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I’ve long been interested in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and often thought that although it is a theory of psychology – it makes complete sense when applied to physiological systems including nerve systems and brain development. If a child, adult, or even mechanical system is stressed – it is not going to develop or perform optimally. If a human being is focused on basic survival – the neural system is not going to develop the ability for complex abstract thought and projection. It’s going to focus on getting air, water, food, and rest. And therefore the brain development in this scenario would be limited to what the body needed to focus on to survive. This article (http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2015/03/poverty-may-affect-growth-children-s-brains) talks about a scientific study that shows poverty correlates with less brain development. A very interesting finding for us educators to look at and find creative ways to address!
From a sensory perspective – I wonder what children with Sensory Processing Disorder (a neurological challenge) need in order to learn and develop optimally. Because these children’s systems are on high alert, and often acting at a high level of stress due to unpredictability and fear of assault from the external (or internal) environment – how can we create a safe and calming environment where their nervous systems can calm, and take in new material and develop new pathways? All children to optimally learn need to be able to filter out ambient sensory noise, or need to learn in an environment that limits sensory noise. In a traditional classroom sensory noise includes tiled and echoing rooms, other kids voices, other kids and teachers bodies (standing in line), banging lockers, desks and books, alarm bells, buzzing and flickering poor quality lights, unpleasant smells, traffic, construction, etc. No wonder kids come home from school stressed out!
My daughter would be at high risk of trauma or failure in a public classroom. Why? Because certain sensory needs are not addressed in a typical classroom – and when these needs aren’t met for her, the repercussions are pronounced and obvious. Symptoms of high anxiety (nail bitting, sleep disturbances, emotionally on edge, panic attacks, etc) and sensory over or under responsiveness become very apparent. For more typical children symptoms of not having sensory needs meet may appear as tiredness, hyperactivity, disinterest, apathy, moodiness, and / or stress.
The bottom line here, whether you have a sensory typical or atypical kid, is the public school system is often failing to address the fundamental needs of developing children. Much of our educational pedagogy is based on 60 year old theories that lack the benefit of modern developmental and cognitive neuro science and Psychology (Montessori, Waldorf, etc). And much of our educational policy is implemented in a top down maner from politicians to educators.
Many public schools are also failing at their secondary purpose. In addition to the failure of meeting the basic educational and physiological needs of students, the system is also failing to produce engaged and participatory members of our society. As Daniel Pink lays out in his book, Free Agent Nation, our working culture has shifted from a model where an employee dedicates herself to a parent company that cares for that employee over her lifetime (loyalty being the key virtue) to a network of self responsible free actors / individual contributors (self actualization being the key virtue). Education is still being taught in the one to many, one common core standard fits all method – which is not teaching the critical thinking and self responsibility skills needed to succeed in our present society.
Sensory School is my response to the fact that the current state of education is not keeping pace with scientific research or cultural change. I want to build a school where each student will have their basic physiological, developmental, and social needs not just met – but full filled. A school that will help each student on his or her path to self actualization by working with them to build the skills, passion, and confidence to be successful. A school that knows what it means to be a kid with fundamental sensory integration needs (whether typical, hyper or hypo sensitive) – and will design and evolve a curriculum and educational pedagogy that supports the sensory system.
The Power of Naming It
Geared up and ready to swim in her bright pink Costco cute swimming skirt and rash guard Isis and I walked into the woman’s locker room toward the pool. Halfway in Isis froze – Deer in Headlights terrified. I’m puzzled for a split second until I register that there is a mother blow drying her daughter’s hair in a tiled, echoing locker room. I kneel down and look Isis in the eye.
“Oh, Is that too loud for you?” I ask Isis. She nods her head with her hands pressed hard over her ears. The sweet mother watching this happen, and seeing Isis frozen with her hands over her ears, so kindly immediately turns off the blow dryer and smiles at me.
“It’s okay honey, she turned it off, so we can walk by. Thank you so much!” I pick Isis up, and we walk through safely – and spend the next hour having a blast in the pool. Isis singing to herself “Swimmy swim swim swim. Swimmy, swim swim. Swimmy swim.”
