When a child is displaying sensory seeking behaviors, it is imperative to discover the antecedents leading up to the behavior’s occurrence in order to better manage and maintain the child’s actions. Whilst some sensory maintained behaviors may be caused by hypersensitivity, hypersensitivity also needs to be considered in order to fully understand the cause of such behaviors so that they can be effectively managed.
Hypersensitive children are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming.
Hyposensitive children are under-sensitive, which makes them want to seek out more sensory stimulation.
Sensory maintained behaviors are pleasurable for the child which is why these actions are continued, despite them being damaging or even injurious on some occasions.
Sensory stimulating behaviors, such as flapping, tapping, making vocal noises or leg wiggling, usually do not require the reinforcement of another person as the behavior reinforces itself, often making these actions difficult to manage. It is for this reason that you may notice the child engaging in sensory motivated behaviors whilst they are alone, even when the stimulant may not be obvious to others. By decreasing these sensory behaviors, we work towards reducing the disruptions and negative behaviors that these actions may cause, such as frustration from other students due to repetitive noises or actions.
To be able to effectively manage sensory seeking behaviors, we need to be able to identify them. The definition of ‘sensory’ relates to an action that feels good and elicits a pleasure response in the body. Examples of sensory seeking behaviors have been outlines in C. S. Kranowitz’s book, ‘The Out of Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder’ which include the following actions that may be evident within the classroom:
Other sensory seeking behaviors may include repetitive or continuous vocal noises or cause and effect actions that are visually pleasing (such as scratching, twirling objects or tipping things over).
It would be mistaken for us to assume that our students do not have specific sensory needs and related behaviors. Whilst it would be inappropriate to attempt to entirely eradicate these sensory motivated behaviors, instead, we can guide our students to understand when these behaviors are appropriate to engage in.
By clearly displaying when it is an acceptable time to flap, tap and shout, and when it is not, we are teaching our students the opportune occasions to engage in a sensory seeking behavior. For instance, we might actively encourage them to tap a drum at playtime, but discourage them to tap a table during work time.
For many students with a strong desire to engage in sensory motivated behaviors, refraining from engaging in such behaviors for an extended period of time can cause distress. In these instances, providing students with an appropriate method of receiving the specific sensory feedback may be a useful tool to eliminate stress and frustration caused by being discouraged to engage in the sensory seeking behavior.
Specific examples of redirecting the sensory seeking behaviors to more acceptable actions may include;
By considering the theory behind the sensory seeking behavior, we are able to encourage more acceptable behaviors to replicate the stimulation with a less harmful or disruptive way to receive the specific sensory input.
By considering your student’s sensory diet and including various sensory-related activities during the day, we are allowing the students to regularly receive the sensory input they desire. For some students, meeting their sensory needs at various points throughout the day may mean that they display less sensory seeking behaviors later on. By providing a variety of sensory-related activities, we are also allowing students to experiences and process different sensations, too.
Whilst some sensory seeking behaviors occur without the student applying much thought, others may require the student’s full attention which subsequently distracts the students from the tasks set within the classroom. By reinforcing on-task behavior with regular sensory breaks, we are acknowledging the student’s sensory needs by using the sensory motivated behaviors as a reward.
For some students, a visual ‘now and next’ timetable may help them to understand that in order to engage in the stimulating activity, they must complete a task first. This method may help to settle students into a task, as the uncertainty of not knowing when they can next engage in the sensory break may cause distress. These activities often help to calm students which in turn, allows for a better working environment and a more positive frame of mind for the students.
To effectively manage sensory seeking behaviors, first, we need to consider the following;
By considering all of the aforementioned points, we can support the student with their sensory needs whilst reducing challenges in the classroom to establish a successful learning environment for everyone.
By Jodie Pedwell
Jodie qualified as a Primary in the UK but quickly found her passion lay within the field of Special Education. Whilst teaching within an ASD specialist class, Jodie discovered her expertise lay in supporting individuals who displayed challenging behaviors and has since held various positions where she could fulfill this dream. In her free time, Jodie loves to explore the outdoors and practice yoga and meditation.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.