Sep 142011

I was talking to another mom about sensory processing disorder and she mentioned discipline. It got me thinking. How does one discipline a child who is almost constantly doing something he needs to be disciplined for, but most of the time he hasn’t done it purposely?

I do need to state the obvious here: no two children with sensory issues are the same. No single trick will work for all of them. But here’s what works for mine:

1) Practicing and repeating correct behaviors after inappropriate behavior is displayed.

My son is always doing some kind of socially inappropriate behavior (at home). Usually he’s annoying someone or picking fights. He’s very compulsive and if you look at his face while he’s doing it, he barely realizes what he’s doing. So I’ll call him out on it, and he suddenly looks sheepish as if he’s thinking: “Oops, I bothered someone again.” Then usually I’ll ask him what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. By now (with lots of practice!) he can tell me what he’s doing, but he can’t tell me why. He just says: “I don’t know.”

I don’t think he does know. He has no reason to start up with anyone, he has a sweet, good-hearted personality, and his compulsiveness just takes him over.

So I dialogue with him every time. First, I describe the conflict I see going on between my two sons. For example: “I see two boys tugging at the same toy, it looks like both boys want to play with the same toy.” At this point both boys stop tugging because my description of what they’re doing interests them and they want to hear more.

Next, I ask my SPD son: “What are you doing?”
His answer almost every time: “I wanna play!”
Me: “What do we do when we want to play with something somebody else has?”
Him: “Ask for a turn to play.”
Me: “You’re right! Did you ask him?”
Him: “No.”
Me: “Why don’t you try asking him. He’s a nice boy and is very good at sharing.”
Him to his brother: “Can I play?”
(Brother sometimes says yes, sometimes no, depending if he feels like sharing. If not, he agrees to tell my SPD son when he’s finished playing so he can have a turn.)
Me: So what do you do if you see a toy you want and somebody’s already playing with it?
SPD son: You say: “Can I have a turn?”

Besides sibling conflicts, my son has trouble speaking in a respectful tone and using nice words. I’ve always given him a bit of leeway with this because he is speech-delayed, and I know that even if he sounds cranky and whiny, he doesn’t mean it to sound that way. And so when he says something I don’t like, I don’t even blink, I just ask him to say it again nicely. He knows he is supposed to use “Please” and “Thank you,” but forgets unless reminded.

Typically, he comes in from outside, thirsty and tired, and whines: “Give me a drink already!” So we have plenty of chances to practice the proper way to say something or to make a request.

This method of practicing acceptable behaviors is one of my favorite, and can be used with any child, SPD or not. It’s the easiest thing to simply ask the child to do or say whatever he did again the right way. It doesn’t take a lot out of the adult, and at the same time, sends a clear message that whatever was, wasn’t right. Lastly, it’s real-life practice. It is what needs to be. With enough practice, the child will hopefully turn to appropriate behavior and speech as a first option, before impatient and rude way of behaving.

2) Proprioceptive and vestibular input

I realize the above (#1) sounds easy. It is, in theory. It’s when it happens five times every five minutes, that it gets exhausting. By now I can see that when my son can’t direct himself to a toy or game that no one’s using, or is incapable of acting appropriately, or can barely get two words out without having a meltdown, that he needs some big time sensory input. For him, it’s proprioceptive or vestibular, more the former than the latter, to help him find himself, become centered, and try and get his command control of his brain going.

This is where our sensory toys come in handy. He used to like a warm bath and when I’d send him in, he’d come out a new person. Not anymore, he has a meltdown if I even suggest it. And so I have our trampoline all set out and ready for him to use whenever he feels he needs it- and he does! I keep noticing him on it in the morning before breakfast and then when he comes home from school, his self-made routine. And of course at other times of the day as well. We have a few other sensory toys so he can rotate and still get the stimulation he needs.

Often when he’s worked up, a deep-pressure massage or joint compressions will also do the trick. After about 15 minutes, he’s good to go. But sometimes even that won’t relax him and I have to use my last choice, which is to tell him it’s time to relax in bed with a story cd on, and he can come back when it’s over.

