When 4-year-old Shia began taking gymnastics last year, she had trouble staying put during circle time. "It was just a few minutes to stretch and answer questions, but while the other kids were able to sit, she would get up and wander off," says her mom, Cristin Jordan, of Jacksonville, Florida. "Church was a problem too: She would rummage through my purse or walk along the pew."
Children are often required to sit still -- at school, for storytime, during meals -- and when they don't, we may think they're misbehaving, worry that we're doing something wrong, or fear that a behavioral problem is to blame. While kids are beginning to be able to focus for longer periods at ages 3 and 4, there's a wide range of wiggliness. "The ability to sit still is highly variable in preschoolers," says Parents advisor Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician with The Everett Clinic in Mill Creek, Washington. "Anything from 15 seconds to 15 minutes can be normal." However, there are a few things you can do to help your restless little one stay put longer.
When a child is always getting up when he should be sitting, he could simply be bored. "A preschooler may be able to sit only for a few minutes at circle time, or longer if a story or song is engaging," says child psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent.
If your child's antsiness stands out from the crowd, though, talk to the teacher about ways to help him settle. For example, it may sound counterintuitive but even a small amount of physical movement can help a child focus, says Loren Shlaes, a pediatric occupational therapist in New York City, who suggests allowing a child to hold a fidget toy such as a "stress ball" in a variety of situations, including at school. At other times when you need him to be still, you might let him chew on a straw or sit on an inflatable chair cushion that jiggles just a little -- or hold him in your lap, allowing him to bounce up and down a bit until he calms.
When staying seated, but not necessarily paying attention, is required (at a restaurant, for example), take along something that will keep your preschooler busy and entertained -- such as coloring pages and a few triangular crayons (which won't roll off the table and prompt your preschooler to scurry after them).
Since moving around helps kids pay attention, the more activity they get (along with a healthy diet and adequate sleep), the better. "Outdoor play in particular stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine -- two neurotransmitters crucial for attention, focus, impulse control, and learning," says Shlaes.
Those calming effects are why Sonal Gerten, mom of "spirited and active" 3-year-old Deven, in Minneapolis, tries to take her son outside as much as she can, even when it's cold. "My son is far more focused and listens so much better after riding his bike, taking a walk, or just being around nature," Gerten says.
Ideally, children should spend at least an hour a day outdoors, notes Dr. Swanson. A recent study at Auburn University found that a single 30-minute stint of exercise helped preschoolers' ability to pay attention in class, compared with being sedentary. If possible, do something active just before your child will need to focus for a while -- like walking with him to preschool if it's nearby, or hitting the playground before church. When frigid temperatures just won't permit outside time, blow off excess energy when you can at a local indoor play place or the mall. Also, try to break up seated time with quick stretches or bursts of activity: hopping, jumping, or an impromptu dance party.
If your child won't stay still, to the point of irritating even her peers with her boisterousness or potentially putting herself in danger -- by darting into traffic, for example -- see your pediatrician. "When an attention span isn't increasing over time, it's worth checking in," says Dr. Swanson. A behavioral problem, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), could be the issue. Based on symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a developmental pediatrician or psychologist, a speech pathologist, or an occupational therapist for a thorough evaluation.
In most cases, though, time should take care of normal excess energy. "Now if Shia leaves circle time in gymnastics class, it isn't to run around like before; she'll give me a kiss and sit back down," says Jordan. "It's amazing how much better she's gotten!"
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.