From the moment we are born, we are establishing behavioral responses, which eventually become belief and thought patterns. We also develop perceptions of ourselves and begin to develop ways to describe ourselves. Whether these thoughts are positive or negative, on some level we accept them because there is comfort in their familiarity and they simply make sense to us. The thoughts and beliefs become our identity and we then live our lives in a manner that fits these thoughts and beliefs.
When a child first begins therapy, the therapist typically asks the parent to describe the child. The information is important because it gives us a sense of how the child is going about their daily life. In order to communicate the person’s function, we must put them into words and/or make observations. Based on how they interact and/or the description we provide of them, the environment gives them a response.
These responses and interactions can solidify beliefs about who they are as a person and how the world sees them. It can also create a list of dislikes and likes, further categorizing them into what experiences they are willing to have on a daily basis.
For instance, a child may be described as very intelligent, but has trouble paying attention. Another child may be described as wanting to play with other children, but becomes aggressive when a peer plays with their toy. Another child is great a school, but falls apart at home.
How others respond to the child’s behaviors, will on some level affect the child’s perception of themselves. If the intelligent child is getting in trouble for not paying attention, they may perceive themselves as inadequate and become disinterested in school, with a potential label of being “lazy”. The child that becomes aggressive over his toys, may begin to play the role of a bully. The child “holding themselves together” at school, may develop a high level of anxiety, with the potential of being labeled as a “worry-wart”.
As a result of these regular behavioral patterns, the adults in the child’s life typically use all sorts of strategies to dissolve the issue at hand. Depending on what approach is used, the tone that is used while implementing the approach, and whether the approach is effective, will determine whether the supports will shift the child’s behavioral patterns.
One important aspect to consider when addressing challenging behavior, is to consider that these children may have sensory processing disorder (SPD), which could be impacting their ability to process sensory information, which in turn impacts their interactions within their environments.
Children with SPD develop coping mechanisms or adaptive responses in an effort to function in their environment. Addressing sensory-motor issues can help the child to better receive, integrate, and modulate sensory information. Research indicates that if organized sensory input is provided consistently over a period of time, it can promote changes in the nervous system, which will improve daily interactions and performance for the child.
As we discussed, parents, families, teachers, and peers have a pre-established perception of the child prior to receiving therapy. Although the child may be experiencing neurological changes, they too continue to have established thoughts forms and beliefs from their past experiences.
Due to this, it would be beneficial to point out the positive changes you see in your child. It would also be beneficial to have your child try activities that were perhaps not so successful in the past. They may find that they are enjoying activities that were originally aversive. It is also critical that the adults involved with your child, recognize these changes, and help them to manage any residual behavioral responses. It is important to consider re-establishing new thought forms in regards to how you interact with your child.
Some questions think about: Do you find yourself describing your child to others in the same way even though they are functioning differently? Do you need to adjust how you engage with them? Do you need to modify the level of support you are giving them? Are you expanding their opportunities to have new experiences? Now that they appear to be more organized, what are the next skills to develop and focus on? How can you support them while engaging with their peers?
Lastly, whether you are a therapist, teacher, or parent, we must also look at are own selves. Healthy families and communities all originate from a healthy individual. It is good practice to identify what labels you or the world have placed on you. This may help you to understand your own functioning, which in turn allows you to address established beliefs that are no longer serving you well. Your own practice in shifting thoughts and beliefs, can give you greater insight into your child, and how you can better help them.
We were all little infants, toddlers, and children at one point. Chances are your family wanted the best for you and they wanted to you have a happy and meaningful life up to your last and final days. Now, you have the same wish for your child.
This concept of well-being is critical for all of us. By examining and shifting your own thoughts and beliefs, you then model this for your child. That is why therapy is not just for your child. Parents as well as other people in the community can also experience positive changes by being a part of the therapeutic process.
Michaela E. Gordon, OTR/L