Your Questions Answered: Children Who Won’t Sit Still

My friend and co-worker, Laura Pitney, is joining me again today. We want to discuss another great question that you have asked: “What about little boys and girls who can’t or won’t sit still? What do you do then?”

We hope you enjoy our discussion and receive some ideas that might be helpful.

Sonya: First, I think you need to figure out why you want them to sit still. Is it just so you’ll look good to other people? Is it because they’re distracting the other kids? There are all kinds of reasons. Many little boys, especially, but some little girls just have so much energy, they need to move. With some children, they truly can process better if they’re moving.

Let me tell you a little story. Many of you know that my youngest has pervasive developmental delays and sensory processing disorders. She has a real struggle with her language. Well, we have found that movement helps her process. I remember one summer, we were in the pool. Her oldest sister was with her, and they joined hands and started spinning in a circle. They spun faster and faster, and pretty soon Hannah broke into song. She started singing, and we could understand the words; we knew the tune; we knew exactly what song she was singing! She doesn’t usually just do that on her own during the day, but that movement helped process in her mind and she was able to express what she was thinking better.

So keep in mind that for some kids, that movement is very helpful. If it’s distracting somebody else, you might ask them to do their movement behind the other child and make sure they don’t bump into the other child. You have to respect the other kids in the room. Usually, I have as a general rule, if what the child is doing is not distracting the others from listening or narrating, or distracting themselves from listening and narration, then fine, they can do it. Now, of course, eventually you want your child to learn how to sit still, you don’t want them to still be . . .

Laura: Jumping on the couch when they’re 15.

Sonya: Well, I was going to say 30, but okay, 15! You do want them to learn how to sit still eventually, but just be careful that you’re not pressuring them to do something that makes it hard for them to process when they’re young. I guess I’m saying, give them grace and know your child. Find out why you want him or her to sit still, and work with the individual. Respect the child as a person. What do you have to say about it?

Laura: I totally agree with everything you just said. I think that there’s wisdom in the parent to know if this movement is beneficial to the child, if it’s not a distraction to the other children. I also think each situation looks different. For my situation, my children were required to be in our church service with us. So requiring them to be still was a necessity, because their movement was distracting, especially in that situation. I am of the opinion that there is a time and a place. If it’s okay for my children to move around and that’s helping them accomplish that mental focus or whatever the situation is, I’m going to allow it. That’s where you apply that grace. But I also feel like there are times when you need to tell your kid to sit down and you expect them to obey.

We all of a sudden expect our kid to obey us immediately for this reason, when we haven’t practiced it or worked up to it.

Sonya: That is so true. Let me throw in a time that is burned in my memory about that. We had just our first two, and we went to a wedding. It was a small wedding with no childcare. I was in the wedding, and I think my husband was the photographer or something, but he was busy too. It was a disaster. But it really wasn’t fair to the children, because they didn’t know that we expected them to sit still. They had never had a chance to work their way up to sitting through a whole wedding ceremony.

Laura: That would be torture for you and for them, both.

Sonya: Yes!

Laura: I definitely think that it’s a problem that we moms have. We all of a sudden expect our kid to obey us immediately for this reason, when we haven’t practiced it or worked up to it. So, for requiring your children to sit still, I think there’s a time and a place, but I definitely feel like we have to put in the effort to train them ahead of time, hopefully avoiding those moments of panic. When my children were young, we would practice. We’d spend about five minutes a day. I’d line them up on a bench, all four of them, and we would just sit there.

Sonya: On the bench at church?

Laura: No, in my house. I’d line up all four of them next to each other, because at church they’re next to each other on the pew. So this way I could deal with the nudging and the hand slapping or whatever might be going on. I would sit facing them and make sure they knew, “I’ve got an eye on you right here, and if we need to take care of it, we will.” We practiced every day. And after a while, I would lengthen the time. So we maybe started out for a minute and then the next time, a week later or whenever I felt like we were ready, I would extend it.

Sonya: But you were practicing that minute every day until you were ready.

Laura: Correct. Because the idea of having my four little ones sit next to me on the pew—and behave and sit there quietly so that I could pay attention—was a beautiful thought. But it was wrong for me to expect them to do that all of a sudden, because that would have caused way more of a distraction than it needed to be.

Sonya: For that whole church service.

Laura: Correct. Back to what you were saying to start with: I definitely feel like there’s a time and a place for movement. I feel like there’s a time and a place for each situation to work it out. Like you said, having the kid that needs to move stay behind the other children maybe during story time or something like that. But I also feel like there are the great habits of first-time obedience and your children giving you that full attention and listening to what you’re telling them to do. And it helps to practice and act it out specifically for situations like “Okay, it’s time to sit still, I’m going to read now” or “It’s time to sit in this chair, because we’re in a doctor’s office and I don’t want you rolling around on the ground” (because that’s probably what they’d be doing if I didn’t tell them to sit down). You know what I’m saying?

Sonya: Yes.

Laura: So there are situations where you need them to be still and to obey, but it’s not going to happen unless you train them and practice with them and encourage them. We would play games as they were all lined up sitting on the bench. I’d say, “Okay, Eli, I want you to go to your room and bring back a red Lego.” He would hop up, march to his room, find a red Lego, and bring it back to me. And I’d say, “Thank you very much, have a seat again.” And we’d take turns. That way it was kind of practicing all the senses of listening and obeying physically with your body.

