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Using Sensory Strategies to Improve Behavior

Sensory strategies have a significant impact on the behavior of children and adolescents with developmental, mental health, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sensory processing challenges. Deep pressure touch provided by pediatric occupational therapists through massage, brushing, weighted blankets, mat sandwiches and other sensory strategies are described as extremely positive experiences for children and adolescents with developmental, mental health, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sensory processing challenges. Finding preferred activities is helpful because motivation can be a significant problem when treating these youngsters.

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A significant relationship was found between sensory and behavioral problems in children with developmental disorders. Research indicated that deep pressure sensory input functioned as positive reinforcement while matched sensory activities reduced repetitive non-purposeful behaviors in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Offering opportunities to use sensory strategies for self-regulation significantly reduced behavioral problems as well as the need for restraint and seclusion in adolescent and adult residential treatment centers for psychiatric and trauma challenges.

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The usefulness of offering clients deep pressure sensory strategies as an alternative to aggression and restraint makes sense, as it can replace the use of restraint as reinforcement for aggression with sensory activities to reinforce avoiding physical aggression. School occupational and physical therapists have begun using sensory activities as reinforcement for avoiding aggression to reduce student restraint and seclusion. SchoolOTRedAgg  The functioning of sensory strategies as positive reinforcement makes it important for therapists to avoid using sensory strategies immediately following aggressive or inappropriate behavior. Despite bitter conflicts between behaviorists, pediatricians and therapists clients would greatly benefit from their collaboration.

References

Canfield, J. M. (2008). Sensory dysfunction and problem behavior in children with autism spectrum and  other developmental disorders.

McGinnis, A. A., Blakely, E. Q., Harvey, A. C., & Rickards, J. B. (2013). The behavioral effects of a procedure used by pediatric occupational therapists. Behavioral Interventions, 28(1), 48-57.

O’Hagen, M., Divis, M., & Long, J. (2008). Best practice in the reduction and and elimination of seclusion and restraint; Seclusion: time for change. Aukland: Te Pou Te Whakaaro Nui: The National Center of Mental Health Research, Information and Workforce Development.

Rapp, J. T. (2006). Toward an empirical method for identifying matched stimulation for automatically reinforced behavior: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 39(1), 137-140.

Sutton, D., Wilson, M., Van Kessel, K., & Vanderpyl, J. (2013). Optimizing arousal to manage aggression: A pilot study of sensory modulation. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 22, 500-511.

Warner, E., Spinazzola, J., Westcott, A., Gunn, C. & Hodon, H. (2014). The body can change the score. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 7(4), 237-246.

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The Importance of Parents

As an occupational therapist working with children and adolescents who have special needs, I am repeatedly impressed by the amazing love and perseverance of their parents.  Supporting and encouraging parents is the most important job of doctors and therapists who are trying to help children and adolescents.  I repeatedly recall my doctoral dissertation on parental perceptions of feeding their young children who had special challenges.

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My study found that half of the parents who had young children with developmental and feeding problems had problematic levels of parental stress.  I further discovered that feeding satisfaction was inversely related to parental stress, with parents who were most satisfied with their feeding experience reporting the least parental stress.  When rating the influence of occupational and speech therapy intervention on their feeding experience 42% reported a positive effect, 23% both a positive and negative effect, and 11% a negative or no effect.

In my current work with adolescents who have psychiatric illness I continue to see the great healing effects of supportive parents.  It is extremely important for therapists and physicians to support these parents through their trials, and help them understand the importance of taking care of themselves.  Parents reported that the most effective component of therapy in reducing parental stress was the experience that the therapist cared about them and their child.  If I do nothing else as a therapist, I hope to always convey to youngsters and their parents how truly valuable and important they are.

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FAB Strategies® to Improve Self-Control

FAB Strategies® are Functionally Alert Body Strategies that can be used by parents, teachers, as well as Occupational, Speech, Physical, and Mental Health therapists to improve youngster’s functional behavior.  FAB Strategies® were developed to guide transdisciplinary intervention for individuals with developmental, mental health, post traumatic stress disorder, and sensory processing challenges. FAB Strategies® combines developmental, sensory processing, behavioral, touch pressure, mindfulness, movement and neuropsychology interventions to help individuals with complex behavioral challenges.

