Meltdowns & Anger

“I’m Overloaded!” How to Help Kids with Sensory Dysfunction

Sensory dysfunction can cause your child to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and oppositional or defiant. Use these brain-and-body activities to help a child with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) who has fallen out of sync.

Growing up with ADHD illustrated by complex gears.

What Does Sensory Dysfunction Look Like?

Ricardo is old enough to be dressing himself, completing homework, and performing other sequential tasks that an eight-year-old is expected to do, but he can’t get organized. Easily frustrated, he kicks and punches. He’s a smart, kind boy, but when he has to perform an action quickly, his focus falls apart.

Ruby darts from one activity to another. For a kindergartner, her stamina and attention span are short. Listening to instructions or waiting for a turn is hard; she whines, “You’re patienting me to death!” Sometimes she has the energy and attention to draw or play LEGO for an hour; other times, she can’t concentrate for a minute.

Rand touches, grabs, rocks, runs, and climbs a lot. When his parents try to calm him down or keep him seated, the four-year-old cries, “No, I won’t! Stop! You can’t make me!” And off he goes.

[Take This Self-Test: Sensory Processing Disorder in Children]

These kids may very well have ADHD and sensory dysfunction — specifically, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Ricardo’s organizational difficulties may result from Sensory-Based Motor Disorder, which hinders his ability to conceive, plan, and carry out actions and thoughts. Ruby may withdraw from enjoyable experiences when the scent of the crayons or the feel of LEGO studs irritates her senses of smell and touch. Rand may be oppositional because his neurological system craves more movement than typical children need.

If your child has ADHD, SPD, or a combination of the two — or is a typical kid just having an out-of-sync day — try the “3 Rs”:

RECOGNIZE that a sensory issue may underlie your child’s disorganization, inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity. Put on imaginary “sensory goggles” and ask yourself what sensations your child needs less of (noise, brightness) or more of (space to run, heavy work activity).

RECHANNEL the child’s fidgets. Instead of trying to squelch the child’s energy, find a way to help him or her use that vigor in a purposeful way.

REWARD the child with specific and positive words. Praise effort and persistence. Say, “You are working very hard to count slowly. I’m impressed!” Don’t say, “Good job!” (especially when it isn’t).

[Read This: Common Questions About Sensory Processing Disorder]

How to Help Kids with Sensory Dysfunction

Whatever the reason for your child’s inattentive behavior, these brain-and-body activities will engage him while improving his physical skills, concentration, and mental development. All of them are from books in my “Sync” series for kids with ADHD comorbidities.

Paper Bag Kick Ball. Open up a paper bag. Scrunch the top tightly to make the bag ball-like. Your child can kick it repeatedly into the air or across the yard. Together you can kick or punch it back and forth. Have several children, each with a paper ball, line up in a row and compete to see who can kick his bag the farthest.

This activity will improve a child’s muscles, joints, and motor coordination. He’ll also find a safe, appropriate way to channel his kicking and punching energy (Ricardo).

Hammer and Nails. If a dead tree has been cut down in your neighborhood, take a section about two feet tall with a base of 18 inches or more, a pound of penny nails, and a hammer. Show your child how to press a nail into the tree stump, and let him hammer away. He’ll love the activity, and almost certainly he won’t get hurt. I’ve done this with many children, and not one ever injured himself. Feeling the wood and nails and swinging a hammer enhance a child’s tactile and proprioceptive senses while improving concentration and eye-hand coordination.

[Free Expert Resource: Are Your Senses in Overdrive?]

Reach for the Sky. Have your child lie on her back. Say, “Stretch one arm to the sky while we count to five. Hold it high while we count to five. Now pretend you are melting, and slowly bring your arm down for five counts. Now stretch your other arm and reach for the sky.” Repeat this stretching and counting with the right leg, the left leg, both arms, both legs, the right arm and leg, the left arm and leg, the right arm and left leg, and the left arm and right leg. This slow, calming activity encourages patience and improves coordination.

Copy Cat. Stand and face your child. Say, “Watch and copy what I do.” Raise your hand straight over your head and bring it out to your side and down to your thigh in a semicircle. Say, “Now you do it.” Next, say, “Watch and copy this move.” Balance on one foot and wiggle your other foot in the air. Continue moving your arms, legs, and head in various ways for your child to imitate. Then let him lead and you copy him.

Copy Can’t is a funny variation. Have the child do the opposite of your moves. When you reach high with your hand, he reaches low with his. An oppositional child like Rand may find this amusing, because being oppositional is cool! Copy Cat and Copy Can’t help develop body awareness, visual processing, and attention to the meaning of another person’s gestures.

[Read This Next: “The World Doesn’t Get My Son’s Sensory Issues”]

Updated on March 31, 2020

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