Wondering about how to address challenging sensory behaviors? This simple 3-step approach can help!
Today, we’ll take things a step further, learning how to uncover some of the possible “mystery” behind kids’ challenging sensory behaviors and how to create and tailor sensory activities to meet their specific sensory needs.
Knowing the basics about sensory processing and a little bit about each of the sensory systems gives us a roadmap to help us navigate and decipher some of the everyday sensory behaviors we see in kids – chewing on their shirts, fidgeting, or humming and making noises.
Suddenly, issues that may have once looked like “behavioral problems” have a whole new meaning as we gain a better understanding of the sensory responses that could be causing them.
As a therapist, when I’m called on to help address kids’ “inappropriate” or “challenging” sensory behaviors, I use a basic 3-step formula.
3-Step Formula for Addressing Sensory Behaviors
Step 1 || Observe the child.
And make note of behaviors, the sensory features of the environment, and any other factors that may be triggering behaviors (sounds, visual distractions, proximity of other students, time of day, what came before/after the behavior, etc.).
Step 2 || Identify which sensory system or systems may be involved.
This requires knowledge and understanding about each of the sensory systems and how our bodies process the sensory input in our environments. Check out the Sensory Processing Explained section of our book for easy-to-read explanations of each of the sensory systems.
Step 3 || Brainstorm activities and strategies that “recreate” the sensory experience the child is getting via the behavior.
But in a more appropriate or acceptable manner that better fits the expectations of the child’s setting. Consider strategies to be used “in the moment” (e.g. a chewy pendant, rocking chair, or fidget toy) as well as “sensory break activities” that can provide even more of the type of input the child is seeking out throughout the day.
Here’s an example of how I put this 3-step formula to work:
In one kindergarten classroom, we noticed that several students were constantly leaning and slumping in their seats, kneeling on their seats, or standing next to their desks rather than sitting.
Step 1 || I observed the students and noticed another factor that was playing a role in the behavior: the chairs in the classroom were too big for many of the students. Otherwise, it was a pretty typical kindergarten classroom that was equipped with a super organized and structured teacher who was awesome at differentiating instruction for all of her students.
Step 2 || In addition to the issue with chair size, this particular group of students just happened to be what I call “movers and shakers”. They needed extra movement to be able to concentrate and learn (as most kindergarteners do). The kids were moving, leaning, squirming, and standing to provide input to their vestibular systems.
Step 3 || First, we addressed the issues of the chairs being too big by adjusting table heights where we could and moving smaller students to a different table with smaller chairs when they had to complete written work. Then, the teacher and I came up with strategies to help “in the moment”, including various seating options that allowed for movement (e.g. disc cushion seats, wobble stools, allowing kids to stand or kneel at their desks). Finally, we came up with some sensory breaks that would provide vestibular input for the whole class (e.g. dance breaks, group exercises to get kids bending and leaning upside down, funny movement activities and songs from GoNoodle, etc.).
Addressing sensory-related behaviors isn’t always this easy or cut and dry. Often, for kids who have more significant sensory processing issues, it takes time, clinical reasoning, and lots of trial and error to get to the bottom of behaviors.
But, when everyone involved has a basic understanding of sensory processing and the sensory systems, as a team you’re much better equipped to analyze what’s really going on and get to the bottom of a child’s behaviors.
If this little formula resonated with you, you’ll love the unique Index By Behavior feature that appears in the back of Sensory Processing 101. This section is a key that can help parents, teachers, and therapists unlock possible reasons behind many common sensory-related behaviors.
You can locate a behavior in the index and glance at the icons and page numbers to jump straight to explanations, tips, strategies, and activities that correlate directly with that behavior. For anyone who has struggled with figuring out why their child might be engaging in behaviors like biting, hitting, pushing, or making loud noises, this feature of the book is huge.
Some of you might be thinking, “This book isn’t for me. My child or the kids in my class don’t have Sensory Processing Disorder.” Or, maybe you’re wondering if we’re just making excuses for kids with behavior problems.
But the truth is, all of us have unique sensory processing needs that correlate with our everyday behaviors and preferences. When we don’t fully understand sensory processing, we may misinterpret kids’ behaviors, labeling children as “naughty” or “spoiled” or “lazy” when there may be other factors at play.
Sensory Processing 101 was designed as a starting point for everyone to gain a better understanding of how sensory processing works so we can interact more thoughtfully with the kids in our classrooms, therapy rooms, homes, and beyond. The more we understand the basics of sensory processing, the more we can tune into kids’ basic needs and the better we can support them, teach them, and care for them.
So what do you think? Have you used a similar approach to identifying possible sensory needs, or do you have a different method? We would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below!
Next time, we’ll be talking about how to work sensory input into everyday activities in the classroom in order to reach every child.