Monday, June 28, 2010

Groundhog Day

The movie Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as a hapless weatherman stuck repeating the exact same day over and over, never learning anything from his mistakes and becoming more and more frustrated and miserable.  For some sensory defensive children, a typical school day is one in which he is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, because he hasn't figured out what is expected of him and the adults don't understand why they need to keep telling him.

One of the observations I frequently hear from the teachers of children who are sensory defensive and have attentional difficulties is that they continually enter the classroom and behave as if it's their very first day of school.  They walk in the door every day and have very little idea of what is expected of them.  They are a bit lost and helpless until someone steps in and tells them what to do.  They haven't learned the unspoken rules of the classroom.

At some point early on in the school  year, the other children in the classroom will have internalized the teacher's expectations about what needs to happen when they first walk in {take off coat, place on hook, put backpack in cubby after taking out relevant classroom articles like homework or permission slips and handing them in, sit at desk, begin to work on assignment posted on board or continue with work from the previous day, etc.}.

The children I treat often remain clueless about what they should be doing and take up more than their fair share of the teacher's attention, constantly asking for directions or explanations.  Because they just don't know what they're supposed to be doing much of the time, they have to rely on the grownups to help guide them.   Many times their requests seem trivial and the teacher feels that they are making up excuses to talk to her or be next to her.

And perhaps it's true: when we are stressed, it is very calming and reassuring to have someone nearby who is not.   Think back to a time when you were undergoing some trauma  {perhaps when your child was being born?} and how wonderfully reassuring it was to have a calm, focused presence nearby.  Somehow this gave you what you needed to go on.

Other children can be equally lost but not show it.  They sit quietly, not bothering anyone, but not learning anything, either.  I see them surreptitiously looking at their other classmates for clues.

Children with sensory and attentional issues who constantly require assistance to accomplish what is expected of them don't have sufficient internal structure in place to be able to work independently without adult direction.   From a sensory standpoint, one explanation for this is that their defensiveness, which dominates their responses, prevents them from being able to internally organize, align themselves with their environments, and to think that far outside of their own internal processes.  They are in survival mode, and can't really do much abstract thinking about what they should be doing and how to go about doing it.  They may also have difficulty generalizing, so that it doesn't occur to them that the rules and expectations from one context would apply to another.

Defensive children have nervous systems that don't adapt to novelty.  For example,  a tactile defensive child's skin will be telling him over and over over that the elastic waistband of his underwear {which fits perfectly} is too tight and is hurting him, whereas another person's skin would register the feel of the garment at the moment it's put on, then filter it out so that it doesn't register anymore.  A nervous system that does not adapt well to novelty is going to continue to perceive school as an unaccustomed, unknown event and respond accordingly.

  Being unable to adapt to novelty will also compromise the child's ability to cope in a noisy classroom.  For example, when you first walk in to a crowded restaurant  at 8pm on Saturday night, with everyone chattering and loud music blasting on the sound system, you may think to yourself, wow, this is really noisy, then  it quickly stops registering in such an intrusive way and you are able to focus on your dinner companions, read the menu, and enjoy your food and conversation.  Your ears still hear it but unless someone drops a tray of dishes,  it doesn't continually travel to the forefront of your conscious awareness and distract you.

 A child who is overly sensitive to noise, on the other hand, won't be able to filter it out.  It won't change into background noise.  The loud, high pitched sound will continually remain at the forefront of his awareness,  and he will be disorganized and miserable as a result. These are the children you see who are running around the room, unable to focus, or trying to hide in the corner.

A child who has visual spatial issues is also going to be at risk for feeling lost.  He can't always depend on his eyes or his sense of direction to tell him where he needs to go.  If his visual memory is poor, he's going to get lost on his way to class simply because he can't remember how to get there.  Maybe he can never quite remember how to open up the lock on his locker.   Perhaps contending with the crowded, noisy hallways is too much for him, and he is so wrapped up in his defensive responses that he forgets where he's going and what he's supposed to be doing.

What are some other reasons why the child can't adapt to and succeed in his school environment?

Perhaps his ability to take in and process language is impaired.  This is common with children who are auditory defensive  -- they tune out voices, especially women's voices,  since the high pitch bothers them.   Or perhaps their learning styles don't mesh well with the school culture.  Some children are better visual learners, but their teacher prefers to lecture and don't back up the information with overhead projections.

A child who needs a disproportionate share of grownup direction in order to survive in the classroom is a child in trouble who needs some help.  In my next post I'll discuss some strategies for helping the lost child keep on track.

1 comment:

Penny Williams said...

Thank you so much for this post. This describes my (ADHD) son exactly. Every day he'd walk into his 2nd grade classroom last year and not know what to do. Even though the expectation in the morning was the same every single day of the school year. We were all baffled by it thinking it was a result of his lack of focus or lack of interest in seat work (because he struggles greatly with handwriting). He has been seeing a pediatric OT for over a year now and it has been so educational and helpful to him. But I never thought about sensory overload really shutting down the ability to plan and follow through. I will be sharing this article with his 3rd grade teacher this year, it is such an eye-opener as to the specific classroon struggles he has.

{a mom's view of ADHD}

p.s. -- I added you to the blog roll on my site, this is something all my readers should continue to read! Thanks for sharing your expertise!