Over my many years of working with children and families I have been privileged to be taught a great deal about human spirit and it’s ability to overcome great odds, most commonly from my young clients. So while my life is over-scheduled with my own busy children, a business to run, OT students to teach and client families to support, I am driven to share some of these stories with you, in the hope that it will broaden understanding of people and children who have all ranges of abilities.
Yet, I am overwhelmed by the idea of just sitting down and writing, until recently a colleague said to me, its a shame you can’t just record some of your conversations with children, parents, teachers and us and blog that! And so my series of ‘Conversations with Suzie’ blogs begins here!
Something that strikes me regularly and with great intensity is that while most folks are very open to full inclusion for all abilities, there remains a strong undercurrent of misunderstanding of difference in Australian society that isn’t often spoken about but plays out in our daily news – the recent incident with the James Milne being refused entry into a JB Hi-Fi store because he supposedly looked like another young man with Down Syndrome speaks to this ignorance (and I remain very disappointed with the lack of remorse from the store manager when called as this response indicates true prejudice).
Still, most Australians saw the wrong in this series of actions and stood our ground for the underdog and for this I feel proud to be an Australian. But what about events in our everyday lives that interfere with full inclusion for all? That stuff is just on the news, right? This is an extreme example yes, but what about the ‘milder’ yet persistent misunderstandings that happen for many children with individual differences?
Let me give you an example. I’ll call him Todd. He’s 8 years old and in year 2 at a local primary school. He doesn’t have a diagnosis, but he is a very active child! He cannot sit still, and when he does quiet his body, his mouth talks and talks and talks…you get the picture. Behaviourally, he is observed to frequently bump into furniture, children and knocks over their materials in class. He talks and wiggles and talks and wiggles and talks while his teacher is speaking, while the other children are working, he even distracts himself from working. He is not confident on the playground or during sport, and has limited social success with his peers. If his teacher does not have training in individual neurological differences it would be easy to see this child as disruptive – the teacher tries all the usual behavioural strategies they are taught at university, and are very effective for many children, but they don’t work with Todd. Todd’s not getting his own work done and is also stopping other children from getting their work done. Sometimes other parents complain that the child is too disruptive and/or rough and they want him removed to another class! It is very stressful for Todd, his family and his teacher.
When I assessed Todd, I found his balance and postural (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioceptive) sensory systems are under-active. This means he must move his body more frequently and intensely in order to know where his body parts are in relation to one another and spatial within his immediate environment. Our subconscious brain is driven to have this body and spatial awareness to both keep us safe and also allow us to build motor competence so we can do things like play sport, produce legible handwriting and sequence motor actions so we can complete tasks with more than 1-2 steps. So Todd is not doing this sensory seeking on purpose, or to annoy his peers, teacher or family, he is doing it to try and improve his performance. Todd simply cannot learn while sitting quiet and still. Its always wonderful to see the changes that both parents and teacher can make on their own when they understand this neurological basis of a set of behaviours that have been interfering with function for so long.
So what helped Todd to settle down to work in class?
Here’s a few strategies for the over-active child that will likely help if there is reduced activation of the balance and postural (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioceptive) sensory systems:
- Provide collaborative education and discussions to build an understanding for Todd, his parents and teachers that he is moving his body to try and improve his performance.
- In OT sessions, we talk about Todd becoming the boss of his body and brain and helping him use more efficient ways to build body and spatial awareness, often using activities and exercises to help build this underlying ability, and building ways to do this that improve positive participation in (rather than interfere with) daily activities at home and at school.
- Find ways for Todd to move his body intensely and at regular intervals during the day. Walk, scooter or ride to school, or get to school 10 minutes early and encourage him to run a few laps of the oval or do an ‘obstacle’ course on the playground equipment. Encourage him to play physically during lunch and recess. Enrol him in community activities that he can succeed at and give him intense movement input (e.g. gymnastics/tumbling/circus classes, martial arts, general fitness groups). Do some intense movement play after school, e.g. 15-minutes of stunts in the trampoline. Do whole class, or whole family, yoga – moving meditation is fabulous stress relief and grounding for all!
- Build movement into everyday activities where possible: Have him be the ‘monitor’ that gives out the books for each task – the act of getting up and walking around carrying a heavy box of books will help. Give him other heavy work options at home and school – sweep the floor, vacuum, push/pull/carry (e.g. a library trolley or bag). Create a standing desk for Todd – it should be the height of his elbow when standing – it can help to have a floor ‘spot’ (like used in PE) or hoop for him to define his standing space. Have him ‘warm up’ his hands with a stress ball during ‘listening’ tasks in class.
[Note: Each child and classroom is different, and over activity in a child may be due to several reasons. Please see these as some starting ideas and use some trial and error to get the right match for your child. Collaboration between teacher and parents is essential. If these strategies don’t help but you still feel there are body and spatial awareness concerns be sure to see a specialist paediatric OT for professional assessment and advice.]
So, that’s the chat for today. Please let me know your stories and questions and always, always be kind to each other. In this job, I have learnt clearly that we all have reasons for our behaviour and often the most help we can provide for others is to simply make space and be there for them.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein
All the best,