not given the budget or the support to do so.’

Passion and ferocity

Her message continued, and our conversation is now years old. The pressure she is under increases month after month, as does her dedication. I know many other teachers like her. To let off steam about fidget spinners can be relieving.

When I hear teachers ranting about the spinners I do not automatically assume that they do not care about the sensory needs of their students. In their ferocity, I see passion. They would not be so angry if they did not care.

Follow Joanna on Twitter @jo3grace 

More from Optimus

Sensory circuits: the right track, but not a shortcut

Supporting pupils with behaviour issues: classroom strategies for teachers and teaching assistants

Accrediting inclusion

The SEND Inclusion Award provides a framework for recognising outstanding SEND provision in schools, and identifying areas that have high or little impact on your pupils' outcomes.

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