Sticker Charts and Fidget Spinners: How My Distracted Child Improved Her Focus

2017 - Jessica Cole_Fidget Spinner and daughter.jpg

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months, “fidget spinners” have hit the market as the Next Big Thing among kids. These toys first entered my consciousness this spring when I saw a child on the playground playing with an unfamiliar device. 

Suddenly, articles started popping up on my Facebook feed about the wonders and terrors of these little gadgets. Then they began appearing near the checkout aisles of every store in sight. Being the great mom (read: boring adult) that I am, I tried to play it cool and pretend I hadn’t noticed their existence. But eventually social norms start creeping into even the homeschool household, and my oldest daughter “Daisy” was begging to have a fidget spinner like all her friends.

Now, I’m sure these little dudes are great for helping some kids in school. And Daisy was having a problem focusing on her book work, as I’ll discuss in a minute. But let’s be honest: for most kids, it’s not about increasing their attention span. It’s about having a cool toy like everyone else (I don’t think Daisy even realized they were being marketed as an educational thing).

So when she began asking for a fidget spinner, I initially told her that she would have to save up her own money or wait until Christmas, as is our policy for most toys. Further, I told her she would need a bit of extra cash on hand because she might soon want to buy Christmas presents for others rather than blowing all the money on herself. She was not pleased with this plan, but after we had agreed on a savings goal and a deadline, she set off doing extra chores around the house.

Her enthusiasm lasted for about half a week. Then back came her habits of spending potential money-earning time dawdling, dreaming, and generally getting distracted. One of the major issues that began to discourage her was the fact that it often took several hours to do her book work, simply because she couldn’t seem to focus on it long enough to get it done. She was soon lamenting that there was no way she would have time to earn the money because she couldn’t figure out how to do her schoolwork in a timelier manner.

Now, I don’t want to trivialize the struggles of children with a legitimate diagnosis of ADD / ADHD. I’m no expert on the subject of teaching a distracted child, especially under those circumstances. But I know Daisy, and I was quite certain she was capable of doing her work more efficiently. I have seen her do it when she has a definitive goal (such as “get your work done by this time, and then you can play with your friends”). So I decided to use the fidget spinner to help her focus in a different way than the one being marketed: I told her she could earn the toy by keeping her attention on her work.

Being simultaneously in the process of potty-training my preschooler, I had sticker charts on the mind, so I decided to use this method as a point system. Get her work done within a reasonable amount of time, and she would get a “bronze” sticker worth 1 point. Within a good time frame, and it would be “silver” (2 points), and an excellent time would give her a “gold” (3 points). Each day I gave her specific time goals for these categories (e.g., 1 hour for gold, 1.5 hours for silver, 2 hours for bronze). If by the end of three weeks she had earned 30 points, she would get her fidget spinner.

Jessica Cole Reward

At first, she was dismayed with the “short” amounts of time I was giving her to get her work done. How could she get it done so quickly when she had been taking several hours before? I was confident she could do it, however, and reassured her that she would most likely get at least one point, and she only needed an average of two per day.

On the first day, she finished her “gold” time goal with about 10 minutes to spare. She was elated. The next day she despaired that I had made her goal even shorter, but once again she finished in plenty of time. I didn’t continue to shorten the goal every time, but otherwise this cycle repeated itself over and over: fear of not finishing in time, followed by an easy “gold.” Wouldn’t you know it, that girl got a “gold” every single day until she’d earned her fidget spinner. And most of the time it was done just as well (sometimes better) than if she had taken hours!

Experts say that once you do something for 21 days in a row, it will become a habit. Thus, I was actually hoping it would take Daisy the full three weeks, but two seems to have gotten her off to a good start. Now she knows she’s capable of getting her work done quickly, and she can see that staying focused for a short time allows her to enjoy a longer period of free time afterward.

Naturally, seeing their sister earn a desired toy caused my other children to ask for sticker charts as well. They didn’t have the same focus issues as Daisy, but we set to work on some different trouble areas for them. As of this writing, the girls have all accomplished their goals and received their rewards, and my son is making good headway on his (almost there with potty-training, YAY!!).

This experience may be changing my habits as well. When these trouble areas arise, I most often give my children a “talk” or take away a privilege. But I’m seeing that sometimes it may be more productive to offer a goal, perhaps with a reward. It can give children a sense of accomplishment and motivate them to establish good habits. We’ll see how well these particular habits stick around, but for now, I’m happy with the progress I’ve seen!


Photo Credit: All images courtesy of author. Graphic design and edits by Anna Soltis. 

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