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(Posted June 7th 2016 @ 7:25 PM by: Melody Reever)
Q: What does it look like when someone's sensory system is out of balance?
A: Often there will be some kind of negative behavior.
One theory of sensory processing states that there are two different types of challenges: sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. Seekers need a lot of stimuli and enjoy having their senses activated. Avoiders are often overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.
Seekers need lots of sensory stimuli. They enjoy jumping, movement, they can't sit still, and are always fidgeting and putting anything and everything in their mouths. Often typical adults who have these needs will do more socially acceptable things like click pens, tap their feet, or chew gum. With kids, these are the ones that really enjoy finger painting and tubs of beans and shaving cream.
Avoiders try to get away from certain stimuli like the plague. Just think of all the senses that are activated during a typical church service! Besides what the people bring to the service, bright lights, humming light bulbs, and itchy tags can be overwhelming and bothersome.
If an avoider is forced to touch or engage in activities that they have an avoidance to, they will exhibit negative behavior such as meltdowns, biting, hitting, or throwing things. They do just about anything to communicate that "my body can't handle what you are asking me to do." Similar behavior can be seen if a sensory seeker doesn't get the sensory input that they need.
Q: What can we do for kids in Sunday school?
A: Having an array of activities available can help both types of sensory challenges as well as various learning styles. Some individuals are more auditory learners (learn better by listening), some kinesthetic learners (learn by doing), others visual (learn best by seeing). This is based on the strength of each individual's sensory system.
Activities to help seekers are things like finger paints, shaving cream, and headphones for listening to music. Movement or input to their muscles can be provided with an activity with jumping or crawling. If the church has a gym or another room that could accommodate these items, trampolines or hammock swings are useful. Yoga balls for bouncing on while sitting may also be beneficial during times of listening.
For your avoiders, or those overwhelmed by stimuli, they will be happiest at the back of the class. For younger children, having small tents in the classroom or structures where these kids can "hide" and block out the visual onslaught work well. Having noise-canceling headphones available may also be a great help.
Q: How can we tell what they need or what things are bothersome to them?
A: Not everyone is affected in the same way. Some people cannot stand tags (touch) but don't mind bright lights (sight) while others enjoy loud music (hearing) but cannot stand Playdoh (smell or touch). The texture of the pew or chair (touch) might be very distracting or the smell of the shampoo or perfume emanating from someone (smell) might be very repulsive.
Sometimes it takes a bit of detective work. What happened right before they got upset? Was it very calm? Was everyone sitting quietly? Was the classroom chaotic with everyone being loud and in their personal space? Were you doing an activity they said they didn't want to do?
Some individuals will be capable of telling you verbally what they need. Others can only communicate using behavior. Either way, it is really important that we listen. Many times either a caregiver or parent knows how best to meet their needs.