Having not worked in a school since July 2016 I missed the start of fidget spinners craze but, after entering the world of supply teaching, I’m pretty much caught up. Fidget spinners are toys that have been cleverly marketed as having stress-relieving benefits. I don’t know whether that’s true or not – it appears that the evidence is inconclusive. What I do know is that any stress-relieving benefits are negated by the amount of stress fidget spinners cause for the other children and teachers trying to work.
There seem to be three different attitudes to spinners in schools. Most schools have taken the sensible approach and have banned them outright. (I feel as though I should be wearing a hairnet and shaking my stick at children running in the street as I write this.) Some schools have tried to embrace the trend and actually give children fidget spinner breaks halfway through lessons. Others have tried to incorporate them into the curriculum and planned maths and DT schemes of work around this new fad.
Other schools appear to have banned spinners only to have replaced them with equally disruptive equivalents. “Feel free to confiscate any fidget spinners if you see them – they’re not supposed to have them in school,” one teacher said as she showed me to the classroom. She then added, “We’ve given them fidget cubes and stress balls so they shouldn’t need the spinners.” The stress balls ended up being chucked around the classroom or rolled down the side of the hall in assembly and one of the fidget cubes was pelted into an unsuspecting child’s face which I doubt did much to relieve his stress.
But it doesn’t stop there. Other behaviour management strategies I’ve seen include: Tangle fidget toys, Pause and Walk, oh and Brain Breaks: for every X minutes of work a pupil completes they get a twenty minute break to go and play football, play on the computer etc… I only learnt about this one because a child said to me, “Miss – you forgot that me, Joe and Grace have Brain Breaks. We didn’t have them this morning and we’re meant to have them every twenty minutes.” My response was “No – you forgot your Brain Breaks this morning which might mean you don’t actually need to take them – look how much work you all did instead!” Whatever the strategy the message to those children is the same, “Don’t worry you’re not expected to behave the same way as everybody else. If you’re finding the lesson difficult or boring you can just play with this instead.”
Vising so many different schools and witnessing these strategies has left me with this nagging question: when did it become unacceptable to expect children to work for an hour? I’m not an advocate of the “no excuses” approach – because there is nearly always an exception. But most children don’t need a fidget spinner to get through a maths lesson. They need to sit down, listen, think and have a go. It won’t always be easy or fun because learning isn’t always easy and fun but we’re not doing these children any favours by lowering our expectations of them.
I believe we should do our best to engage our pupils and make learning accessible but I don’t believe that pupils have a right to never find something difficult or boring. Learning new things IS difficult and sometimes it is boring: it involves endless practice and repetition and just when you think you’ve mastered it there’ll be something new you have to learn. But if the lesson is well planned, if the task has been modelled and scaffolded and there are a number of additional resources available to support the children who need it then there’s no reason why 95% of children can’t get through a lesson without a break. There has been some research into whether these sorts of toys help children with ASD and ADHD and if that’s the case then fantastic – I’m not suggesting for a second we take away a useful tool for helping those pupils but I’ve taught classes where EVERY child has a fidget toy.
It’s all got a bit emperors’ new clothes. Someone appears to have gone round and said to schools, “I can fix your pupils’ poor behaviour and lack of concentration, all you need is to buy this shiny, gadget.” I can’t blame schools for wanting to give it a go because ultimately all of this is symptomatic of a much wider problem: behaviour is getting worse and there’s very little Primary schools can do about it. There is no money for support staff, exclusions are discouraged and, in rarer cases, prevented by Local Authorities who don’t want their exclusion stats getting worse.
Behaviour management relies a lot on individual teachers. In primary school it centres on the relationship you have with your class. It’s knowing that Jonathan responds better to humour and the Amy is bolshy until she trusts you and after that she’ll do anything for you. It’s knowing when your class are producing their best work and when they’re trying to get away with handing in any old crap. This is fine when a class just has one class teacher but ultimately children need to learn to behave for any adult that teaches them which is a why behaviour management should be a whole school concern: centralised sanctions and rewards and a simple, whole school behaviour management policy. Teachers are being left to make it up as they go along which is how we’ve got to brain breaks and individual behaviour plans for over half the class.
Maybe I’m wrong and turning 30 has turned me prematurely into a grumpy old woman with no sense of fun. But we do pupils no favours by making endless excuses for them and offering them alternatives to participating in lessons.