Once your child has calmed enough to be able to hear you speak – help them give their experience a name. A sensory child views much of the world as unpredictable, overwhelming, and possibly painful or assaulting. Control is so important for a child that feels constantly assaulted by their environment, and giving something a name, a context, acknowledging it as real, gives your child power.
Some Examples of supportive language to give your child power:
It looks like you were feeling overwhelmed. There were too many moving people in that room. Would you like to ride on my shoulders? Or go somewhere else?
Oh, I see you were feeling scared. That noise was too loud for you. You can cover your ears. We can go get your ear protection. Do you want to ask them to turn it down, go outside or go somewhere else?
You didn’t like the water that hot or cold. Would you like to pick the temperature? Here is the cold, and here is the hot. Is that better?
As a parent there are always those moments you question your parenting ability, followed by questioning your sanity. And as a Sensory Parent if you don’t have someone to bounce thoughts and ideas off of you start to think that maybe it really is all your fault your child goes “crazy” sometimes (or in our case – can’t sooth herself to sleep).
A dear friend we were once visiting said more serious than joking, though it was delivered in a way that sounded a touch like humor to soften it I think: “I don’t know why you guys make sleep such a big deal, driving her around for naps (2 times a day when she was 18 months old!). You just let kids run around until they’re tired and let them fall asleep under the dinner table. That’s what we did with our kids.” And I found myself thinking “God, really? Some kids will do that? Maybe my approach has been all wrong.” But then I remembered the 3 hours of bouncing her to sleep as a baby, the completely failed attempts at some kind of sleep training ending up with the whole family in a puddle of stress, exhaustion and tears on the floor after hours of screaming (didn’t those cursed sleep training books say no more than an hour and as little as 10 min!? – thankfully a few of the books mentioned the technique wouldn’t work on a very small percentage of especially alert babies – ’cause we clearly had an outlyer).
But these idiosyncrasies are the dark side of the moon of parenting. The negative space that defines the shape of your child, but most people don’t see. Our dear friend had no context to know that what works for 95 percent of children wouldn’t work for my child ever. And while I knew this at the time he said these words to me, I didn’t yet know my child had a disability. A disability is defined as something that interferes with one’s ability to perform or complete daily tasks. And it feels wierd to me to label my child with a disorder when she may look totally normal to you. But the reality is that she cannot physiologically do things that others can because her brain is wired differently.
I sometimes get funny looks when I tell people Isis has sensory processing disorder. People see a snap shot of a typical Bay area kid running around bare foot, going potty on her training toilet, and spinning on the tire swing.
But I see a child who can’t wear shoes because her feet are overly reactive to touch and will grip endlessly, a child terrified of any bathroom that isn’t her own because of the echoing and uncontrollable noise, and a child seeking the calming sensory input of extreem physical motion because her vestibular system under registers movement.
While she is an extremely capable girl she is limited in her daily activities by her condition.
Execute Calming Checklist
I have a mental checklist of things that work to calm my daughter. If you’re not sure what calms your child, start experimenting with sensory input or deprivation and see what works. Each child is unique and will have different things that soothe them. (Try not to use food as a reward or calming technique – it is a pattern we fall into too easily, but it doesn’t establish healthy eating habits and can contribute to future problems with food and diet).
Calming things can include: rocking, spinning, brushing with a medical brush, sensory play with the hands (water, sand, dirt, cornstarch and water, dough, etc), sensory play with the feet (walking on rocks, sand, soft grass, stomping on tapioca balls, grapes, etc), music, silence, water running, swinging, spinning, jumping, hiding in a sleeping bag or sensory sock, etc. Please share in the comments what’s worked for you!
Write down what works for your child (even better if you can draw pictures, and help your child understand what they can do to calm themselves when they feel scared or overwhelmed), and afix your Calm Down List on the refrigerator or another visible place in your house to help remind the family how you can help.