Monday, August 24, 2009

Biblical Discipline for Sensory Kids

Someone stumbed on my blog recently while searching for the term "Biblical discipline for sensory kids" and it got the wheels in my brain turning.

And here are the thoughts that were produced.

First of all, sensory kids are two things -- they're sensory (i.e., their sensory integration skills are deficient)... and they're kids. Let's look at the first component: they're sensory.

Sensory kids often display what the rest of us consider to be inappropriate behaviors. The tricky thing is, though, for the child, that behavior is very appropriate.

For example, if an ear-piercing and excruciatingly painful sound interrupted your conversation with your boss, would you simply ignore it? Of course not. You'd either cover your ears to try to block the sound, would cringe, would leave the room, would look for the source of the sound so you could eliminate it -- something. And that would be considered appropriate. Unless you had a horribly unfair and unkind boss, you would not expect a boss to punish an employee for not listening to him considering the disruption.

Take that example into a typical situation that might occur with a child with sensory integration dysfunction. Let's say said child is in the classroom listening to the teacher, and then one of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling begins to hum. Most children are ignoring the hum. A handful may be slightly distracted by it. But one child freaks out -- jumps up, covers his ears, screams (probably in pain!), maybe even runs out of the room.

Based on *your* sensory experience, this child's behavior is inappropriate. But based on that child's sensory experience, that hum was perceived by their brain as very loud and very painful. So actually their behavior was completely appropriate.

Should the child be disciplined for this behavior?

"But you can't just have them getting up and running off... you have to teach them to deal with disrupting sounds... they have to learn to ignore it like the other kids."

Really? Like you would just have to learn to spend your day working in an office with an excruciatingly painful sound ringing in your ear all day long and just ignore it? Is that the solution? or is eliminating the painful sound the solution?

This is just one example of millions of possibilities of WHY a sensory child may seemingly "misbehave" but their behavior is actually appropriate to their sensory experience. I do not for a minute believe the Biblical (or appropriate) way to deal with this child's behavior is to discipline the child, or try to teach them to just deal with the scenario.

The way to handle sensory-induced "misbehavior" is to analyze the occurrence to figure out what is going wrong in the child's sensory system that is causing them to behave the way that they are. Then eliminate it. Eliminate what you can environmentally -- can the fluorescent light be repaired so that it no longer hums? Can the locations where the child spends the most time be rewired to have other QUIET lighting instead? Can the child be given an assistive listening device that will dampen all environmental sounds and put the teacher's voice only directly into their ear? While doing everything possible to eliminate the source of the problem in the child's environment, the child should also be getting treatment to improve their sensory integration skills so that they can begin handling more and more of these situations without experiencing these problems.

If you remove and treat the problem, then the "inappropriate" behavior is going to disappear. If the child is no longer hearing the hum of the fluorescent lights, the child will sit quietly in his seat and listen just as he is expected to do.

Let's say, though, that someone viewed the child's behavior as inappropriate, and instead of looking at the reason the child acted that way, simply disciplined him. How much punishment do you think it's going to take to "correct" the behavior if the child is still being forced to hear an excruciatingly painful sound all day long in his classroom? An awful lot...

But unfortunately, parenting a sensory kid isn't quite that cut and dried. Because not only is the sensory kid SENSORY -- he's also a kid. And kids frequently do have inappropriate behavior that does require discipline.

The most difficult part for the parent is determining when your sensory kid is misbehaving because he's sensory, and when your sensory kid is misbehaving because he's a kid.

The best suggestion I can give you on how to tell the difference is to think before acting. You know your child and you know the types of sensory stimulation that tends to send your child through the roof. Analyze your child's misbehavior before jumping in with disciplinary tactics to see if the child's behavior was more likely due to inaccurate sensory processing or if it was just plain bad behavior. (Some clues too that may help you in difficult situations are looking at your child during the misbehavior -- is he flushed or sweating, or are his ears red? does he have a rapid heartbeat? rapid breathing? those are all big red flags to you that your child is not choosing to misbehave, your child's autonomic nervous system is on HIGH alert and this was caused by sensory overload.)

Does that help? Treat sensory (atypical) misbehavior; discipline voluntary (typical) misbehavior.


Carolyn F said...

I so needed to read such a calm, accurate perspective. Thanks for such a timely post.

Prairie Rose said...

Glad it was helpful. God's timing is never coincidental. :)

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