3) Learning cause and effect through behavior- rewards and consequences

Many children like my son don’t understand the concept of cause and effect. That because of x, y happens. I don’t understand why this is, but I know first-hand that it is. Therefore, for many years my son didn’t understand why y was happening. He didn’t understand y’s correlation with x.

For example, when I was toilet-training my other child and rewarding him for not wetting himself, my SPD son didn’t understand why he also didn’t get a reward. He would complain that it isn’t fair, and I thought it was obvious- brother uses the bathroom, brother gets a small treat. But my SPD son didn’t get it, and he actually felt punished for not being rewarded. And so I ended up giving him as well.

That didn’t fix matters, of course, but I didn’t want him to feel like he’s being punished when he hadn’t done anything wrong. At this time my son’s self-worth was below negative and so I couldn’t leave his complaint hanging.

After going through kindergarten, first and second grades, my son GOT IT. Every teacher he had used charts to reward and motivate the students for their behavior and class effort. Slowly and eventually he learned that good behavior = prizes and bad behavior = no prizes, only punishments.

I myself am not a fan of punishments because I think they’re a last option, but I’m forever grateful to those teachers who unknowingly got through to him. Cause and effect is such an integral concept, that a child who doesn’t understand how y came from x, cannot understand the world he lives in.

And so now, my son understands: if he doesn’t fall asleep on time, he’ll be tired the next day and will have to go to sleep earlier that night. If he bumps somebody, he has to try to make them feel better. If he spills at the dinner table because he’s playing around, he cleans up the mess. He doesn’t think I’m picking on him or punishing him, he realizes that because he did x, he needs to do y to fix it. He understands.

Once in a while, when I need to train him in to a new behavior, I’ll use a reward system to motivate him. In the past I couldn’t because he didn’t get what the reward was for. I don’t use this kind of system often because I think the prizes need to get bigger and better to truly motivate, and I don’t have time, patience, or money for that.

To sum up this long post, I don’t know if children with sensory processing disorder can be disciplined like other children. Is the above considered discipline? It doesn’t seem like it to me. It’s just the way we need to live. It works for my sanity.

 Posted by at 8:18 pm

  15 Responses to “Discipline for Sensory Processing Disorder?”

  1. You definitely are disciplining him–discipline comes from a Latin root meaning “to teach.” Our kids do not automatically pick up on things that other parents can take for granted (such as cause and effect) so yes, we have to have conversations that might sound odd to them. People just have no idea how much teaching we have to do, do they?

    One thing I’ve found is that as a child gets older, his self-regulation gets better, but you can’t count on it all the time. Often, the discipline/teaching starts with making him aware that he needs to deal with his body’s needs–so, “Do you need some ‘alone’ time?” At 3, my would put himself in timeout when he started losing it, which was great, and I validated that it was the right decision–you may need time out to regroup before rejoining “civilization.” The challenge is that as our kids get older and are at school, the adults in charge may not be so flexible with “alone time” so at that point, the kids also need to know subtle ways to self-calm, such as deep breathing techniques, chair push ups, etc.
    Anyway, your dialogue here really rings a bell for me! It really works.

    • It’s true that I am teaching him. You’re right that it is discipline, in essence. The thing is that people around me define discipline the old-fashion way, as punishments for bad behavior. Those of us with SPD children have figured out long ago how ineffective and damaging that kind of parenting can be. I’ll bet that there are people reading the parts of my post which describes my son’s behavior and wondering why I have allowed his aggressiveness and rude behaviors to go on for this long (about 5 years now). They don’t understand that this is the only discipline that works, and it has the best results in the end.
      Thanks for your comment, Nancy! By the way, your sensorysmartparent website is the most comprehensive one I’ve seen. Your list of what an SPD child might look like in the classroom is so good that we are showing it to my son’s teachers.

      • I’m glad you found that page on my site helpful! I soooo agree on punishment. If a child needs to be taught a skill, and he’s punished for not having it, again and again, over time, he starts to become demoralized and feel he’s a loser. That’s why it’s SO important to get people to understand how this works–dealing with our kids takes a very different approach than many people are used to!!!

