My children are my greatest treasure on earth. They are worth more to me than all my possessions combined. Most of you feel the same way about your children—whether they were born to you or placed into your family to blossom. Our children are what matter, and there is no close second. That is why it is so extremely painful when one of our children hits a wall in development, bumps up against something bigger than his skill set, and gets stuck.
I believe there are ways to help children get unstuck by focusing on the cause and outcome of the behavior and considering the effect of sensory processing. Many children in foster care and adoption struggle with sensory processing, and being thoughtful about how this affects their behavior can help parents create opportunities for success.
The Impact of Stress
Stress happens in all children’s lives. Some stress is relatively mild and routine such as when children learn a new skill or take a math or spelling test. But stress can also be more intense and chronic for children who are experiencing disrupted home life, frequent moves, exposure to adult arguments, exposure to violence, excessive screen time, unrealistic demands and performance pressure, and especially neglect and abuse.
Many adults underestimate the amount of stress in children’s lives. In foster care and adoption, it is important to recognize the impact that previous life circumstances have had on a child. We must realize that the journey to healing and mental health takes time, sometimes a long time, because those wounds are significant and deep. Even a child adopted or fostered from birth can be recovering from the effects of the stress chemicals, such as adrenalin and cortisol, that pass from the mother to baby in the womb. Most would agree a birth mother who places her baby for adoption (voluntarily or involuntarily) experiences a greater amount of stress during pregnancy than is typical. Therefore, all children in foster care and adoption have been fighting a stress reaction before we met them.
Regardless of its source, a stress reaction affects the limbic system and challenges emotional regulation skills. It also directly affects the amygdala—the part of the brain that, during a crisis, sends a signal to the body to prepare for fright, fight, or flight reactions. Over-active startle reflexes, over-sensitivity to situations that most other people handle well, and running or fighting behaviors can all be linked back, in part, to the body’s inability to handle stress effectively and efficiently.
When stress happens, whether it is due to adjustment, trauma triggers, developmental delay, or behavior, one of the best things a parent can do is take a step back and make a plan to create a win-win situation. A win-win happens when parents create a strategy tailored to their child and family so that everyone succeeds.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I often meet families when they have bumped up against a barrier, and the child and family have gotten stuck. In these situations, the first thing I remind them is: “Your goal is not to just get the problem behavior to go away. Your goal is to teach a better way.” When we keep that goal forefront in our minds, the process to achieving a better tomorrow is smoother.
In stressful situations, you may need to help your child reframe the stress he is feeling. People’s perception of the stress they are experiencing is key to how their body responds. For example, when something is threatening you and you are not in control, your body prepares to fight or escape so you survive the situation. Your muscles tense, your blood pressure rises, your breathing increases—the feeling can be very intense. You shift into reactionary responses instead of thoughtful responses, and the survival portion of your brain dictates to your rational self. However, when you perceive the stress as positive, such as when you’re about to conquer an exciting challenge, your body prepares you by releasing chemicals associated with courage responses. Your body activates the higher-thinking centers for problem solving—the brain’s prefrontal cortex. You still feel a racing heart, a release of adrenalin, and increased breathing, but your fight or flight response is not triggered and your interpretation of these body feelings is positive rather than negative. You feel more in control of yourself and the situation, and you prepare to make a plan to succeed.
Encouraging a child to recognize what he is feeling and provide a positive framework for how his body is working to help him respond can be a game changer in difficult situations. When you find your child becoming controlling and beginning to dictate instead of cooperating, his behavior is asking for you to help him reframe whatever stress he is feeling. If you can help him reframe, he feels more in control of himself and does not have such a high need to control everyone and everything else around him in an effort to feel more confident and secure.
Some children are fighting a battle much bigger than stress reactions. Some children have been exposed to drugs, alcohol, or extensive trauma or neglect. This not only increases the stress they are under, but actually alters the way their brains process and respond to information. It affects a child’s ability to learn new information, use what she has been taught, and generalize skills throughout development. Regardless of a child’s stress factors, rate of learning, and past situation, there is great hope when parents are able to meet a child where she is and teach the tools to move forward.
Behavior: The First Side of the Coin
Kids are really smart, regardless of IQ. They are going to use the best tool in their behavior backpack at any time to handle the situation they are in and to either make it better or make it feel better. If I encounter a child melting down in the store, screaming, “I want it!” and wailing and kicking his feet, I remind myself, “That’s the best tool he has right now to ask for what he wants!”
The way a child responds represents his “go-to” skills for responding to that situation. If we want a child to respond in a better way, we have to give him a better tool. It’s as simple as that. The tool we teach him has to work better than the tool he’s using.
As the parent, you hold the most power to influence your child and shape his behavior. No person has greater potential for positive impact in a child’s life than a parent or caregiver. No therapist can replace you. No doctor has medicine more powerful than you. No one can pay you what your influence in your child’s life is worth. Whether you are addressing problem behavior, working to increase your child’s attention skills, or shaping a child’s motivation to engage in learning or relationships, the support you provide is a huge key to your child’s success.
It isn’t easy for parents, particularly those raising children who have serious trauma backgrounds, to help their children find new tools and make changes. But it’s definitely worth the effort. To begin making a plan to shape behavior:
Track the ABCs of the behavior. The antecedent sets up the situation. It is what comes before the behavior. Write down what has happened leading up to the problem behavior. The behavior is what the child actually does. Write down specifically what the child is doing that is a problem (write exact words and actions—“acting out” or “sassing” or “talking back” don’t count). The consequence determines whether that behavior is likely to occur again or not. It is what comes next after the behavior happens. Write down how you or others respond to the behavior. What is the result of the child’s behavior?
