A seven year-old insists on wearing the same outfit everyday.
A five year-old boy frequently hits and kicks his parents during hair and teeth-brushing.
Should these situational actions be treated as sensory problems or as behavioral issues?
Sensory or Behavior?
My answer to this common question is typically that it is both – a sensory issue, as well as, a behavioral one. Through behavior analysis, we can often see that isms like these are rooted in a sensory need but they become behavioral. Offering appropriate sensory input will often address difficult behaviors.
The child who insists on wearing the same outfit everyday is probably over-responsive to tactile input and she has learned that her fits about clothing are effective in getting her parents to back down on the issue.
Explore more >> Tactile Defensive? Start with the other Senses
The child who hits and kicks during tooth-brushing probably is seeking proprioceptive (heavy work) input to help him tolerate the task but he still needs to learn that aggression is unacceptable no matter what.
Explore more >> Tooth Brushing for the Orally Defensive
The tween who becomes aggressive during transitions is probably overwhelmed by the auditory and visual input inherent in transition time but he has also learned that aggression ends with him getting wrapped up in weighted blanket, which is soothing to him.
Explore more >> Meltdown? Reduce Sensory Input, Reduce the Intensity
Address the Sensory Needs
For the exampled scenarios above, my recommendations on how to handle isms such as these include:
Consult an OT to Address Difficult Behaviors
Consult an occupational therapist (OT) for help on figuring out what the behaviors are telling you about the child’s sensory needs. Hitting and kicking may indicate the child is seeking proprioceptive input. Meltdowns may indicate the child is in sensory overload.
Explore more >> Recognize and Manage Sensory Overload
Meet Sensory Needs to Address Difficult Behaviors
Be proactive in meeting the child’s sensory needs.
If the child is a hitter and a kicker, make sure to allow him the chance to get “heavy work” type of sensory input before the problem time (like tooth-brushing). For example, ask him to crab-walk to the bathroom.
The tween who becomes aggressive during transitions should be offered the weighted blanket before transition time so he doesn’t have to resort to aggression to get the input he is seeking.
Explore more >> 20 Proprioceptive Input Ideas for Home and School
Implement Behavioral Strategies to Address Difficult Behaviors
Be reactive by using typical behavior strategies. Address difficult behaviors by thinking through rewards and consequences and be prepared to implement these strategies if the child kicks during tooth-brushing.
Send the Right Message
I know that as parents, we are often hesitant to use typical behavioral strategies to address issues that seem to be outside of our kids’ control due to sensory processing isms. But, if we continue to allow them to wear only one outfit everyday or overlook being kicked during tooth-brushing, they will never be motivated to use the sensory strategies available to them to learn to cope with their sensory issues.
Furthermore, by allowing behaviors like these, we are sending them the message that we don’t believe they can do any better. However, by using sensory strategies proactively and using rewards and consequences reactively, we are letting children know that we believe in them and we are raising the bar for their development.
We show them that they can learn to self-modulate and that even beyond that – we expect them to self-modulate simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Sensory AND Behavior: Determining the Underlying Causes and Addressing Difficult Behaviors Appropriately
For an overview on addressing Sensory AND Behavior, consider this view-on-demand webinar that discusses the ABC method of behavior analysis. You will learn how to delineate proactive and reactive strategies to address difficult behaviors and select cognitive strategies to address certain behaviors. The icing on the cake is you will be able to recognize the role of sensory strategies in minimizing maladaptive behaviors. Learn more >>
Delve in much deeper with the more comprehensive version of this course.