Exploring The Impact Of The Senses On Behaviour

By Joanna Grace

5th February 2019

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Do you have a child in your setting that doesn’t behave in the same way as the other children? Perhaps they do not respond to your tried and tested reward chart? Or perhaps they seem to lose it over the smallest of things?

We know there are many different causes to behaviour and as children grow in understanding and in confidence they will experiment to find out where the boundaries lie. I remember once being delighted that a child had lied to me because it meant they had understood that deception was possible and that is really rather a clever thing to understand.

The risk for children who produce seemingly unusual behaviour is that they will not be understood and that people around them will think they are a problem. For a short while I had a role inspecting schools to see what their provision was like for children with special educational needs and I remember all too clearly a well-respected teacher telling me that every once in a while you just got a bad seed, that some children were innately bad and there was no amount of discipline that would ever change that.

When children are young we have extraordinary power to do them good or to do them ill. You are the start point to their future reputation, if you deem them a bad egg you gift them the start of a debilitating self-esteem problem. If you recognise the problems they are expressing through their behaviour and help them to solve them you give them a life changing gift.

Recognising that behaviour can be related to sensory causes and helping both the child and those around the child to understand that genuinely is a way to change lives.

On Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour my delegates and I examine the underpinning roots to sensory behaviour and go through various strategies that can be used to support someone who expresses their difficulties with the sensory world through their behaviour.

Use the humble settle jar to help children understand how to calm down. “Calm down” is a very abstract instruction to a small child. What exactly is it that you are asking them to do? It’s very muddling and most small children won’t know much about it other than it is what gets shouted at them when they do something considered naughty.

Simply handing a child a settle jar and saying “calm down” is not going to have a lot of effect, of course we hope they will be distracted by the twinkling particles swirling in the jar and begin to calm, but as a means of support that is not offering them much.

Do this instead:

Take the settle jar to the agitated child and shake it where they can see it being shook. Describe how they are feeling and how they have come to feel that way. “That argument with Zac has got your all shaken up inside, you are feeling annoyed and upset.” Empathise with them (rather than scold them) “It doesn’t feel nice to be annoyed,” offer help “I can help you calm down: look.” Place the settle jar down somewhere where you can both clearly see it. Model how to calm down, you can talk or not. Often it works best if you don’t. Gaze at the jar, take a big breath in and let it out slowly. You can say “Calm” on the inward breath, and “down” slowly on the outward breath. Emphasise the ‘down’ by indicating the downward motion of the particles in the jar with your hand. Using the Makaton sign for “Calm down” works well.

Sit with the child and continue to model the calm breathing. We want children to know that we accept, not reject, them when they have difficult feelings so stay with the child. Look at the way the glitter in the jar catches the light and remember how precious this time with this child is.

When the particles in the jar are settled to the floor and the child is calm invite them to go and play, tell them that if they begin to feel agitated again, they can come back to the jar and shake it. Support them in doing this throughout the day. You are teaching them how to emotionally regulate, externalising it through the jar is one wonderful sensory tool for doing this. Find out about more by attending Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour.

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