Once you’ve written everything down, think about it. Is there a pattern that you find is contributing to the perfect storm for your child? Is it fatigue? Time of day? Hunger? Anxiety about an upcoming challenge? Is your concern centered around one specific type of situation and a problem behavior that is tied to that situation or are you dealing with a set of problem behaviors that can occur across many settings and situations?
Look for the function of the behavior. What is the core reason the behavior is occurring? Does your child want attention? To get something tangible? To avoid or escape a situation that is too challenging or uncomfortable? Or is it a sensory issue? Does it feel good and thus is internally reinforcing for the child?
Now look at the information you gathered in the ABCs of behavior and match it up with what you believe to be the function of the behavior. You may find that you see a pattern emerging that gives you clues as to why that behavior is a current tool in your child’s behavior backpack. For example, a child who resorts to screaming in class before math each day may be sent to the principal’s office consistently at that time. Though it is not pleasant for him or his teacher (or even thought out on his part), it accomplishes the bigger goal of escaping the math that is too challenging or causes him anxiety. In that situation, getting in trouble is productive for him even though it is not pleasant. Therefore, it continues as his best plan to cope with a hard situation.
Change the set up. Once you’ve figured out some patterns of behavior and what the behavior is accomplishing, you can look at the set up more carefully. Is there something you can change to prepare your child or set her up for more behavioral success?
Sensory: The Flip Side of the Coin
We learn through our senses. The brain works with information that the senses bring in to make connections to the world and to other people. Whether you are learning to make a friend, respond when spoken to, or dress yourself, or are gaining knowledge in a classroom, your brain synthesizes pieces of information brought in through different sensory systems, processes that information, and responds.
Our responses are shaped by our experiences. For many children in foster care and adoption, early experiences have trained their nervous systems to respond in atypical ways or have stunted their growth in ways that result in immature responses. Thoughtful, purposeful sensory opportunities can be a powerful key in healing for children as well as a tool that sets up positive growth and learning for a child.
Sensory processing is the brain’s work in organizing and processing input from the senses in order to use that information to respond appropriately to a given situation. In my observations, the interplay between our nervous system and our sensory processing abilities determines our learning style and our rate of learning and influences our developing cognitive and behavioral abilities. Children can only behave based on the quality of their intake of information. Imagine a computer. If you put faulty (or incomplete) information into a computer, you will not get an accurate answer. You will get a partial (or faulty) answer. By learning more about how to present information in a way that matches how your child can successfully take it in, you can positively influence how your child learns.
To begin making a plan to support strong sensory processing:
- Make a list of your child’s favorite things and then work to expand it. We attend to things that are interesting to us. One of your key goals is to find a way to make developing a relationship with you and listening to what you have to say very motivating to your child. You can achieve this goal by building life lessons with your child while you are doing things that are interesting and fun for her.
- Identify the gift your child has to give to your family and the community. What are your child’s strengths? How can you support your child in giving the gifts he has to give? If your child is a natural encourager, she might draw energy by sending positive notes to teachers, friends, and family members. If your child is naturally creative, painting with him will result in a fun family memory. For a child who is naturally good at organizing, a great option might be for her to help arrange cans in a community food pantry. For children who like to dig and plant, you might put in a vegetable garden and share the harvest with neighbors. Or you can grow flowers to share and brighten someone’s day.
- Think through your child’s character strengths—does she have zest for life, good judgment and intuition, creativity, gratitude, spirituality, curiosity, kindness, honesty, love of learning, leadership, bravery, or humor? Once you know her strengths, you can support her in embracing them. You can support her in learning the best about who she is and help her further enhance that strength.
- Begin to identify how your child learns best. Is he a movement learner? An auditory or musical learner? A visual learner? A hands-on learner? Pay attention to when he achieves success and you may learn which of these strategies is most effective.
- Teach new information in a way that is completely tailored to his learning style. (More about learning styles will soon be posted at positivelysensory.com.)Help your child develop learning flexibility. Review old information in a variety of ways to help your child really take in the information. For example, if your child is a hands-on learner, you would use math manipulatives to teach a concept and then employ worksheets, flash cards, and other games to reinforce the concepts she has already learned.
- Recognize the sensory barriers that your child has and respect them. Just as you would not enjoy snacking on tin foil, your child will not enjoy being forced to push through very painful experiences. If your child has a significant sensory barrier, seek professional help. Connect with someone who has expertise in that area so that healing, retraining, and restoration can occur.
- Make play important. Every child needs at least 60 minutes a day of movement and more than 60 minutes of daily play. Make movement and play a priority, and schedule them. Take a family walk. Go to the park. Active movement is good for both of you, and it can be a fantastic tool to help build your relationship. “Doing” creates memories.
Building on Success
After caregivers have provided enough teaching and support to achieve a win-win situation, it is time to begin teaching the child to help address his own needs. Once he has had success in navigating stressful situations, support him in identifying what worked for him. Then, when the stressful situation comes along again, ask, “What do you need to do to help yourself?” If he is prone to freezing and forgetting what he knows in hard situations, I recommend putting a cue card in his pocket or backpack to help him remember what he knows. The goal is for your child to become self-sufficient and independent as he navigates the world. There will be challenges, but if he recognizes his body’s response as helping set him up for success and believes that he has the tools to successfully navigate the situation, the battle is nearly won.
Developing a strong sensory processing and behavior framework can help parents problem solve even the toughest of situations. Engaging in positive, developmentally stimulating, and purposeful activities can be a game changer in a child’s life and can help her blossom into her full potential.