Calming Manipulatives for Students with ADHD

Instructor: Lauren Scott

Lauren has a Master's degree in special education and has taught for more than 10 years.

This lesson provides tips for using manuipulatives to calm students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including strategies to keep manipulatives from becoming an added distraction.

Calming Students with ADHD

You look at the desk in the center of the room. The little girl occupying that seat has such a hard time settling down after lunch. Before long, she'll be too fidgety and irritable to complete her work.

You know she has an individualized education program (IEP) due to ADHD, but you aren't sure exactly how to support her. Luckily, it may be possible for her to calm herself with a little sensory input. Students with ADHD can often self-soothe with the help of simple, inexpensive manipulatives.

Tactile Calming

Some students with ADHD need tactile input to calm themselves. Squeezing a stress ball or rubbing a soft piece of cloth may soothe them if they are jittery or irritable. They may also like small fidgets that they can move and reshape with their hands, such as kneadable erasers or coiled key chains. This allows them to work out some of their need to move, making it easier to stay focused.

Educational and therapeutic catalogs carry an assortment of fidgets for all ages and grade levels, and social websites are replete with ideas for creating your own. Keep in mind, older students may prefer something less visible, while younger students may appreciate more noticeable shapes and colors. If possible, try to talk to the students to identify their needs and preferences.

A stress ball can calm a student with ADHD while allowing him or her to continue working. Older students may prefer plain colors.
Smiley-face stress balls in a variety of colors.

Visual Calming

You've found some great tactile fidgets for your student with ADHD, which usually help her calm down after lunch...usually. Some days are more challenging than others, though, so she may need to focus her attention elsewhere for a while before returning to work. Colorful or motion-based manipulatives are great for this purpose, offering a visual calming effect. Many of them can still be held, fidgeted with, or squeezed, but they also have lights or movements that add to the experience.

Some have colorful liquids that flow or mix when moved. Others have calming blue or green lights for the student to watch. If you have a creative side, you can make sensory bottles with basic ingredients like vegetable oil, water, and glitter.

Depending on your classroom's structure, it may be best to designate a calming center when using these. Otherwise, the lights and movements might distract other students.

Possible Challenges

One big concern when providing calming manipulatives is that students won't use them correctly. Nothing riles up a group of kids like fidgets sailing across the room. While there are no guarantees, you might prevent this by explicitly instructing your students in how to use, or not use, the manipulatives.

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