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Sensory Strategies to Improve Your Child’s Behavior
Today we finally get to some sensory strategies to help improve some of your child’s processing issues! HOORAY!
If you’re like me, you wanted this info two weeks ago, right? How do I help my child?
- What is going on in their brain?
- What are they doing well with?
- What is difficult for them?
Understanding the WHY of sensory sensitivities allows us to shift our perspective from the child is the problem to the child is having a problem.
“He always screams in the store” –> “What in the store is difficult for him to tolerate?”
“She never eats what I cook for dinner” –> “Which textures seem to be difficult and how can I build on the ones she already likes?”
We want to keep our mindset on problem solving instead of blaming the child.
Ross Greene (author of The Explosive Child) said, “Children do well IF they can” and “Behind every challenging behavior is an unsolved problem and a lagging skill.”
Those two quotes always hit me right in my parent and teacher heart!!
Sensory Sensitivities and Their Impact
Remember, we ALL have certain sensory experiences that we love and those that make us cringe!
It can be tricky for us as parents to figure out what tackle first.
Here are 3 things to think about:
- Have I ruled out possible medical issues that could be impacting behavior?
- What is the impact on my child’s day and my day?
- What is the impact on my child’s ability to learn and develop?
Change the Environment, Change the Behavior
Changing the environment is one of the BEST strategies!! And usually, it’s pretty simple.
The other reason I love changing the environment — it’s something that I can do to help!
I can’t change a child’s brain or make him like a certain experience.
However, I can change something in the classroom, home, store, etc to reduce the impact of the sensory sensitivities.
Yes, we would love for our kids with autism, sensory processing difficulties, and other developmental delays to tolerate more.
(And one day they probably will.)
Meanwhile, we need to keep them in a calm place so they can learn language, motor skills, eating skills, social skills, etc.
We can’t teach them anything if much of their day is spent having meltdowns!
Environmental Changes to Consider
- Can I reduce the amount of input? (headphones, sunglasses, certain clothing)
- Can I reduce the amount of time? (shorter trips, one store at a time, breaks)
- Does my child struggle more during certain times of the day? Which ones?
- Is she tired? Hungry? Thirsty? What can I do about that?
- Can I reduce the demands on her during harder times of days?
- Would a distraction help my son?
- Could he listen to music or a show in the store?
- Would a drink and snack help him stay calm and get through the trip?
- Can I provide a transition cue?
- Is my child used to this activity?
- How can I make this experience more predictable for him?
- Is it the type of toothpaste we are using?
- Could I change the type of socks or shoes she has to wear?
- Does the material of the face mask matter?
- Quiet Place
- Where can I create a quiet place?
- How can I provide a “break” from all of the input?
Choice and Control
I’m an adult so I can control a lot of things in my day!
As a result, I can avoid some of the things that bother me and take in more of the things I like.
I can avoid going to busy stores. I don’t buy cottage cheese. I get to pick my clothing. If I’m overwhelmed, I grab a Diet Coke and go to a quiet room or sit in my car for a couple of minutes.
However, our kids don’t have nearly that level of control!
They are usually at the mercy of our schedules and agendas.
Add to that sensory difficulties, language delays, food sensitivities, etc.
It’s no wonder we see crying, screaming, hitting, head banging, throwing, food refusal…
Give Them a Little Bit of a Say
By providing our son or daughter with control and choice where we can, we are giving them some level of say about how their day goes.
Your child has to get dressed — that part isn’t the choice.
But, you can give them a choice about which shirt to wear (keep choices to 2-3 options for little ones).
You can give her a choice about the jacket to put on.
Brushing teeth isn’t an option, but…
Do you want to stand or sit on the counter?
Do you want to use the strawberry or minty toothpaste?
Eating at the table isn’t the choice, but…
Do you want to sit by mom or dad?
You can sit on the chair or on the stool.
Provide appropriate choices for your child. Not everything has to be a choice (that can be overwhelming too!!), but give your son or daughter some control over their day and this can reduce some struggles.
“Fix Your Face” (Watch Your Reactions)
My husband can always tell when I’m trying to trick him about something or am making up a story.
