Requesting a Sensory Break

photo of child asking for a break

Every day we receive a great deal of information from our senses. We use this information to organize our behaviour and successfully interact with the world. This process (known as sensory processing) usually occurs automatically but for some people it does not develop as efficiently as it should. Our job as a parent, teacher or early childhood professional is to teach new skills that will help your child build independence and move forward in their development. You also teach new skills to reduce frustration, promote self-esteem, and to replace behaviour that may not be the most acceptable.

For example, Wayne loves to climb. He often climbs on top of furniture to obtain sensory stimulation. Although Wayne is trying to tell us, “I like how this feels!”, this behaviour is a safety concern for himself and others around him. Some children with special needs seek various forms of sensory input that their body is craving or helps them to remain calm. If you have a child like Wayne you can teach him to request a sensory break.

Breaking Down the Task

Though some children quickly learn skills through observing and imitating others, many children need the new skill to be broken down into smaller steps and to be allowed time to master each step in the sequence. The breaking down of complex skills into smaller components is called task analysis. Anything we do can be broken down into smaller steps. The number of steps depends on the needs of your child

Let’s take a look at the steps involved in requesting a sensory break using a picture symbol.

  1. Locate the picture symbol.
  2. Stretch out arm.
  3. Touch the picture symbol with hand (or finger).
  4. Wait for sensory activity.

Teaching the New Skill

Teaching a new skill involves preparation. Begin by collecting a few sensory activities that give your child the same feeling as the sensory activity they are engaging in.

In our example, we will collect a mini trampoline, rocking boat, a Preston Roll, and a Sit n’ Spin. We also need to find an area in the home and classroom to store these materials and keep them out of reach. If these activities were accessible all the time, they may not be very effective or reinforcing when we try to teach Wayne to request a sensory break. We’ll also need to make a picture symbol that represents “sensory break” to place on the cupboard where the materials will be stored.

Since there was no consistent pattern in the time of day that Wayne climbed on furniture, we are going to look at times when Wayne looks ready to climb or appears at a loss for something to do. During these moments, we can tell Wayne, “time for a sensory break”, and help him locate the picture symbol by walking with him to the cupboard, and pointing out the sensory break picture symbol. We’ll also label the picture using the same consistent language such as, “Look, sensory break (point to the picture)”.

Remember, that in order for your child to learn the steps to a new skill, you will have to provide assistance or “prompt” along the way. A prompt is a cue or hint meant to help your child to perform a desired behaviour, skill, or part of a skill.

As mentioned above, we’ll start by prompting Wayne to locate the picture symbol (step one in our task analysis) with full physical assistance especially when we are first introducing this skill. We will then prompt Wayne to reach and touch the picture symbol on the cupboard by providing hand-over-hand assistance. Immediately following the “touch” we will pull out the trampoline and Wayne gets to jump. Even though we have collected about four sensory activities, we’ll start by using the trampoline at every opportunity, and then gradually introduce the other activities.

As Wayne begins to understand where sensory activities are located and gets used to touching the picture on the cupboard we can begin to slowly reduce the amount of support until he is able to request independently – this is called fading. We can gradually reduce our physical assistance to a simple gesture like pointing to the cupboard to help Wayne locate the picture symbol. We may replace the hand-over-hand assistance with a slight touch on his elbow to help him reach out for the picture symbol on the cupboard and so on until he can complete each step independently.

Giving Reinforcement

Reinforcement is anything that motivates or encourages a child. It is any environmental event that maintains or strengthens an action or behaviour. Praise, a special activity, music, toys and food can be used as reinforcers. Reinforcement is a reward that occurs or is given after a behaviour.

It is important to motivate and reward your child when learning a new skill. It also helps your child to stay on track and understand what is required or expected of him.

In this example, Wayne’s efforts for touching the picture symbol are immediately rewarded with preferred sensory stimulation. We can also provide verbal praise like “You touched the picture!

Generalizing the New Skill

You want your child to know that this new skill can be applied in many places, with many people, and under many conditions. For some children, requesting sensory stimulation at the child care centre does not necessarily mean that they are going to demonstrate this skill at home, or with anyone other than the care provider who taught them.

To help your child generalize the skill you can:

  • Have others teach the same skill using the same techniques.
  • Teach the skill in several different locations around the home or program (e.g., at the park, during indoor play time, cubby area, lunch time or washroom).
  • Provide similar sensory activities both at home and the program.
  • Create a small “sensory break” picture your child can carry on a keychain to request a break while at home, the program or in the community.

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