Many of you will be entering your settings hoping that one little person in particular has mellowed in their behaviour over the holidays. This little person does not respond to the behavioural approaches that work for the other children. The approaches you use are all super, well tried and tested. It is just that one child. That child is the problem.
As you’re reading this you’re not thinking that the child is the problem, you are wondering why they don’t respond. When we think about a problem head-on like this, we see the child separate to the problem. But when we are just going about our daily duties and that child thwarts us yet again, it is easy for us, subconsciously at least, to view the child as the problem. After all, you are doing the right thing with the behaviour strategy that you use, so the fact that it doesn’t work for this child must mean that this child is in the wrong. They are “just naughty” it is “just the way they are.”
If you ever find yourself thinking that bad behaviour is just the way a child is or if you hear a colleague express such a sentiment, take action. All behaviour is communication and a child ‘acting out’ is trying to tell you something. That child is not a problem, they have a problem and they are asking for your help. It is hard when you are small and do not have the language skills or the emotional literacy to explain what is going on. Lashing out through their behaviour is often the only option some children have when it comes to trying to explain to you how hard they are finding a situation.
On Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour, my delegates and I explore the underpinning routes to sensory behaviour and look at a variety of ways you can support children who express their difficulties with the sensory world through behaviour. Many settings are beginning to understand the need for sensory provision, but that understanding often goes little further than having a few extra sensory toys around the place and there is more to it than that. There are simple changes we can make to the language we use, the speed at which we expect processing to occur, and to our environment, that can make a big difference to children struggling and expressing their struggles through their behaviour.
Sensory toys are just one part of providing for children whose behaviour you think could be motivated by sensory needs or differences. Perhaps you have some already and they’ve not been that effective? Simply having a sensory toy can help a little, the child may pick it up and explore it, they may gain some sensory pleasure from it, but it is likely that other toys will be more interesting. If you know how to use things like fidgets, gak or slime, search jars, or settle jars then you can get more out of their presence in your setting. Let’s take settle jars as an example.
A settle jar is like a snow globe: particles are suspended in fluid, you can shake them up and watch the particles settle. They are easy to make, you just need: a glitter glue pen (you can usually get a pack of 6 in your local pound store); a container (clear drinks bottles are good); and some glitter or other bits to suspend in the water. Squeeze the whole glitter glue pen into the bottle and half fill with warm water. Put the lid on and shake well so that the glue mixes into the water. Remove the lid and add the items you want to the bottle, some different glitters or sequins look lovely, you can use a punch to cut pieces of coloured cellophane and add them, a couple of drops of ink can create a lovely effect too (try using pearlised ink for extra magic). Once you have all the particles you want in the bottle, fill it up with water and secure the lid tightly.
Here’s one way to use it that is a little bit more than just giving it to a child to explore. Have it to hand in your setting. When you see a child beginning to get wound up, take the bottle over to them and attract their attention. Explain to them that they are getting wound up and as you explain this, shake the jar. Little children often cannot articulate their feelings, so doing it for them is a wonderful way to help develop their emotional literacy with something like: “You feel all shaken up inside” - empathise with them rather than tell them off. “It’s not nice to feel all annoyed” - use a range of language; children have more emotions than just happy and sad so give them all the vocabulary they need. “You need to calm down.”
The instruction to calm down is a very difficult one for children to follow, it is an abstract concept and means little to them, you are asking them to do a thing which is actually a ‘not’, it is an absence of something else rather than a thing in itself: it is very confusing. Adding support to your instruction to calm can help a child understand what to do. Show them the settle jar all shaken up and place it on a table top as you say “You need to calm down.” Model clearly how to do this: take a deep breath in, look at the swirling glitter particles and breathe out slowly. Adding in the sign language for “calm down” can create an extra layer of support for this communication and works well with the settle jar, as the sign is to hold your hands with their palms facing down one above another a small distance apart and then press them slowly down in turn (similar to the action you would do if singing “Wind the bobbin up,” only with your hands going straight down rather than around and around). As you press a hand down, it mirrors the slow downward motion of the particles and the downward motion of your chest as you breathe out.
Continue to watch the bottle and model the calm breathing needed for calming down, supporting this with the sign. Our bodies naturally respond to the rhythms of the bodies around us. Screaming at a child to “CALM DOWN” is far more likely to agitate them than it is to inspire them to calm. Exude the calm you are hoping to create, and watch the glittering particles swirl, and you will find their simple beauty really does help you to calm down too.
Here’s to a peaceful new year! For more tips and information, do join me on Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour which is currently open for early bird bookings.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.