My face immediately gives me away! I crack a smile. I can’t make eye contact. He knows immediately.
My face always gives me away.
I had to be really careful when my kids would fall and get hurt!
I had to say to myself, “Fix your face” so they wouldn’t see that that fall was really bad or that bloody nose was an awful one!!
I also have to be very careful about my emotional reactions.
If one of my kids back talks or rolls their eyes at me……….OH MAN! I can’t stand that and am likely to blow up!!
Parenting our little ones with sensory issues can be tough and emotional!
Day in and day out!
But, as best we can, we need to be aware of how our reactions impacts our child’s ability to handle a difficult sensory situation.
- Be aware of your tone of voice. Our youngest kiddos may not understand all of our words, but they can hear our tone of voice.
- Monitor your actions. Are we more likely to be angry or anxious during certain situations? Kids pick up on that!
- Adjust expectations. Keep in mind what your child is able to do right now! Not based on their age or what other kids are doing. What can they do right now? Adjust your expectations to meet their current ability.
- Plan ahead. Know what difficulties might be coming your way. Do you need to bring a comfort item? Snack? Toy? iPAD? Taking a few minutes to plan can save the situation from spiraling!
- Model calm. I know…….WAY easier said than done, but it’s extremely helpful!
- Give attention to positive behaviors. “You’re sitting in the cart.” “I like how you’re eating at the table.”
Break Down a Big Skill (Task Analysis)
Oftentimes we see a lot of challenging behaviors around certain situations because we are expecting too much.
But we can break down a big demand into smaller pieces to reduce the sensory input and gradually increase tolerating that thing.
I’m going to use an example that has come up a lot lately……..wearing a mask.
Masks have been a staple in our lives for the last year and a half or so.
Even though mask restrictions are decreasing in most places, I still think it’s a great example.
Imagine someone coming up behind you and putting something over your nose and mouth.
Then, that person gets mad at you and keeps trying to put that thing back on your face when you take it off or squirm to get away.
It’s scratchy. Now it’s over your eyes. You can’t breathe as well.
It’s not a horror movie or a murder mystery!
It’s how many of us try to get our little ones to put on a mask.
Instead of forcing the mask on your kiddo, let’s take a step back and think about how we can improve the situation. For instance,
- Is there a type of material my child might do better with?
- Does my child want to pick out their own mask?
- What is my child able to do right now?
You might have to try several types of masks. One type might work better. Ask other parents in a similar situation.
What is your child’s favorite movie or TV character? Is there a mask with that character on it?
Start Where Your Child is At TODAY!
What is your child able to do as far as mask wearing right now?
Can she touch it with her hand for 5 seconds?
Can he hold the mask on his own for 5 seconds?
Would your child allow the mask to touch her cheek for several seconds?
Start there — allow your child (and yourself) to have some success! Then go to the next step.
Here are two resources that break down mask wearing into a series of steps:
Task Analysis for Other Examples
We just talked about how to use a task analysis to increase tolerating a mask.
You can use this same strategy for teaching new skills and increasing tolerance of an item. For instance,
- Trying a new food
- Going to the grocery store
- Sitting at the table
- Tolerating a hair cut
- Tolerating bath time
As I mentioned above, start where your child is at.
Think about all of the steps needed for that skill. Next, mark where your child is at. Then, go to the next step and begin working there. Stay on that step until your child can successfully complete that step several times, then move on.
Progress Takes Time
When your sensory system is disorganized or misinterprets information, it’s very difficult to respond appropriately for the situation and to get through the day.
And we don’t want our kids to just get through the day.
We want them to learn and participate and grow!
Progress can seem slow and it will take some time.
Remember these important factors:
- Work with your pediatrician to rule out any potential medical issues.
- Watch your child closely to discover what she is tolerating well and what she seems to have a harder time with. Sometimes we miss what leads up to the meltdown, crying, running away, etc.
- An occupational therapist can complete an evaluation to determine where your child is having difficulty and how to address your child’s specific needs.
- If you are seeing extreme behavior issues around particular situations or parts of your day, contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
For more information, head back to Week 1. You’ll find my book recommendations and some websites.
Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you!