Know when to intervene and when it’s not helpful
If something like a child’s rocking or other behaviour isn’t interfering with his learning in the classroom or that of others, it might be best to let the child be.
Occupational therapists, as the go-to-people for sensory processing disorders and challenges, are often asked “is this a sensory problem or a behaviour problem?” In this article I present some truths and false-hoods about this distinction from an occupational therapy perspective and my more than 20 years of observation.
Truth No. 1: if the behaviour continues despite an imposed change of circumstances or environment, it probably has an underlying sensory root and is fulfilling an important sensory need. Circumstances are things like who is present, or time of day. Environment includes places like home, school, church and so on.
The most important questions we always need to ask ourselves: Is this behaviour really a problem?
Sometimes we jump on sensory strategies and behaviours when we don’t need to. We all have and use sensory strategies throughout our day. Sometimes we don’t like what other people are doing, but that doesn’t mean they have a sensory problem.
Is this behaviour interrupting the child’s learning or play?
If the answer is yes, then we indeed may need to intervene.
If the answer is no, then we really need to examine the problem to determine if it is ours and not the child’s. Everyone is different. Everyone is unique. Sometimes it is hard to understand someone else’s sensory perspective because we are so much in tune with our own. I liken this to coffee and tea drinkers amongst adults. Some people love coffee. Others tea. Some tea drinkers won’t drink coffee and vice versa. We don’t need to make tea drinkers coffee drinkers too. Some children need absolute quiet to study, some children like to listen to music while studying. One doesn’t make the other wrong.
If a child is trying to self-regulate (alert, calm, or focus) with a behaviour such as wiggling, rocking, sucking on their thumb or chewing their clothing, first ask: is this age appropriate?
Is this interrupting the child’s ability to play?
Is this interrupting the child’s ability to learn?
Is this interrupting the child’s ability to engage with other people?
If yes, then we need to teach and provide an appropriate replacement behaviour. Remember, if a child is trying to fulfil a sensory need to become more alert, calm or focused, we can’t take away their sensory strategy and expect success. We need to replace it with something else that is a win-win. Win-win means a strategy that fulfils their sensory need but still allows the child to engage in learning and play.
An example might be a child who gets up out of their seat in the classroom so much that their learning and the learning of classmates is interrupted. Perhaps strategies such as a visual reminder to sit, a timer for the length of time to remain seated or wiggle seat haven’t helped. A win-win might be allowing the child to fulfil their sensory need by providing regular opportunities to get up out of their seat by being a helper to hand out materials, deliver a note to the office, carry a book back to the library and be on cleanup patrol.
Do you want more sensory strategies? I have written an eBook full of tried, true and tested ones. Download Sensory and Behaviour: Strategies.