As school-based occupational therapy practitioners (OTPs), we are often asked to support teachers in addressing sensory concerns. The teachers sometimes do not know how sensory is impacting the student. But they know the student likes certain toys, seeks out sensory stimuli, and will sometimes have "behaviors" without an apparent cause.
Unfortunately, for the past decade (or more), teachers, ABA therapists, other professionals, and yes - even OTPs - have been seeking to weed out what is sensory and what is behavior.
I have yet to run across a therapist who can explain "sensory vs. behavior" well. And I think I know why - because deep down, we know that sensory processing always has an impact on behavior. Just as our behavior always has an impact on our sensory systems.
So, the traditional approach of attempting to separate sensory and behavior may not be the most effective. In this blog post, we will explore why sensory vs. behavior thinking is a fallacy and how school-based OT practitioners can create a holistic plan to address student behavioral concerns.
The Limitations of Sensory vs. Behavior Thinking
Sensory vs. behavior thinking is a common approach in many OT courses, but it is a fallacy. While it may be helpful to identify the differences between sensory processing and behavior, it is important to remember that sensory always impacts behavior to some extent. Focusing solely on behavior without addressing the sensory component may lead us to miss how sensory stimuli have a unique impact on the student.
For example, a student who has difficulty with auditory processing may become easily overwhelmed and agitated in a noisy classroom environment. This may lead to behaviors such as avoidance, agitation, or acting out. If we only focus on addressing the behavior without addressing the underlying sensory component, we may miss the opportunity to create a more supportive environment that meets the student's needs.
Using ABC (antecedent, behavior, consequence) data and committing to address the sensory components to assess our student, we may identify the following:
Antecedent - The student is given a writing assignment
Behavior - Student acts out and refuses to complete the assignment
Consequence - The student is told to calm down. Recess is taken. And now, the student has to complete the assignment for homework.
But what if the antecedent was actually the noisy classroom or the inability to hear the teacher's instructions? Or something completely unrelated to the writing assignment or the student's auditory processing difficulty.
That is why believe that it is irresponsible for us to separate sensory from behavior.
The Holistic Approach to Addressing Student Behavior
To create a comprehensive plan to address student behavioral concerns, we can use the Person-Environment-Occupation (PEO) model. This model helps us to evaluate the causes of behaviors through observations and assessment to look not only at the individual but also everything around the individual.
With the PEO model, we can address the student's preferences, abilities, struggles, and more. Then we can address the environment (including the classroom dynamics - such as personnel) and the expectations for the student in the classroom.
Using this model, we may identify any single, or combination of PEO factors that could be the "antecedent" of a behavior.
By addressing the interwoven interactions of person, environment, and occupation, we can create a plan that meets the student's unique needs and supports their success in the classroom.
Here are some practical tips and strategies for implementing a holistic approach to addressing student behavior:
Understand the student's sensory processing needs: Conduct assessments and observations to gain a better understanding of how the student processes sensory information. This may include auditory, visual, tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive processing. Once you have a better understanding of the student's sensory processing needs AND behavioral concerns, you can work with the teacher and other school staff to create a more supportive environment.
Collaborate with the teacher and other school staff: Creating a plan to address student behavior requires collaboration and communication with the teacher and other school staff. Together, you can identify the student's strengths, preferences, and challenges, as well as the environmental factors that may impact their behavior. By working together, you can create, implement, and collect data on a plan that meets the student's unique needs and supports their success in the classroom.
Use a variety of strategies and interventions: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing student behavior. Instead, use a variety of strategies and interventions to create a comprehensive plan. This may include environmental modifications, sensory integration strategies, behavioral interventions, and social-emotional learning programs. By using a variety of strategies, you can address the underlying causes of behavior and create a supportive environment for the student.
Benefits of Holistic Approach to Addressing Student Behavior
A holistic approach to addressing student behavior has several benefits. One of the most significant benefits is that it allows school-based OT practitioners to address the underlying causes of behavior rather than just treating the symptoms.
By focusing on the whole child and evaluating their physical, emotional, and social needs, OT practitioners can develop more effective intervention plans to help students develop the skills they need to manage their own behavior, rather than relying on external consequences.
In addition, a holistic approach can lead to better outcomes for students. By addressing the sensory component of behavior, OT practitioners can create a more supportive environment that allows students to thrive. This approach can also help to promote positive behavior and reduce the likelihood of negative behaviors occurring in the future.
Examples of how a holistic approach can lead to better outcomes for students include:
A student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may struggle with staying focused and completing tasks. By addressing the sensory component of their behavior, such as providing a structured and organized environment and using visual aids, the student may be better able to manage their attention and complete tasks more effectively.
An autistic student may struggle with processing sensory stimuli in a busy classroom environment. By providing support to the teacher to reduce stimuli in the classroom, the student may be better able to regulate their behavior and engage more fully in learning activities.
Proactive and Reactive Sensory Strategies
When it comes to supporting student behavior through sensory means. I like to use both proactive and reactive strategies to support students' sensory needs.
Proactive sensory strategies may include modifying the classroom environment to minimize sensory overload or providing sensory input that is calming or organizing for the student. For example, you may suggest using a compression vest or offering a quiet space for a student to take breaks before an activity that sometimes leads to the student feeling overwhelmed. These strategies can help prevent sensory overload and reduce the likelihood of behaviors that limit participation.
Reactive sensory strategies may include providing sensory input in response to a student's needs. For example, a student who is becoming dysregulated may benefit from deep breathing exercises, heavy work activities, or repetitive actions. By providing appropriate sensory input in the moment, the therapist or teacher can help the student regulate their arousal level and return to a state of optimal functioning.
Something I created and use for my students to address reactive strategies is a Personalized Sensory Plan. If you're interested in developing an Individualized Sensory Program for your students, I've created a free template that you can use as a starting point. Simply insert your info below to download your free template today!
By using both proactive and reactive sensory strategies, school-based occupational therapists can support students' sensory needs in a comprehensive and individualized way. This can lead to better outcomes such as improved attention and participation in classroom activities, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved self-regulation skills.
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Challenges and Pitfalls of Holistic Approach to Addressing Student Behavior
While there are many benefits to taking a holistic approach to addressing student behavior, there are also some challenges and potential pitfalls to consider. One challenge is that addressing one area of life may impact another area - for better or for worse. For example, making changes to a student's environment may have unintended consequences for their social interactions. It is important to always take data and adjust plans accordingly.
Another challenge is that taking a holistic approach requires collaboration and communication among all members of the student's support team. This can be difficult to achieve in a busy school setting where teachers, OT practitioners, and other support staff may have different schedules and priorities. To overcome this challenge, it is important to establish clear lines of communication and set regular meetings to discuss student progress and intervention plans.
In conclusion, taking a holistic approach to address student behavior is essential for promoting positive outcomes for students. By using the PEO model and other holistic approaches, school-based OT practitioners can evaluate the causes of behavior through observation and assessment tools, create a comprehensive plan that does not rely on limited ABC data, and address the student's personal factors, the environment, and the occupational demands of the classroom.
So, the next time behaviors are being addressed in an IEP or staff meeting, raise your hand or your voice and share with your staff how you can support them and their students.
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See ya next time,
Want to further your understanding of how Sensory & Behaviors are connected?
Join us at the Back to School Conference this year, where Greg Santucci, MS, OTR, will be discussing the interconnectedness of the two &
how OTPs can support students on campus.
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I hope to see you there!
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