Sensory + Behavior
Why Does Learning About Sensory and Behavior Matter?
Learning about sensory and how it affects behavior not only allows us to gain a better understanding of our child and their behaviors, but ourselves as well. This information is powerful. This information allows me to be a better, more patient parent. This information helps me to understand my child and when she is getting overstimulated. This information helps me to understand myself. It prepares me so that I can take a preventative approach to challenging behavior. It allows me to have more compassion for my child, as well as myself.
Why Sensory Behavior isn’t Just a “Phase”
When I was studying sensory and how it affects behavior in my development classes, I quickly came to realize how great of an impact sensory plays on my life in adulthood. I started to gain a better understanding of why I quickly become “stressed” within large groups of people. I also gained a better understanding as to why I can’t handle “loud” noises. You see, sensory isn’t just a phase that we can grow out of. We use our senses every single day, so naturally senses would play a roll on our behavior. If loud noises can be overstimulating for me as an adult, how do you think it might affect a child who is overstimulated due to loud noise?
Children have the same emotions as adults, however, they aren’t prepared with the tools necessary to regulate those emotions. Thus, they display those emotions in whatever way they know how. This might be crying, flopping on the ground, yelling, shutting down etc. If a child becomes overstimulated and doesn’t know how to regulate those feelings, or how to control the environment that is overstimulating for them, then we might tend to see the challenging behavior take place.
Sensory and Behavior isn’t “Just” About Overstimulation
However, sensory isn’t just about overstimulation. Sensory in relation to challenging behaviors, might also be due to lack of a sensory need. For example, my two year old has a large tactile “cup”, meaning she is constantly seeking for things to touch. I know that she needs this. So the first thing she wants me to do in the morning is to hold her. I don’t have to hold her all day, just in the morning to start to “fill” her cup. I know that she will most likely want to play with something like play dough, sand, or the water table. She usually needs her lamb for her to stroke and hugs throughout the day.
Knowing this, I always have some play dough or other sensory nearby where she knows she can locate them. I also am better able to help her when she is feeling stressed or overcome with big emotions, because what she needs is a hug to help her calm down. My four year old is different. She doesn’t usually want hugs when she is upset. As we gain a better understanding of this, we are in a position to help meet the individual needs of our children.
In this blogpost I will break down a couple of the senses in order for you to gain an idea of the point I’m going to make in a nutshell. I may in future blog posts, break down the senses in individual blogposts with supported activities for each one.
Small Auditory Cup
Now this one I will probably share a little bit more, since it hits so close to home for me. Those with a small auditory cup (the “cup” example comes from Sensory Solutions Online Course) a person is likely to fill their cup quickly. Meaning they can easily become overstimulated in terms of the auditory sense. This is hands down, me. Most people have a middle sized cup, however there are experiences throughout my life and now, that indicate to me that I have a small auditory cup. Noise is easily overstimulating for me. Even now as I type this blogpost, my husband is laying by me and snoring, causing me to feel a little tense and lose focus. I usually try to drown out the background noise with earplugs or headphones. The times when I tend to get the most frustrated with my children are when they are too loud, even if it’s “happy loud”. My husband watching television in our small townhome makes me feel anxious or stressed, and want to leave the room. I would get frustrated as a child with my mom for talking on the phone, because it was overstimulating for me. I couldn’t concentrate taking a test at school with everyone’s pencils making noise, feet tapping, or even a furnace running.
Do some of these sound familiar? This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually great that I have been able to recognize that about myself. It simply means that when I am working on something and there is background noise, I make sure to have my earplugs with me. It means that when my children are loud, I can calmly explain to them that it’s making mommy’s ears hurt and I need them to quiet down now. It means that I am able to take a preventative approach rather than letting my cup overflow, where I tend to “lose it” as a parent.
So as you start to recognize the “breakdown” moments of your child (and yourself), start to pay attention. Soon you might recognize a pattern revolving around senses. These breakdown moments lead to breakthrough moments. To the moments where you finally figure out what could be at the root of that challenging behavior. Now, just as a disclaimer, behavior isn’t always so one sided. There could be other factors such as lack of sleep, hunger, stressful responsibilities etc. but as we recognize these sensory preferences, we are then able to create an environment that works for us, rather than against us.
Large Auditory Cup
Someone with a large auditory cup might look like someone who is always blasting their music, or loves going to loud concerts. They might thrive in large groups of people. I had a roommate in college who was like this. She would wake up each morning and start blasting her music. She loved the noise. She also loved creating the noise. For children this might look like a child who gets close to watch the television (although that could also be a large visual cup). It might look like a child who constantly wants music playing, or is trying to create loud noise by constantly banging things together. For these children, I would provide musical instruments, do finger-plays and sing songs. Having musical instruments, or even an Alexa available to them might help fill their large auditory cup.
Small Tactile Cup
A child with a small tactile cup, may not want to touch the play dough you just made for them, or they have particular preferences in regards to what type of clothing they wear. They may hate going barefoot, or refuse to wear pants. These are all tactile preferences. This one can be tricky for a lot of adults to help their child work through. The main point I want to drive here is that we never force our child to play with the play dough, and we don’t force them to engage in the new activity we just placed in the water table. The more choices we can give our child the better. However, we continue to provide these experiences in order for them to grow their cups (yes, our cups, can change over time). That being said, if it’s truly not a big deal whether or not your daughter or son wears pants, then don’t force them. That way the instances where you do have to push something that is against their tactile preferences, it’s not as overstimulating for them.
Large Tactile Cup
This one I mentioned above with my two year old, so I won’t go into too much detail here. We always make sure to have some sort of sensory activity available for her. We provide different textures for her to explore, and are often switching it out for her to fill that large tactile cup. (You can view some sensory ideas in the Play section). The challenging behavior with her often results when she hasn’t had enough tactile experiences to “fill” her cup. I can' tell when she is getting restless or frustrated she might need cuddles, she might need play dough, she might need sand to run her fingers through etc. I get asked a lot, how early can you recognize these sensory preferences? With my two year old, she had the biggest flopping tantrums before she could talk, and I never knew what she wanted. It was so frustrating for me until around 18 months when she started using the word, “hug!” I then knew that I couldn’t just talk to her and help her calm down like I did with my oldest child. For her, I needed to take the time to hug her until she could physically calm down, and then try to help her navigate through her emotions.
Provide an Environment for Your Child to Thrive
There is honestly so much to talk about with sensory and behavior! For those of you who have tuned into my lives over on instagram, you have learned the tip of the ice-berg, but hopefully even that knowledge has allowed you to have a paradigm shift in how you view your child’s challenging behavior. If we can recognize their sensory cups and how to support, love and work with them, we will then be able to provide an environment where they truly can thrive.
For me to really get into it in this space I would need to do a blogpost for each of the senses, which I will most likely do at some point. However, if you’re interested in learning more in depth information, Alisha Grogan and Wendy Bertagnole with Sensory Solutions are absolutely phenomenal and offering an online course. You can view their free webinar to learn a little more about the course here, and register for the course by clicking here.