I went to an elementary school early to experience the morning dropoff and help anyone who may need a little support with the transition into school.
As I arrived at the school, I was “announced” by a group of some of my tiny friends: “MR. GREG IS HEEEEEERE!” I’ve been an OT for almost a quarter of a century. That will NEVER get old!
It was a beautiful day. Parents were lingering in front of the school after saying goodbye for the day, younger siblings were running around on the grass, students were meeting up with their classmates and you can see the slow roll of the car dropoff line in the distance. There was a lot going on outside!
I was in a small group talking Pokémon, and a 4th grader came up to me and asked me a question: “Mr. Greg, how do you stay out here when it’s so overwhelming?”
What a question!
I was truly honored that he came up to ask me that (he’s not a child on my caseload), and really impressed! So, we talked about it.
I have my sensory issues, and he had his. I also had something he was looking for…a possible solution!
There was A LOT going on outside. It was warm, so with the change of season came a change in temperature and clothing that can definitely take some adjusting to. There were a lot of unpredictable moving parts, including bodies, and the sensory environment was just a lot to process that early in the morning. My coffee hadn’t even kicked in yet!
I pulled him into the Pokémon conversation. “Come here, Pikachu” I said with a smile. “I’ll explain to you how I handle it out here.”
I told him that while I’d prefer to just sit under a tree and squeeze the new Snorlax Squishmellow that just came out, I instead make the environment work for me as best I can. I put my bookbag down so I don’t feel so weighted down. Some people like to keep it on because it feels like a hug. I don’t like a sweaty back, so on the ground it goes. I also like to find one or two friends I trust to talk to. This way, I can focus on the conversation and not all the craziness around me. I may even turn my back to the crazy so I don’t see (I began to point) those little monkies running around, those trees blowing sneezy stuff and those cars smashing into each other at the dropoff line. He quickly snapped his head to look. “Just kidding about that one”, I said.
Do you want to hang out with us?
“Sure”, he said with a smile.
After a few minutes of talking Mega Pinsir raids and the upcoming GoFest, we walked inside together. We both exhaled. “Recess will be better” I said. “We’ll be all warmed up and there’ll be less going on out there.” He agreed.
This little boy articulated his challenges perfectly, making easy for someone who “thinks sensory” (me) to help him navigate his environment.
But what about the kids who can’t articulate their stress, or their sensory challenges, like this little boy? They still may have similar challenges, and you know how they’ll communicate them to us? Through their behavior! Shutting down, running off, pushing someone who got a little too close…when a child is under stress, they will use whatever they have to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible.
You know what would really stink? If that child got in trouble for a behavior that was a response to stress. They were already not feeling their best. The added “consequence” just makes them feel confused…even sad.
So how do we know if a “bad” behavior is a response to stress? Just assume that it is. If we do, it puts us in a helping mindset. If we don’t, it’s a revenge mindset. It’s telling a dysregulated child that because they did something WE didn’t like, we have to do something to them that THEY don’t like in return. That’s not healthy, it’s not fair, and it’s a threat to the very relationship you need for true co-regulation and collaborative problem-solving.
Sensory processing is an all day everyday occurrence. For our kids who are hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sensory input, the struggle is very real and often invisible, until their behavior tells us there’s a problem to solve.
I’m going back for another dropoff soon. This one was sensational!