Have you ever taught a kid who arrived to each lesson with an enormous, wet, wrinkly ring around the neck of his shirt because he'd chewed on it all day at school? Have you ever had a sweater that you loved but never wore because of that little scratchy place on the inside of the right sleeve? Do you always cut the tags out of clothing?
These are sensory issues. Each person on the planet falls somewhere on the continuum of sensory processing abilities and sensitivities. You may have even said something like "I hate fingernails on a blackboard!" or "It drives me crazy to have hear someone chewing ice."
"Water, no ice," my friend, Keith, orders in a restaurant. "I like my coffee HOT," my mother will say. We each have "our" coffee mug. You may think it's "your mug" because someone special gave it to you, but I'll bet that you also like it because of the feel of the handle, its size, shape and weight.
As adults, we think of these as preferences. Because we've gained some control of our lives, we can often avoid situations that make us uncomfortable. If we can't avoid them, we can sometimes control them because we're in charge. ("Johnny, stop it with the fingernails on the blackboard!")
It wasn't always that way. We weren't always the grown-ups. It was uncomfortable for some of us, for others it was agony. I lived somewhere in between. I still remember being seven years old. My mother splurged and bought me white lace anklet socks. They were wonderful. Until they slipped down under my heels into my saddle shoes. They drove me insane walking home from school that day and I never wore them again. Fifty years later I still vividly remember the sensation of walking up the front stairs of my house with the socks scrunched up under the arch of my foot.
I was at a party last night chatting with my violin teacher friend, Elise. She asked me to help her learn some basics about Occupational Therapy. She said she has students with physical challenges and wondered if I could help her learn about ways to help them. This page is for her and perhaps for you, too.
Occupational therapy sounds like something your mother might make you do if she suspects you won't make it through college. "Sign up for that Occupational Therapy and maybe they'll come up with an Occupation you can do."
It isn't. Occupational Therapy (OT) is an almost magical field that helps children learn better.
A good Occupational Therapist can be a godsend to kids with issues. But even a basic working knowledge of OT is helpful for anyone working with children. It's especially useful for working with kids with sensory processing issues. The autism community has done us a great service by putting information in our hands that helps all children, neurotypical kids and less typical ones. The longer I teach, the less I believe there even is such a thing as a neurotypical kid.
Each person needs a different mix of sensory input to feel comfortable. I find eating tiny wintergreen mints helps me stay alert when I'm teaching. My daughter will chew on the inside of her cheek (just like MY mother did - wonder if that's genetic?) unless she has gum to chew instead. My son was a shirt chewer until we found him a chewable toy that he could wear around his neck. Still a little unusual, but better than a wet shirt. Now someone's designed chewable jewelry. That's one I wish I'd thought of!
If you get the mix of sensory input wrong when you're teaching, your student will persist until they get what they need. If they need to get up off the bench and move around, telling them to "Be good and really think!" will have no effect. Almost always, simply talking at a student will be ineffective. It's usually a mix of different kinds of stimulation that work the best. There's a sensory reason that using tiny Japanese Erasers works so well. It doesn't have as much to do with the fact that they're cute as the way they feel in your hands, their weight and texture. They feel calm and interesting. Small and heavy.
In college and grad school, I spent more time learning about trill-endings than how to help a 7-year-old that won't stop kicking the front of the piano. In fact, I don't ever recall anyone ever addressing something as common as a squirmy kid. As piano teachers it's easy to concentrate on the music and forget that we're also teaching a set of physical skills. We are more like gym teachers and less like master class teachers a great deal of the time. Like it or not, we address these issues every day in our studios. Information is the key. Here are some books that can help. The "look inside" feature can give you the basic idea of many of these books without spending a penny. Buying one or two as a resource could be helpful, but even reading online and investigating for yourself will pay dividends.
Here are just a few that will help you better understand the children in your life and their needs:
too loud, too bright, too fast, too tight is a great place to start if you'd like to understand how differently people experience the same stimuli. I'm convinced that as the world becomes more technical and more tech-connected, people with sensory issues will be challenged in ways we can now only imagine.
There's a reason that it is recommended by Edward Hallowell, M.D., the author of Driven to Distraction, my favorite book about ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder.
I like the tone and feel of The Sensory-Sensitive Child. It was written by two mothers who are child psychologists and also each have a child with sensory issues.
1001 Pediatric Treatment Activities: Creative Ideas for Therapy Sessions doesn't look as zippy as some of the other books, but is extremely useful. It has 50 pages of basic information in the "Look Inside" preview. It includes a wide varieties of suggestions for activities that may help you focus and settle down a child with these issues.
The preview section in Early Intervention Games will help you understand the different kinds of challenges kids face as they go through their days.
"Sensory processing is the ability of the brain to correctly integrate information brought in by the senses. The information we take in through the senses of touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing are combined with prior information, memories and knowledge already stored in the brain to make sense of our world. In people without Sensory Processing Disorders, all the sensory input from the environment and the all the input from our bodies work together seamlessly so we know what's going on and what to do. Without conscious effort, we are filtering out sensations that are not important."
What follows is a clear description of the ways in which this integration can go wrong, and ways in which we can help it work better.
Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Disorders is written in the contemporary style of recent parenting books. This one is co-written by an occupational therapist and the parent of a child with sensory issues, so it offers both therapeutic and emotional support and information.
I found the introduction of 101 Games and Activities for Children moving and heartwarming. Don't be put off by the labels - Autism, Asperger's, Sensory Processing and even "Disorder". They are all just ways of describing the children you already know, or will soon meet in your life as a teacher, parent, or friend. We all have characteristics of these diagnoses. Every last one of us.
Educate yourself. Take advantage of the information available. Make yourself a better, less frustrated teacher.
You'll be glad you did.
For readers outside the United States, books like Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight are also available from Book Depository. The "look inside" features (accessible for free) on Amazon are much better than anything Book Depository has online. However, Book Depository has free shipping and sometimes lower prices, so it's worth checking them out even if you're in the states.