Headstart for Life

Integrating Sensory Procesing Approach and Behaviour Management

At HeadStart, we have seen parents who know if their child has sensory processing difficulty, thus behaviour problems are inevitable. However, not every behaviour problem is a result of sensory processing issues. Therefore, it is tricky to distinguish the cause of the behaviour to be solely the effect of sensory issues. Children, especially those with sensory processing disorders, have their own unique ways to manage themselves when having to go through situations that they are not able to conform to.

Lets look at some examples of overt behaviours that are caused by sensory processing issues.

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Scenario 1

John is hypersensitive to touch and always shows little interest to art and craft activities. The anticipation of getting his hands wet with paint or glue triggers off his anxiety. Many times he refuses to sit together with the classmates or is seen running out of the classroom. Sometimes he swipes materials off the tables  and disrupt other children’s work thereby making a big mess much to the teacher’s dismay.

Scenario 2

Alice works very well in a quiet space with very little visual distractions and has one to one teaching with instructions that are modified to her ability of understanding at home. However, Alice has difficulty performing at school. She often has trouble listening to teacher’s instructions and following the routines of the classroom, as her class of 20 is just too loud and boisterous. Hence, teachers find her tuning out often, fidget in her chair and have to give instructions continuously to get her attention and complete the tasks. There are times when the class gets too noisy and Alice starts to scream and shout asking her friends to be quiet.

Sensory Processing Disorders

Although there have been ongoing debates to whether it is a stand alone medical condition or behavioural symptom that co-exists with developmental conditions such as autism, the concern is real and has to be managed one way or another.

Hypersensitive children avoid anything that overwhelms their senses which includes position, movement and balance of the body.

  • They dislike bright lights especially during christmas where the child starts blinking the eyes frequently like for the entire month
  • They starts to bite off  or chew on the collars in order to remove labels from the shirt or pulls down the pants to be relieved from the labels constantly brushing against the skin
  • They might close their ears and hide their head between legs if an ambulance siren is heard or the vacuum is switched on

Children who are under sensitive seek the sensory stimulation and would crave it almost all the time that it becomes inappropriate behaviour

  • They would come up and hug you or sit on you which can be disturbing if they are older kids
  • They would suddenly start jumping or spin around at places like restaurants or movie theatres where others find it inappropriate
  • They can’t sit still on a chair and would start to fidget, stamp their feet or get up from seat. Very common in classrooms where they are required to sit for long stretches

 

Merging sensory regulation with behaviour management

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Once professionals such as occupational therapists  have determied if your child has a sensory processing issue, they would recommend sensory diets for your child such as brushing, having fidget toys, music therapy etc.

While interventions such as sensory integration can be done to help the child get used to handling paint and craft tools, anything new that may not have been explored before can cause the child to become anxious and trigger off the unexpected behaviours.

What is best is to be proactive and journal all the behaviour patterns  such as what triggers off their inappropriate behaviours and what is the best measure to undertake to regulate them.

Whenever a child misbehaves for any reason, sensory issue or not, denying them of the things which helps to calm them down is not wise as it will escalate the behaviour even more. Also, giving them too much sensory inputs is also not recommended as then it oversteps the boundary and will become difficult to control their cravings or lead to seeking negative attention.

What can be done to help the child perform better and manage themselves at school?

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  • Children who avoid activities especially art and crafts activities can have modified tasks such as having tweezers to paste materials or using a brush to paint with if the activity requires finger painting.
  • Children who have difficulty paying attention in class due to noise and are not able to follow the routines, can have a personalised visual schedule for them to refer to. This will reduce their anxiety and prepare them for transitions between sessions or activities.
  • School canteen can be an overwhelming place for the child. The teacher can encourage one or two buddies to accompany the child and eat at a quieter place.
  • Allow the child to have their sensory breaks in between classes at a specified time and duration such as having to walk around the classroom or draw on a drawing pad when they have finished their tasks earlier than his classmates.
  • Teaching the child how to ask for help or to express themselves using visual cards if they are not able to use words is a powerful skill the teachers can work on.

 

Each child will have their own degree of sensitivity and thus react differently. It is important to note what makes them sensitive and what will help to prevent the resulting behaviour. Equipping the child with strategies to regulate themselves when faced with challenging situations at an early stage will help them to manage themselves independently when they get older. Therefore providing the child with sensorial support with proper rules established will enable them to adapt better with their environment.


 

References:

The Anonymous OT (March 2013). Is it sensory, behaviour or both? Retrieved from: https://theanonymousot.com/2013/03/28/is-it-sensory-behavior-or-both/

Child Mind Institute. How sensory processing issues affects kids in school. Retrieved from: https://childmind.org/article/how-sensory-processing-issues-affect-kids-in-school/

Sensory smarts. Sensory diet activities for children. Retrieved from: https://www.sensorysmarts.com/sensory-diet.pdf

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Usha

Usha has been working with children with special needs for 3 years. She has great passion in integrating children with special needs into the community. In her free time, she likes to cycle along the coasts of Singapore exploring nature.

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