What makes my child tick? Understanding Sensory Integration and Self-Regulation in Ourselves and Our Children

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            I was having dinner with our friend and told a story: during Common Core testing in public schools children often a) had more recess time outdoors and b) were allowed to chew gum during the testing. The reasoning here was clear: physical exercise, fresh air, and an outlet (like chewing gum) for fidgeting would enhance student performance during high-stakes testing. So - my rejoinder has always been: if it works for high stakes testing, might it work all of the time in the classroom? Why not use "best practices" every day?

            The key here is self-regulation of the energy inside each of us and well as the sensory systems that allow us to interact with our environment. In their important book How Does Your Engine Run?, occupational therapists Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger explore these issues and come up with good suggestions for parents and teachers in managing self-regulation.

            Each of us already has a toolbox of self-regulating behaviors when we are supposed to be sitting still or being focused. I chew gum whenever I drive. Some adults twirl their hair, chew on plastic coffee stirrers, hum or talk to themselves, rock their leg, suck on an arm of their eyeglasses, or doodle on a piece of paper. Children usually fidget at their desks, get up when they are supposed to stay seated, put things in their mouths, poke their neighbor, rock back and forth, make strange noises, and call out. These actions are all similar in effect - they allow us to live in our body at that moment - but some are more appropriate to the situation at hand than others.

            Some children need oral stimulation, like gum or a chew toy. They can handle some food textures - like crunchy or chewy - but not others. They can chew on clothes or a blanket to soothe themselves.

            Some children need to be active, and they may need a "sensory break" from being still. Taking a note to the school office or doing some simple calisthenics in the middle of a homework session or a long class period can be quite helpful. (Research suggests that the average middle school student can sit still and pay attention for no more than 11 minutes without needing some physical activity. Many middle school teachers know this and vary their class activities accordingly.)

            Some children have tactile needs. You may have to cut the labels out of their clothing and only but certain kinds of clothes that don't cause pressure or restrictions. (My grandchild  hated to wear a belt for a long time and wanted to wear only sweatpants to school.)

            Some children can listen to music when doing schoolwork. Others need complete silence and may need headphones to concentrate. Going to the mall or being in a crowd with a lot of noise can be quite difficult for some children.

            As you can already discern, all of these issues occur for adults, too. We adults have just learned to use "socially acceptable" ways of managing our energy and senses - something we call a "sensory diet." The task then becomes developing a sensory diet for our children.

            Pay attention to energy levels in your child throughout the day. Using the metaphor of "how does your engine run?" note when the engine is running too fast, too slow, or just right. Model activities with them that produce "just right" energy and see what happens.

            We are all organisms that do our best to live in the world. Look up sensory integration if this intrigues you and get a sense of how to better regulate your own energy as well as that of your child. Pay attention to what already works for you, what already works for your child, and what the "hotspots" are during the day. Learning about ourselves and our children will allow us to be pro-active and not just reactive in our lives.

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This page contains a single entry by John published on September 15, 2020 4:57 PM.

What is your Parenting Style? was the previous entry in this blog.

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