This is one of the popular and everlasting discussions among the professionals in sensory integration / child development field. When a child is having e.g. a tantrum, how do you know if it’s sensory or behavior? This is a very important question because it defines our reactions towards the child in that moment. And our reactions are there to help the child either by calming him down or by teaching him some boundary.
There is a consensus about a couple of things:
every child needs good* boundaries
- every child needs good* structure
*not necessarily strict or harsh
While reading other people’s opinions on sensory or behavior question, one interesting answer pops up: it is sensory and behavior, and not sensory or behavior. It is very hard to define a behavior and not take the sensory factor into the consideration. If your child doesn’t want to eat something and is crying and jumping in their feeding chair, take a look at the food you gave them: is it too hot or too cold or perhaps too chewy? Children who have low muscle tone in the oral area will most likely find difficult to chew and will thus most likely refuse to eat e.g. some meats or bread crust. Those same kids, on the other hand, will want to get the stimuli the easy way and you might see them asking you for crunchy foods that are easy to chew through e.g. chips, salty sticks, rice cereals etc. Food temperature is also very important to sensory kids. Just try to make them get used to it step by step. Forcing them to eat something, whether of the “wrong” temperature or texture is only going to make them refuse it, even if they would initially want to taste it.
So, how come a lot of the times we get the report from the preschool teacher that the child ate everything and is eating nicely in the preschool and makes such a drama at home? Well, the answer may as well be – the structure. Don’t confuse this with boundaries. Parents may be very clear on the boundaries, but the structure is what is missing at home. Usually preschools organize time and setup for meals where all children eat together at a table at the same time. So, this structure and predictability helps a lot of the sensory kids in their organization and regulation. If they do not have to think about what’s coming next and how they will manage themselves in the new situation, but they know that at this time, kids will start getting together at the table and food will be served, those sensory kids can be at peace and they can participate in an adequate way. To go back to the structure vs boundaries – sometimes what happens is that parents put stricter boundaries or let’s say, stricter parenting to compensate for lack of structure. Perhaps this is a good question to analyze in one of the future posts.
Another question to be asked here is how to know whether your child’s current behavior is purely sensory or behavioral, though I said that usually it’s both? Well, The Anonymous OT gives a good point in his “Is it Sensory, Behavior or Both?” blog post.
This is where I tell my parents to be incredibly attentive to the subtle signs from their child. With any behavior analysis, there is an “antecedent,” or something that happens before the behavior. This is where the parent has to look for the clues. What was the root cause of the outburst?
I agree with this statement and have been recommending the parents I work with to do so – to try and figure out what happened right before some good or bad behavior. Important thing to know and remember is that kids are not bad, they do not want to act badly. Children actually want to please their parents. If a child is behaving “badly”, it is up to us to figure out why and help them.
P.S. I like this document!