Most children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) often struggle with basic everyday tasks while watching their peers perform the same tasks with ease. Remembering this point can help us see how a child with SPD may develop low self-esteem and self-concept, which is why handling discipline with these children should be handled with care.
Now that doesn’t mean children with SPD shouldn’t be disciplined when need be. My daughter was an average growing girl in many ways. She tested her boundaries, asserted her independence and pushed my buttons. She could be full of beans and pick on her younger siblings as much as any child out there. But she often didn’t know when to stop doing things and didn’t always understand that not every one needed the same deep touch as she did. In the lead-up to a sensory meltdown, she could destroy things in anger or even lash out. Such things couldn’t be tolerated as she could not only hurt herself, or someone else, but her siblings started to think it was okay to act the same way, and it wasn’t.
Disciplining my daughter was always a bit of a challenge because she learned things at a different pace and in a different way than her three siblings. Some children with SPD actually bump into things, throw themselves on the ground or stomp their feet, not to be disrespectful but more to feel their environment. Plus, as her OT pointed out at the time, the sensation of spanks may not register as, “No!” for a child requiring a heavier touch to relate to their world.
Essentially, discipline should always be a balance of taking away privileges, rewarding good behavior, and sticking to your decisions. As Dr. Jean Ayres said in her book Sensory Integration and the Child, “To be effective, discipline must help to organize the child’s brain, rather than disorganize it.” (p. 157)
Through a combination of trial and error, as well as referring to what the experts, such as Dr. Ayres, Dr. Lucy Miller and Carol Stock Kranowitz have advised, here are a few tips on discipline and the sensory child:
(1) Understand mountains and molehills. Like with all children, not everything a child with SPD needs punishment. There are times when their actions merely stem from a need to experience something in their environment the only way they know how. For example, spitting their food out or playing with it at the table is often how they check food out. Throwing a plate at someone because they don’t like their food is more of a mountain requiring action.
The key is if the behavior can hurt themselves or someone else, is potentially dangerous or may cause a meltdown, intervene. Otherwise, help them work through the situation and always have options.
(2) Put your sensory glasses on. Once when I was alarmed by the fact my daughter tried kissing some of her classmates out of the blue, when she couldn’t stand it most day to have that happen to her, I contacted my sensory mom friend. She told me that by looking at my daughter with sensory glasses on, I’d see a little girl who found a different way to show her friends how much she loves them without having to touch them with her hands. Even hugging for my daughter, touching with her body, was almost a painful sensation for her. But she didn’t mind giving kisses, if she initiated it.
This same insight needs to be done with discipline. There are times when our sensational children are merely testing out their environments the only way they can—squishing the toothpaste on the sink, feeling their food with their hands, smelling everything, or running around at top speed.
If we remember to look at our children with those sensory glasses on first, we’ll know whether or not they’re doing something to feel it or if they’re doing something to test boundaries. Understanding this ahead of time helps them learn much better than yelling or spanking.
(3) Using words instead of actions. This was a constant struggle in our house. What we need to do is help our sensational children learn to develop the words describing what’s going on in their bodies. Then we can give them the counteractive tools to give their bodies what they need to calm down.
Feeling bad is okay, acting out is not. Use facial expressions and body gestures to help your child express what their bodies feel. Scrunched up face, furrowed brow, clenched teeth, fists and rigid body means, “Angry”. What can we do when we’re “angry?” Sit in our calm down IKEA egg with the lid closed and listen to Mozart. You can figure out your own expressions and gestures to help them work those negative feelings out.
(3) Help to organize. When your sensational child acts out, try figuring out what their body needs in terms of organization before giving them a punishment.
Are they rangy and full of excess energy? Have them swing in a hammock or swing or play some muscle stimulating games or exercises (jumping, running, tag, sports, etc.). Are they floppy and sad? Do some yoga, massages or stretching. Are they overstimulated? Put on a nice classical music CD and read them a book (you can do some deep pressure during this too.)
Try organizing them before punishing them. If they continue to act out, then proceed to some sort of Time Out. But I’ve found when my daughter was yelling, screaming or not listening, it was most often because her body needed something it wasn’t getting.
(4) Three steps to taking action. When actions aren’t sensory-related then parents should intervene. There are three steps to tackling this, called ACT.
(1) Acknowledge the undesirable behavior but don’t go into a deep discussion about it. “You hit your sister and that’s unacceptable.”
(2) Communicate the desired behavior. “If you’re angry with your sister, then use your words, not your hands.”
(3) Tell them the course of action that will be undertaken. “You need to apologize to your sister, then we’ll go over here with your toys. When you choose to hit, you choose to play by yourself until you calm down.”
The goal is to instill responsibility for actions. It takes a lot of repetition, and you’ll obviously have to change the punishment to suit the action and age level of the child, but eventually it works.
(5) Consistency is key. No matter what avenue you choose, you must stick to your decision each and every time. This is especially important for children who already need consistency and sameness in order to understand. If you punish one time, then choose not to the next, it can be confusing and you’ll have to start all over again.
Even when you’re out somewhere, using the ACT set-up or even saying, “If you choose to continue ______, then you choose to leave.” This way your child will come to understand if they yell at Mom, she’ll need a calm down time on the couch and there’ll be a stronger punishment for such things as lying, hitting or other aggressive/negative behaviors.
(6) “Calm down time” versus “Time out.” This is very important with children, especially those with sensory issues. There’s a difference between needed calm down time, say when a sensational child is over stimulated and needs a quieter environment to calm down, and an administered time out when they’ve done something inappropriate. Time Outs and Calm Down Times always need to be done in different areas using different tactics so there is no confusion.
(7) The behavior is punished, not the child. We must remember never to make our children feel they are “bad.” We don’t like the actions or behaviors they are demonstrating and that’s what we must tell them we’re reprimanding them for. Children with SPD are already insecure and in the frame of mind that people don’t like how they act. So saying something like, “Mama loves you, but we can’t let you _______ because it isn’t fair to others.” This tells them we love them, we’ll always love them, but the way they’re acting at that moment isn’t okay.
All children act out once in a while. It’s how they learn what is and isn’t socially appropriate. It also helps them figure out boundaries. Children with SPD aren’t any different in that area, but we must handle the disciplinary route just a bit differently so they learn what they’re supposed to.