The four sections of FAB Strategies® are environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies. While reducing aggression in special needs students FAB Strategies® simultaneously facilitates attention, learning, and parental involvement in typical students. FAB Strategies® can be used for regular class teaching as well as small group and individual intervention sessions. Many typical students lack adequate seated attention, self-control, and sensory-motor skills to master their academic learning requirements. FAB Strategies® are fun active learning tasks that engage students’ musical, visual-spatial, auditory, interpersonal, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to improve learning.

FAB Strategies® are guided by the FAB Strategies® to Improve Self-Control form FAB STRATEGIES FORM and FAB Strategies® for Pre-K and Kindergarten form FAB StrategiesPre&KForm. The FAB Strategies® forms list strategies organized into four sections addressing: environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies. The teachers and therapists develop a functional goal and choose at least one strategy from each section for goal attainment. Strategies chosen are checked and underlined for use across disciplines.

The FAB Strategies® forms can be used as a checklist of helpful activities to consider when developing transdisciplinary interventions for students with behavioral challenges. The FAB Strategies® forms were also designed as an efficient way to develop home programs and provide a list of effective strategies when students transfer to other teachers and therapists. The FAB Strategies form enables teachers and therapists to individualize interventions that improve behavior in response to each student’s developmental level and individual needs.

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Brain Based Emotion Regulation Strategies

Brain based therapy applies current neuropsychology to developing emotion regulation strategies. Emotion regulation involves learning to non-aggressively express strong feelings. People initially process anger and other negative emotions unconsciously in the right cerebral hemisphere, but require cross-hemispheric communication involving the left cerebral hemisphere for conscious awareness, verbal expression and emotion regulation (Riggs et al., 2006; Shobe, 2014). The Switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies were developed to help link movement activities with the verbal expression of feelings.

Research suggests that communicating negative feelings between the brain hemispheres for emotion regulation can be particularly difficult for students with complex behavioral disorders, including diagnoses of Autism Spectrum (Anderson et al., 2010) and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Pechtel & Pizzagalli, 2011), who have significantly reduced neurological communication between the cerebral hemispheres. Many of these students, as well as those with ADHD or neurological immaturity, also resist remaining seated and discussing their feelings and behaviors. Because expressing feelings is difficult for students with complex behavioral challenges, they tend to avoid practicing it.

The Switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies were developed to use movement games to promote the verbal expression of feelings in students with complex behavioral challenges. The Switch hands toss strategies combine passing a beanbag with the verbal expression of preferences, feelings, values, and choices. The ball bouncing and drumming strategy similarly combine two hand sequential activities with the verbal expression of feelings. Building on Positive Behavioral Support activities that teach emotions and express feelings, the switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies are fun interactive tasks that can be done individually with students and in groups. Both the movement and expression of feeling are developmentally individualized to improve emotion regulation and verbal skills.

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Current brain research suggests that most students initially process anger and other negative emotions unconsciously in the right cerebral hemisphere, but require cross-hemispheric communication involving the left cerebral hemisphere for conscious awareness, verbal expression and emotion regulation (Riggs et al., 2006; Shobe, 2014). This can be particularly challenging for students with complex behavioral challenges. Research indicates significantly greater difficulties with neurological communication between the left and right cerebral hemispheres in students with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The picture below shows the corpus callosum (marked as number 1 in black) a major network of nerves connecting the cerebral hemispheres.

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The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies combine sequential two handed movement activities with the expression of feelings. These strategies combine movement with the verbal expression of feelings to promote functional communication between both cerebral hemispheres. The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies are easily graded by matching the specific movement and verbal expression to the student or group’s level.

The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies address the verbal expression of: favorites (e.g., color, team, quality in a friend), best coping strategy, guessing the feeling or degree of feeling expressed by the therapist or peers, right now I feel _____, and I messages (e.g., when you yell at me, I feel sad, so please speak to me politely). These strategies enable students to express their feelings with out needing to be seated or the center of attention. The switch hands toss, ball bouncing, and drumming strategies offer fun Positive Behavioral Support activities to improve emotional awareness and the verbal expression of feelings.

