Whatever you do while you read this sentence, do not think of a pink elephant.
Did it work?
If you tell most children to “stop!” running or bouncing around the house, it’s a similar effect, says Dr. Jason Majchrzak, supervising behavioral analyst at Beaumont Health’s Center for Exceptional Families, an autism center in Dearborn.
He uses this example to illustrate how negative words don’t curb the energetic physical activity that’s common for young kids.
“The more you tell a child to stop jumping, the more they’re jumping,” he says. “It’s about the reason they’re doing that behavior.”
And what’s that reason, exactly?
Here’s a closer look at why young kids hop and zoom about – and how to reign it in when it gets to be too much.
Majchrzak says the need for movement starts at birth and is typically a sign of healthy development.
“(By) elementary age, they can walk, they can move more – it’s that the typography of that movement changes as they get older,” he says. “Instead of exploring my body within my own space, now there’s running, jumping, climbing.”
A need for movement is the main reason why young kids hop around. It allows them to explore the world and their place within it. They might tap their feet during class, hop on the couch, skip around the grocery store, bop their spoon at dinner or wrestle with friends.
This is all typical and “nothing I would be concerned about,” Marjchzak says. “It’s not the type of movement necessarily as much as it is the amount.”
By age 5, he notes, kids should be able to sit still for at least 15 minutes and pay attention in a group activity. Can your child shift focus when required? Control the impulse to act out and self-regulate his or her behavior? If yes, it’s standard.
“It really doesn’t get to be an issue until the child is engaging in a lot of movement but doesn’t seem to be acquiring appropriate social skills,” Majchrzak says.
Movement stops being healthy, he adds, when a child uses it to entertain him or herself instead of interacting with other children.
“The child who prefers to wander the room and play with light switches in preschool instead of engaging with other kids in their class – the movement is developmentally appropriate, but isn’t so healthy.”
Kids might also try to spin objects that don’t spin, like boxes, open and close doors, flap their hands or mouth objects.
What to do
In general, the best approach is positive instruction, Marjchzak says.
“I tend to find parents, really all of us, are predisposed to the ‘don’ts,’ ‘stops,’ ‘nots’ – using that negative language,” he says. Refocus on what they can do.
“Instead of telling a child not to jump on the couch, a parent may tell them that they can jump on the floor, trampoline or anywhere else it is appropriate to jump.”
In other words, change the context. To further reinforce good choices, join in and jump with your child – in that appropriate context.
Marjchzak also suggests the PRIDE approach. Praise a child for something specific they did well; “You sat so nicely during dinner!” Reflect appropriate things your child says to you, to show you understand. If they had a great time working on a project – which entails sitting and focus – repeat, “You had fun making pots in art class today.” Imitate kids’ appropriate actions during playtime.
Next, describe what they’re doing back to them. This is especially great for kids ages 2-6, he notes. Finally, enjoy quality playtime together.
“Allow them to choose the activity and lead the play,” Marjchzak says. “Don’t be afraid to play with your child without rules.”
And, if your child really can’t sit still, like those with ADHD, he adds that interval training can help.
“Start with small intervals where the child sits for a period of time,” he says. “If it’s 10 seconds, then fine – that’s OK. We slowly work up to it and provide praise and rewards and gradually increase the time that they sit.”
This post was originally published in 2019 and is updated regularly.