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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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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.

Drumming

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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FAB Coping Card Strategy

The FAB Coping card gives clients, teachers and therapists a visual support strategy for achieving their goals. Based on Power Cards, coping cards use the child’s preferred interest to guide goal-directed behavior. Clients use an index card to depict their preferred interest, behavioral goal, coping strategies, and reinforcement schedule. Constructing and displaying the coping card focuses the client and staff on their individual goal, coping strategies, and reinforcement schedule while using their preferred interest to help achieve the goal.

For example, a student who frequently bit his hand constructed a coping card by depicting his goal (e.g., keep safe hands by not biting myself when I get upset), preferred interest (e.g., Sponge Bob), coping strategies (e.g., chewy, weighted blanket, and basket ball) and reinforcement schedule (e.g., 10 minutes of safe hands=1 sticker). The goal is written and/or drawn, stickers or drawings depict the preferred interest, and coping strategies are visually represented (colored, cut out, and pasted on an index card using the FAB Trigger & Coping forms).

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On the reverse side of the coping card the reinforcement schedule is written: “Safe hands for 10 consecutive minutes earns one sticker, while five stickers=1 toy car)”.  The index card is laminated and fastened to the desktop or worn as a necklace. Through their process of constructing the coping card clients and staff develop an effective functional goal, preferred interest, coping strategies, and reinforcement schedule.

Making a coping card helps teach clients how to use adaptive equipment to achieve their goal. The process of constructing the coping card focuses the client and staff on the goal and plan for achieving it.  The coping card helps to quickly remind clients and staff of the individualized program for achieving their goal.  Coping cards quickly guide busy teachers and therapists in addressing functional goals of students with significant behavioral challenges. Coping cards also encourage professional collaboration in goal development and implementation.

Reference:

Spencer, V., Simpson, C., Day, M., Buster, E. (2008).  Using the power card strategy to teach social skills to a child with Autism.  Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 5(1), 1-10.

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Self-Injury is a Bad Habit

A lot of occupational therapy referrals at my psychiatric hospital are for adolescents and young adults with mental health, trauma history, developmental, and/or sensory processing challenges who repeatedly injure themselves. Individuals with trauma history and developmental challenges have greater incidences of neurological, sensory processing, and self-injury challenges. Clients with these complex difficulties benefit from integrated intervention addressing their specific triggers, coping strategies, mindfulness activities, and sensory input needs to reduce self-injurious behavior.

Long-standing self-injurious behavior has often become a bad habit. Reducing this “bad habit” can be helped by first recognizing the triggers. Research shows that the brain (Striatum at the center of the subcortical basal ganglia) forms habits by chunking behavior into a single automatic memory package. However, through planning and mindfulness the brain (Neocortex) can interrupt or stop the habit. The habitual aspects of self-injurious behavior can be address by recognizing the triggers, then replacing the bad habit of self-injury with the good habit of coping strategies that include mindfulness and sensory activities.

Recognizing the environmental triggers (e.g., “being told no”) and body triggers (e.g., “crying”) that precede self-injurious behavior empowers clients.  Research shows many adolescents and adults report their motivational triggers for injuring themselves are to: “distract myself from negative thoughts and feelings, feel something when I feel numb, get social attention, and/or get out of unwanted social situations”. An understanding of their early motivational, environmental, and body triggers empowers people who self-injure to discover and use effective coping strategies.

A useful self-assessment I developed for clients with self-injurious behavior is the PaganoFABTriggerCopingForms copyClients choose the three environmental and body triggers that most often precede their self-injurious behavior. Their triggers can serve as early warning signs that they need to use coping strategies. On each of the coping strategies pages the client selects their 3 most effective coping strategies. Their selections remind clients of their most common triggers and effective coping strategies related to self-injury. When introducing the coping forms the therapist demonstrates any unfamiliar mindfulness and sensory coping strategies. behindthelabel.co.uk

It is helpful to review the trigger and coping strategies the client determines are most relevant to their self-injurious behaviors, building on their most effective coping strategies. The most helpful new coping strategies to try are usually physical activities, rather than strategies such as talking to a friend. Commonly effective new physical coping strategies for reducing self-injury include hobbies (e.g., art), mindfulness movement (e.g., opening their hand while breathing in, then closing their hands by breathing out), and sensory strategies (e.g., focusing on the bottom of their feet or palms of their hands).

FAB Basic Mindfulness Movement

For clients who appear to have sensory processing challenges, it is helpful to have them self-assess using the Sensory Profile http://www.sensoryprofile.com  For example, if a client has significantly different tactile sensitivity and self-cuts, using a vibrating bath brush may be useful as a sensory replacement for habitual self-cutting. It is important to be sure that brushing does not cause skin irritation and that clients never brush over open wounds. To interrupt the self-cutting habit the brush can be located where they most frequently engage in self-injury (such as their bedroom) to facilitate the use of self-brushing as replacing the habit of cutting with a less dysfunctional habit (brushing).

Finally, because self-injury may already be established as a habit, reinforcement is helpful (e.g., being given praise and a vibrating bath brush following two weeks of safe behavior). A helpful tool for clients with sensory modulation difficulties is rating their energy level and planning activities to keep a medium energy level and prevent self-harm using the Energy Modulation Wheel.

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A helpful tool for individuals with sensory and developmental challenges is using a laminated index card that reminds clients of their goal, hero, and coping strategies for preventing self-injurious behavior using a COPING CARD

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Reference: Gaybiel, A. M. & Smith, K. S. (2014). Good habits, bad habits. Scientific American, 310(6), 38-43. Nock, M. K., Prinstein, M. J., Sterba, S. K. (2009). Revealing the form and function of self-injurious thoughts and behaviors: A real-time ecological assessment study among adolescents and young adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118(4), 816-827. http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4134406/Nock_FormFunction.pdf

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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.