References:

Anderson, J. S., Druzgal, T. J., Froehlich, A., DuBray, M. B., Lange, N., Alexander, A. L., & Lainhart, J. E. (2010). Decreased interhemispheric functional connectivity in autism. Cerebral cortex, 190.

Bengtsson, S.L., Nagy, Z., Skare, S., Forsman, L., Forssberg, H., Ullen, F. (2005). Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 1148-1150.

Miller, A. L., Rathus, J. H. & Linehan, M. M. (2007). Dialectical behavior therapy with suicidal adolescents. NY, NY: The Guilford Press.

Pechtel, P., & Pizzagalli, D. A. (2011). Effects of early life stress on cognitive and affective function: an integrated review of human literature. Psychopharmacology, 214(1), 55-70.

Riggs, N. R., Greenberg, M. T., Kusche, C. A., Pentz, M. A. (2006). The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum.   Prevention Science, 7(1), 91-102.

Shobe, E. R. (2014). Independent and collaborative contributions of the cerebral hemispheres to emotional processing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8.

Sun, F. T., Miller, L. M., Rao, A. A., Esposito, M. D. (2007). Functional connectivity of cortical networks involved in bimanual motor sequence learning. Cerebral Cortex, 17(5), 1227-1234.

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My Perspective on Sensory Integration

I frequently use Sensory Integration/Sensory Processing Intervention in my work as an occupational therapist with clients who have severe behavioral, sensory processing and developmental challenges. I get criticism both by professionals who question the validity of sensory processing intervention and those who dislike my integrating it with other treatment approaches. It is time to transcend the polarizing debate about the sensory processing model and put it in perspective.

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Like most occupational therapists my treatment grew from my clinical practice and the influence of many gifted teachers. I was introduced to sensory integration intervention in my entry-level occupational therapy training and studied it extensively at the post-graduate level. I spent thousands of dollars on my sensory processing training and although I’m frugal (my son says “a cheap skate”) it was worth every penny.

My sensory processing teachers have had so many students that they wouldn’t even know my name, but they transformed my professional and personal life through their mentoring. Among my most effective sensory processing teachers were the late Ginny Scardinia, Mildred Ross, Winnie Dunn, and Lucy Jane Miller. Each holds a distinct view of sensory processing intervention, is an occupational therapist, master teacher, and base their practice on the teaching of A. Jean Ayres the founder of Sensory Integration.

I first met Mildred Ross as a guest lecturer in my undergraduate occupational therapy class. Using sensory (e.g., touch, movement, smells) strategies she developed individual and group interventions that improve the functioning of individuals with severe psychiatric and developmental challenges. Disagreeing with the “experts” who viewed these clients as “hopelessly regressed psychiatric patients”, Mildred motivated her clients by respecting them as people, caring about them, and beginning at their current developmental level then gradually improving their functional skills. Mildred used a similar approach with occupational therapists, teaching us what an honor it was to help others and motivating us to improve our skills. I remember that the professors and conference leaders who invited Mildred to speak often set an egg timer for one hour before she began, and kept it ringing until she stopped speaking. Although they told me the timer was essential and I usually hate listening to people talk, I always hoped the timer would break so I could listen to her all day.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHuhYaYRIb8

After five years as a school occupational therapist a unique experience introduced me to my next mentor Ginny Scardinia. I was watching my OT student treat a 6-year old girl who had developmental, behavioral, and PTSD challenges using a net swing when the girl suddenly spoke for the first time. I’d been treating that girl for half a year and gotten little response, but after that single half-hour session from my OT student the child was able to consistently speak in school. My OT intern told me that she’d learned sensory integration treatment during her previous affiliation with Ginny Scardinia at the Ayres Clinic. I soon located Ginny, took classes with her, and bugged her to teach me whenever she could from that day on.

Ginny Scardinia was unique in her ability to motivate me to do whatever it took to learn to help children like she could.  I recently learned that Ginny inspired many occupational therapists, and a research study was conducted summarizing her skills as a master mentor  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23927618 Over 25 years have past but I still remember that after she first saw me treat she said, “You’re off to a good start, but you need to learn a lot more about neurology and sensory integration and honey, I can teach you”.   I knew that she was right and although I never reached her level as a clinician I am still trying.

