Behavioral Problems? A Sense Could be the Cause

Behavioral Problems? A Sense Could be the Cause

December 10, 2014 - 11:17 am
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Some behaviours serve to alert, calm or focus.

As I carry on with my occupational therapy mission to explain some truths and falsehoods about “Is it sensory or behaviour?”, I hope readers are starting to understand how occupational therapists look at the senses and the sensory contributors to behavioural problems.

Remember, we have seven senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound, movement and balance. The last two – movement and balance – are oft forgotten.

Are you starting to see the difference between a learned behaviour and one that is a result of sensory processing need? Or when it is appropriate to use sensory strategies instead of, or in addition to, behavioural ones? In today’s article, I am going to focus a little more on how a sensory processing challenge or need contributes to learned behaviours.

Here is your new truth: if a behaviour has been around for a long time, it probably has an underlying sensory cause. Remember that some behaviours, even ones that have a sensory cause, are appropriate at some ages and not at others, such as sucking your thumb.

So when trying to understand a behaviour, first ask, how long has it been occurring? Today? This week? This month? Many months? Many years? If it has been happening for a while, go back and get the child’s history from early childhood. Now, I know, “a while” is a pretty vague guide, but everyone is different.

Another helpful tool to determine if behaviour has an underlying sensory cause is to determine if the child has been offered a motivating reward to stop the behaviour. The key word is motivating. If indeed the child has been offered a motivating reward to stop the behaviour and it still continues; then the behaviour probably has an underlying sensory cause.

For sensory-based behaviours, if you offer a reward that you know is motivating and if that reward doesn’t change the behaviour, then double check that your reward is worth it to the child and, if it is, then know that the behaviour is probably responding to a sensory need to help alert, focus or calm and no reward will change it. But an alternative sensory strategy that also alerts, focuses or calms just might.

As a complement to this you can also try taking away something the child really likes if the behaviour occurs. Key words are “really likes.” Once again, if the behaviour still occurs it is probably responding to a sensory need to help alert, focus or calm, so you need to find another, appropriate behaviour to help the child alert, calm or focus, and teach that new behaviour.

We teach calming strategies like deep breathing all the time to replace unwanted behavioural problems such as hitting. (Did you ever consider that hitting has a strong heavy muscle work component?) We teach the calming strategy first and repeatedly at times when it is easily learned and adopted. And then you can introduce it to replace hitting, before a hit actually occurs.

Do you want more sensory strategies?  I have written an eBook full of tried, true and tested ones.  Download Sensory and Behaviour:  Strategies.


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