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  • Nancy

"Kids Do Well If They Can" So Let's Support Them in Doing So

“She needs to make better choices if she’s going to remain on the team.”

“He chose not to cooperate in school today.”

Do the adults in your child’s life make assumptions about your child’s ability to make conscious choices about his or her behavior?

And are you sometimes too quick to assume that your child is being willful when what’s really going on is that your child is not able to meet the expectations being placed on them?

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, the author of Raising Your Spirited Child, recently wrote on her Parent Child Help blog about very young children who may seem to be deliberately defying an adult and what to do about it. But what about older children?

When a child has poor auditory processing, following verbal directions can be difficult. That’s especially true if the child is trying to block out background noise and other sensory input that’s competing for her attention. If she has language processing challenges, or slow processing, the verbal direction might be too hard for her to sort out:

“Samantha, I told you to put your toys away and don’t forget to look under your bed to make sure you got all of them. I want everything put away now because we’re leaving in fifteen minutes and….”

Too many words, too much information—you may have lost Samantha at “I told you.” (“Mom told me something. What was it? Oh, she’s telling me something now. The bed. Wait, my toys…”)

girl toys on floor

Additionally, a child with poor self-regulation skills might not be able to shift quickly from an excited state of playfulness to being calm, alert, and attentive. She might seem to be calm and attentive but actually be in sensory overload and like a frozen screen on a computer, waiting for her system to sort out all the confusing sensory input that has overstimulated her. Even if she looks you in the eye, you might notice that she doesn’t really seem to be listening.

Ross Greene, PhD, author of Lost at School and The Explosive Child, has said, “Kids do well if they can,” and it’s a good statement to remember. Our kids might look as if they can do well but be unable to. If we as parents don't recognize that they truly are trying to do well but failing because well, they just can't, they can become demoralized.

Our kids with sensory issues might be able to follow directions, cooperate, and shift gears to focus on what adults want them to focus on only after some sensory diet activities that calm and organize their system.

They might need a sensory break in a quiet, low-stimulation area where they can regroup and let their nervous systems calm down.

They might need simpler explanations and more guidance on what’s expected of them.

child with sensory issues sensory avoiding

Following social rules when they make for sensory discomfort is hard, and your child might need some sort of sensory comfort to help her. For example, she might need access to a different type of slipper or shoe she can tolerate when anxious so that she doesn't take her shoes off in places where that's not acceptable.

When our kids need to be able to tolerate a situation, perform a task, follow directions, and conform to expectations but are failing to do so, our embarrassment or irritation or both can get the better of us. If we make a point of remembering that “kids do well if they can,” we can let go of those emotions and start to figure out ways to can support them:

  • Asking questions about what they need.

  • Cueing them to use an intervention such as discreetly putting earplugs in their ears in a noisy place.

  • Offering them support as they figure out their own strategies for overcoming obstacles to doing what others expect them to do.

Keep in mind that helping your child do well is easier when you have sensory smarts—when you understand sensory processing issues and work with your child to address them. You can learn more in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.

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