The Truth of the Matter – Sensory or Behavior

Children are dynamic and complex, and the behaviors they display are similarly complex and often appear to be chaotic.

According to the Chaos Theory, chaos is actually a form of order that is disguised as disorder. This theory suggests that even in cases of extreme disorder, such as the challenging behaviors that are often observed in our children, there is an underlying pattern that can be teased out.

“Is it sensory or is it just bad behavior” is one of the most frequently asked question, The Chaos Theory can be applied to help understand the answer.

In their book “Is it Sensory or Is it Behavior”, therapists Carolyn and Betty cites five key assumptions that can be applied to behavior.

  1. Interaction between and among variables is nonlinear

    Simply put, there is no single answer to the sensory vs behavior debate. Children’s behaviors result from the interaction between their internal sensory systems, the physical environment, the demands of a task presented to them and how they feel at that moment. Each variable may affect the child’s behavior on a certain day, but not on others. There might not be a direct cause and effect between a given variable and how the child reacts. For example, your child may eat a certain food at home, but not in a restaurant next week.

  2. Variables affect one another and are interdependent

    Similarly, if your child slept poorly the night before, and then had a demanding day in school, a trip to a crowded departmental store to get school shoes may result in a melt down as he gets overwhelmed by the noise and lights. This might be confusing to his caregivers, as he may have handled the same trip well two months ago.

  3. Chaotic systems exist in states of flux or turbulence, not in equilibrium.

    Behaviors are learnt and established by reinforcement. Children often use a similar repertoire of strategies to cope with the many situations that they encounter. At times, these behaviors arise due to turbulence within themselves and their environment. When an equilibrium can be established between the forces inside the body and the demands of the environment, chaos can be resolved. For example, a child may appear inattentive in a busy classroom. This apparent lack of attention might be due to the sensory system shutting down in an attempt to avoid being overwhelmed by the multisensory input present in the classroom. Once the child is able to tune out irrelevant input and tune into valid ones, the behavior may resolve.

  4. Chaotic systems are self-guided, self-organizing, and not hierarchical, and they demonstrate emergent behavior.

    Simply put, children behavior in response to their environment. All behaviors, challenging or otherwise, arises from the child’s attempt to organize themselves, their world and to try to function in it. A pre-verbal child who screams and cries at a birthday party is trying to communicate that she may not be able to cope with the noise and visual stimuli, and is attempting to control her environment.

  5. Chaotic systems possess and underlying order.

    There is an order and purpose to every behavior a child displays, even if it appears to be chaotic or non functional. A child who has oral sensitivity might scream and cry when asked to brush his teeth. This could result in extra attention from the parents and his being able to avoid an unpleasant sensory experience. He might later react to a different request using the same behavior. Screaming and crying may then become a learnt response to all requests made of him. In this example, an attempt to control the environment in order to avoid an unpleasant sensory experience leads to the child learning an inappropriate behavior. A holistic approach is needed, instead of attempting to deal with just the sensory portion or just the behavioral aspect.

    The truth of the matter is that often, there is no direct answer to the sensory vs behavior debate. Trying to deal with a challenging behavior by using only a sensory approach or a behavioral approach is like trying to unravel a tangled web of yarn by yanking on a loose end – the tangles end up getting tighter and harder to unknot. The only way is to patiently tease out the tangles till the yarn is freed. So it is with the behaviors “our wild things” may at times present with. Taking the time to analyse the pattern behind seemingly chaotic behavior will bring about lifelong change in the lives of our children and their caregivers.

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