|Monopoly has become one of Ben's favorite games, even though he's only six. Encouraging strengths is important!|
Too often think about children in terms of their deficits. We look at all of the things a child cannot do rather than celebrating the things that he can do.
One thing that I have learned about my son is that he always surpasses my expectations for what he is capable of doing.
The other thing I have learned about him is that because of his sensory modulation difficulties, he may not be able to do things in one setting, but, when properly modulated, he can do those same things with ease.
Sensory modulation has to do with how our brain takes in all the messages that it receives from the outside world and sorts it out. For many of us, this process happens smoothly (like boxes moving along multiple conveyer belts), but for those with sensory difficulties (like my son) the process gets jumbled. The noises of birds singing outside and kids walking down the hall and the crumpling of paper compete with the sound of the teacher's voice, and suddenly paying attention has become very difficult. Then, when any little "snag" occurs in the day, such as if he were to tear his paper or break his pencil, his equilibrium gets thrown more and more off balance.
According to Ben’s OT, Ms. L, he has been dealt a whammy in the modulation department.
Ms. L describes our human excitement/energy levels on a scale from 1-10, with a 1 being asleep and a 10 being the highest level possible. Ben is almost always at an 8 or a 9. When he is at these high levels, he is either overly excited or overly distraught (and his extreme happiness can quickly switch to frustration and tears in seconds flat). One strength that Ms. L has identified is that Ben can quickly identify his energy level and the levels of others around him. She said that she can ask him to tell his level, and he is almost always right. The challenge, however, is to help him bring his levels down to a 5 or a 6, where he can be in a calm/alert state for learning. This is accomplished through a mixture of heavy work tasks and vestibular input. Heavy work tasks could be things like bear crawls, wall push-ups, taking a backpack with books to a neighboring class, or wearing a weighted vest during a lesson. Vestibular input could look like swinging, jumping on a trampoline, or hanging upside down from the monkey bars. The catch is that, in order to stay in his optimal learning state, Ben needs these sensory opportunities, or what is known as a sensory diet, every two hours or so. Otherwise he becomes more and more overstimulated until learning becomes a huge challenge. Ben’s OT compares this to how you or I might feel if we had poison ivy with no medicine and tried to do math. Or if we had a snake on our lap and needed to take a spelling test. It’s just nearly impossible.
Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what challenging behavior looks like. Ben’s greatest challenge is finishing assignments on his own, especially when it’s a writing task. I have learned that in order to change a behavior, it is important to first watch for what the person is doing well, and then study what conditions are in place for that behavior to be successful. At home I have learned that Ben has a very difficult time writing his sight words, especially if I wait too late in the evening to do the homework. However, if we do the sight words as soon as we get home for school, and we do it in combination with his Therapeutic Listening cds, he is able to complete the sight words with very little extra support. He is even willing to go back and revise his letters if necessary, something he usually resists doing.
Along with using strengths to build on weak areas, I also believe it is important to allow times in the day for children to explore their interests. This is why I allow Ben to choose at least one story to read at bedtime, even if he wants to read the Lego Star Wars book for the seventh night in a row. Ben is also a strong mathematical thinker, so my husband and I build in opportunities for him to use his math skills in a fun way, such as learning to count money and use mental math skills in “grown up” Monopoly. He has so much fun with this game that he would play for hours if we would let him.
We have tried a few extra-curricular sports with Ben, but he hasn’t really shown a lasting interest in any of them. So this spring we decided to enroll him in drama classes instead. Ben loves to use his imagination and has a great memory, so we thought he might really enjoy a chance to shine on the stage. So far he has been extremely excited to go to his theater classes and he obviously remembers his lines (see my post from yesterday to read more about that).
It is easy to get caught up in thinking about all of the things that our children can’t do, and while these certainly need to be addressed, I challenge you to look for the child's strengths. The strengths may even be hidden inside what appears to be a weak area, but, I guarantee, they are there.
The trick is to keep looking and, once you've found them, keep building.