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?”
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.