Sonya: But it also gave them a little break.

Laura: Correct.

Sonya: You’re so smart.

Laura: Instead of just chucking cheese crackers at them, we were doing something a little more constructive with the obedience games. But it worked. I have a child now that honestly I’m struggling with every day. She wants to sit on her feet in the chair. We have a rule: “I want you to sit on your bottom while we’re doing school around the table,” because I know they can and that’s where my children are at.

In this whole aspect of self-control, the key is knowing what to require and when, so we encourage our children to take those baby steps toward self-control; but we’re not frustrating them and pushing them over the edge where they just continue to fail.

Sonya: Yes, that’s the key.

Laura: One of the reasons is, when we go out to eat, I don’t want her sitting on her feet at the restaurant.

Sonya: Doing that little pop-up thing.

Laura: Oh yes, there’s a circus that happens unexpectedly with that. So I think it helps if we think of the bigger picture: that we love our children, we want them to embrace the education we’re giving them. And if we work on implementing those good habits of sitting correctly in a chair (when we can require that of them), we’re going to reap that when we’re out in public or at a church service or the restaurant, when there’s a time and a place to apply it.

Sonya: I think it’s part of the bigger picture too. As you were talking, it came to me that training them to sit still is a helpful activity, a helpful posture, but it is also a little sliver of teaching them self-control.

Laura: Yes, for sure.

Sonya: Which applies to so many aspects of life.

Laura: Because they have the choice. They have that choice to do it. Mommy requires of them, or daddy requires of them, or grandma, whoever it is, they have that choice to apply what they’ve been taught and to choose to do right even when they don’t feel like it—when they want to do a cartwheel off the chair, you know.

Sonya: Yes, in this whole aspect of self-control, as you mentioned, the key is knowing what to require and when, so we encourage our children to take those baby steps toward self-control; but we’re not frustrating them and pushing them over the edge where they just continue to fail. It’s so important to know each child.

Laura: And with that said, I would love to throw this little piece of advice in there: the advantage of homeschooling is that you really get to know your children. (Whether you want to know them or not. I’m just kidding.)

Sonya: You get to know them really well.

Laura: You get to know your children. And to know them, like we were saying, is to know when they need a break. So scheduling your school appropriately—the variety of subjects in the correct order, using the right parts of the brain,—all of that comes into play with helping them learn that self-control and sitting still. And to know them, you may realize, “Okay, we’ve been sitting here for 15 minutes, we’ve done these three things, and y’all need to go run five laps around my front yard.” Get some of that energy out. Give them an opportunity to give you their best. Set them up for success, once again. We have used that a lot in good weather, literally, “Go run around my front yard five times.” And I’ll go out there and walk with them; we all just need a break. Or walk around your block. Whatever it looks like for you. Or it may be, “We’re in this little living room; it’s raining outside, so let’s do some jumping jacks.”

Sonya: Or put on some John Philip Sousa and march and have some fun.

Laura: Right! So it’s knowing your children and when they need that break, because it’s your responsibility to set them up for success, ultimately. Once you’ve trained them and you know they know how to sit still when they’re told, it’s a matter of self-control. There are a lot of factors going in there, but it’s doable. It is doable. Unfortunately, we’re the ones that have to put in the effort so much more than them, but that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Sonya: That’s true. And our heart is to prepare them so that they can be their best as they grow up.

Okay, it’s your turn. Do you have any other thoughts on helping little children who can’t or won’t sit still? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and share your ideas. Or if you have a question that you would like us to discuss, please put that in the comments as well. Let’s get your questions answered.


  1. My 10-year-old son tends to have better narrations when he listens upside down (handstands, headstands, cartwheels, back arches, leaning over the back of chairs, etc)! I definitely think movement helps him focus. We tried Thinking Putty a few years back, but he put all his mental energy into what his hands were doing with the Thinking Putty and had no idea what I was reading. Sometimes I have him draw what he is listening to, but again he sometimes gets distracted by his own picture and tunes everything else out. So I decided that I am fine with the large body movement during school time, even if it is distracting to me 🙂

  2. My middle daughter did much better under the table than at the table, sometimes she did better on the table. When I read aloud to my girls it helped to give Emily something to hold…….a little felt mouse when we read Ken Gire’s book about The Big Thicket. As long as she had that mouse to hold and look at she was able to retain what I was reading and now her children are learning the exact same way. I always told her that God had given her 2 1/2 cups of wiggles instead of the required 3/4 cup. Wouldn’t chang her for anything. Janet Skiles

  3. I have 4 little kids and sitting still is hard. We haven’t started narration, yet. But we plan to next year, so thank you for some helpful tips.

  4. We practice sitting still at our house, too. It has helped our wiggly children sit through church, in the doctor’s office, etc., at 2 years old. We practice a lot of things before going out in public, and it is helpful for the kids and rewarding for us.

  5. Thanks, I totally agree. My kids have always sat with us at church, so they’ve grown up with that expectation, and people are always amazed at how quiet they are. We visited one tiny church, and after the service, my 2 boys were playing together and releasing all that pent up energy. The veteran mom in the service said, “Oh, I’m so glad. They’re normal kids after all.”… Because it was so abnormal to her for them to sit still for the whole hour. They can do it, and they should do it. But I always have to remember to let them get the jitters out afterwards while still remaining respectful. That’s the hard part – after they’ve done all the sitting.

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