Ginny inspired me to take all the sensory integration courses I could and to take motor learning classes at Columbia University T C. The motor learning research taught me that clients have the ability to recover from neurologically based challenges through engaging in developmentally appropriate sensory experiences in their natural environments. My experiences with Ginny and Mildred Ross inspired me to lead a group for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders with the help of occupational therapy students and the children’s parents.

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I met Winnie Dunn and Lucy Jane Miller at an AOTA symposium where they were mentoring new researchers by letting us help with their projects. I remember asking them both why they were developing assessments when new treatments were needed, and they told me that until we learned to measure sensory integration interventions we couldn’t improve and validate our treatments. Winnie Dunn developed the Sensory Profile, a reliable and valid measure of sensory processing abilities www.sensoryprofile.com Dr. Dunn also went on to develop an intervention model that used the sensory profile to coach clients on adapting their sensory modulation styles so they could function more effectively. http://events.jeena.org/media/blog_media/2011/05/13/Sensory_Integration.pdf  While I still do direct and group interventions I always include consultation to the client, family, and teachers regarding how their sensory styles impact their interactions and functioning.

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By taking the Sensory Profile I found I had significant Low Registration and Sensory Sensitivity, at a level where only 2 out of 100 adults my age score. Being low registration influences me to often miss sensory input that others notice. Because I am also sensory sensitive I also frequently get overwhelmed by sensory input I do notice and take a long time to accommodate to touch (e.g., I’m bothered by neck ties, rings and watches).

I’ve learned to stomp my feet and look people in the eye when they are telling me something important, and to take an hour walk when I’m feeling overwhelmed so I don’t yell at anyone. I still can’t wear a tie when I speak but can tolerate wearing shoes rather than sneakers. Knowing my sensory profile helps me accommodate my behavior to the needs of my clients. I tend to talk loudly and quickly, but consciously speak softer and slower when working with clients who have sensory sensitivity and attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

As a new researcher who was a member of Lucy Jane Miller’s team I learned to be a better observer. Although she is arguably one of the most influential leaders in sensory processing intervention (helping to create the term) what inspired me most about her was her honesty. I was putting off getting my Ph.D. because I felt I wasn’t smart enough, but was inspired when Dr. Miller asked me for help changing her flat tire. I figured if someone that smart couldn’t change a tire I could try to get my Ph.D. even though I didn’t feel smart enough.

Dr. Miller has evolved from developing assessment tools to supporting sensory processing intervention research through the Sensory Processing Disorder Network www.spdnetwork.org Her organization presents workshops on sensory processing basic and clinical research. I refer parents and clinicians to her organization because it is both factual and parent friendly.

My clinical experiences have shown me that sensory processing intervention helps clients with severe sensory processing, behavioral and developmental challenges to improve their functional skills. I have discovered the value of sensory processing intervention through individual, group, client/family education, and environmental consultation treatment. My perspective on sensory processing and professional vision wouldn’t have been possible with out my teachers and mentors. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, “If my professional vision has expanded it is because I stand tall on the shoulders of giants”.

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Behavioral & Sensory Strategies for Young Students

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Integrated sensory processing and behavioral strategies improve the behavior of pre-school and kindergarten students. Combining Positive Behavioral Support and sensory processing adaptive equipment and techniques can help regular and special education students behave better, pay attention, and learn. A helpful initial resource for pre-school and kindergarten teachers is www.pbisworld.com which suggests behavioral strategies and classroom adaptations.

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The PBIS World website helps pre-school and kindergarten teachers identify the most problematic student behaviors. PBIS World then provides a menu of appropriate Tier 1 regular classroom, Tier 2 small group, and Tier 3 individual interventions to choose from for improving behavior. Free data tracking forms are also provided for monitoring the effectiveness of the selected behavioral interventions.

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Special education teachers as well as occupational, speech-language, or mental health therapists can assist teachers in identifying the best Tier 1 interventions for a specific student, and can assist the teacher by providing Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions within and outside the classroom. It is important for team members to provide consistency between Tier 1, 2, and 3 interventions so students are not confused by varied rules and procedures.  Tier 1 Preschool and Kindergarten classroom interventions combining sensory processing and positive behavioral support are suggested using the FAB Strategies Form.

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While some special education faculty, behaviorists, pediatricians, and occupational therapists object to combining behavioral and sensory strategies it makes sense to combine these clinically proven interventions before using medications.