        • Nancy, do you remember the controversy a while back stirred by John Rosemond, the parenting “expert” who claims SPD isn’t real, and SPD children just need a bit of discipline? It makes me grit my teeth every time I come across someone recommending him to other parents. I think he “deserves” his own post on my site one day. πŸ™‚

  2. The Behaviorist we see for our daughter believes that what you are doing is discipline in fact it’s very similar to how we discipline our Daughter with SPD. We utilize choices a lot. for instance Miss Bit is attempting to jump on her Father’s back
    Dad: Miss Bit please stop the behavior continues
    Dad: (getting down on her level and looking her in the eyes) Miss Bit you can choose to stop right now or you can choose to go to your room if Behavior continues
    Dad: (gently guiding her to her room) You choose to continue jumping on my back when I asked you to stop your choosing to be in your room until you can choose to stop
    or if behavior stop You choose to stop when I asked you thanks you so much for listening I’m so proud of what a big girl you are. followed by a hug and she gets to brag to mommy (because we’re still in the beginning phases of this process and she needs all the positive input she can get right now) and we do the similar steps with our other none SPD children as well X is 9 months old and has learned that pulling hair gets a funny reaction so he pulls my hair I remove the hair from him and I say No it’s not nice to pull hair he dose it again so no matter where we are I will put him down and tell him you pulled my hair it’s not nice so you don’t get to be in mommy’s arms. It’s our job to teach them to be happy healthy functioning members of society and anyway that works for your family is great!

    • Isn’t that interesting. You see, that would never work for my son. But I’m so glad it works for you and your family. Before I learned what worked for my son, I would send him to his room, and it got to the point that he’d be in his room almost the whole day! It made me really sad and it was horrible for his already-depleted self-confidence. Now, years later, if I even suggest to him that he go to his room for some calm-down time, it causes instant meltdown. He recently developed an anxiety about not being left alone, I don’t know what caused it though.

      But I do agree with you about using this type of discipline for our non-SPD children too. It just makes the most sense. I love that we have a positive atmosphere at home and I have a way to teach my children right from wrong without negativity.

      Thank you for your comment, Schyla.

  3. You’re talking now that he understands the cause and effect.
    What did you do or should be done before he understands that concept?
    My son with spd is almost 3: tantrums fights… you name it. He is a typical (and way high on the spd scale) spd child. When he starts going crazy , I usually bring him to his bed (from where he can see me). He’s gonna scream but I started the rule that I dont listen to screaming and kvetching. so eventually he calms down and then asks to go down which I let.
    Am I totally destroying him? I’m trying to find survival technics….

    • Miriam, I know what you mean. My heart started pounding reading your very familiar scenario. My son wasn’t like this at all until he turned 3, he was more of an avoider. But he sure does those things now, and I realized that it means he needs proprioceptive input PRONTO.
      So when he was 3 and tantrumming (he had a meltdown every day after coming home from school, I remember how puzzled I was back then), I would pick him up and hold him tight on my lap. I guess the deep pressure is what he needed (proprioceptive input). After a few minutes he was able to calm down. Over time I realized that long warm baths also calm him down- deep pressure at work again. I read that being in water gives 30x more deep pressure than being out of water. We got to a point where he wasn’t fully calm after the bath, and I would have him lie in bed wrapped in a blanket (deep pressure again) and listen to a cd of his favorite music or a story.
      I recently bought a trampoline, one of the small ones listed on my proprioceptive toys page (under the must-have sensory toys tab), and he can’t get enough of it. All of my kids love it, but he is on it the most. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s bouncing away. After breakfast, he’s back on it, and again after school, and after dinner. I’m amazed by how much proprioceptive input he needs, although I know it, and I know it’s the cause of all his tantrums, picking fights, compulisivity, etc., when I see him always on it, it just amazes me.
      Despite all this time on the trampoline, he still feels lost. He can’t feel himself, where his body is, and that’s why he’s always crashing around, bumping into things and everybody. When I see he’s having a particularly tough time, I rub his back hard, his shoulders, arms and legs, and he really needs it. It helps him immensely. I will also do joint compressions sometimes when I see he just can’t calm himself down or control his actions.
      Somehow we survive the chaos. Don’t ask me how. My other kids are really good about putting up with the craziness he causes. I also try and give him some chores around the house that I know he’ll need to use his (nonexistant πŸ™ ) muscles for, like taking out the garbage, moving furniture, vacuuming, organizing filled boxes/containers.
      Do a search for proprioceptive or click the proprioceptive tag and you can see the information I just gave in a more organized manner, if you need to.
      When my son screams and cries, I know he is very frustrated and can’t say what he needs to say fast enough because he feels his world is crashing in. It’s the rigidity about the way he thinks things should be and the sensory overload combined. If my son is whining (I have zero patience for whining, it grates on my nerves till they’re shredded), I grit my teeth, take a few deep breaths, and ask him to say whatever it is in a regular voice. If he’s past the whining stage and almost at meltdown point, I’ll ask him to do his screaming in another room so no one gets a headache. Once he’s into the meltdown, there’s no use talking to him, I need to either try and get him in the bath or wrap him tight in a blanket or hold him tightly on my lap.
      But my son is a few years older than yours, and I do expect him sometimes to have a handle on his behavior. If my son at age 2-3 was very verbal and had no issues with expressive speech (mine did at that age, and still does), then perhaps I would expect him to be able to tell me what was bothering him in a normal tone of voice. I don’t know, use your common sense, you know your child.
      At age 2-3 what I would be doing with my SPD son is practicing not being rigid, compromising, being okay with plans suddenly changing, etc. And a lot of practice listening when I tell him he must do something, without arguing for 15 minutes first. And I would try and get some kind of practice workbook for kids that gives examples of cause and effect, and read it over and over and over until it sinks in.
      Good luck! Let me know if there’s anything I missed.

  4. I have a just turned 4yr. old boy. He has SPD and he is seeing an O.T. He has made a lot of progress with the O.T. but he resists any form of developmental play or exersize involving anything he finds difficult. No amount of reward, encouragement, enticement can make hiim try. He just quites the second there is the slightest difficulty and won’t budge. He is more co-operative with my husband but I also need to be able to teach him. Today I disciplined him everytime he refused to try things. I did this at the park because he goes to the park and just sits and won’t budge the whole time. He also avoids climbing. Sometimes he seems to be doing it specifically to upset me. My husband actually pointed this out to me. But I don’t know why. Other times he seems to be avoiding it because his poor balance makes climbing difficult. He needs to practice to improve. Does anyone have any ideas on how I can get my son to keep trying and stop giving up on everything?

    • Hi Be at Peace! Welcome to Sensory and More!

      I’m guessing your son doesn’t get physical therapy. OT and PT overlap a lot but I would consider PT seriously if my son were so against any form of exercise. Lots of times kids respond better to adults who aren’t their parents.

      I don’t know what you mean by “disciplining” for not climbing on the playground structure, but I would make sure that it is all positive and encouraging. My son doesn’t love sports or exercise and I am scared for him because his arms and legs are so skinny- he has no muscle. But it isn’t his fault that his body gives in to gravity and makes him slouch or that he’s too uncoordinated to do a push-up even though I’ve showed him dozens of times. Gentle encouragement is the only way to go here. Especially since sensory issues can make kids so stubborn! πŸ™‚

      I’m also thinking about your son’s social aspect- does he have friends? I always see little kids chasing each other all over the playground. Friends can help your son exercise if he gets involved in their games and fun.

      Would you mind if I would re-post your comment on to the main page of the site and see what other parents can contribute? Perhaps I can get my OT friends to respond too, if they aren’t too busy.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Hi,
    Thankyou so much for your quick reply. First of all, I am new to posting on the internet and I want to keep my identity confidential. I had meant to have only the Name: Be at Peace appear on my post but it looks like my name appears on the email. Can you advise me how to make my identity confidential?

    About disciplining my son on the playground, I mean that he gets rewards for climbing and running around and no reward for just sitting and doing nothing. Of course he cannot help his balance difficulties but he does need to exersize some in order to develop. But he is impossible to motivate to develop in any way.

    He is also often very shy and hard to get him to play with other kids.

    I would like to have this posted on your website but only if my name does not appear. Thankyou

  6. Be at Peace, I’m sorry. That was my blunder. I corrected it and won’t make that mistake again. Nobody can see your email address except me.

    I’ll re-post your comment on the main part of the site and see what others can offer.

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