Starting school is an exciting time, and we have great hopes for our children’s future, but for many children, life in the classroom can be quite overwhelming. This feeling of overwhelm may cause increased anxiety, resulting in learning and behavioural difficulties, often presenting as signs of autism, ADD, ADHD or dyslexia. These disorders generally have common underlying issues, and an assessment often reveals gaps or immaturities in early stages of development.
Behaviours are Telling us a Story
I see these behaviours as telling us a story, an expression of big feelings that the child is unable to understand and express in words. Rather than as something to be punished or controlled, my view is that we need to look behind these behaviours, and address the cause.
Often described as “smart but feeling dumb” the children I see in my practise have been identified as having learning and behavioural difficulties. I have found that by identifying and addressing developmental immaturities, both behaviours and learning naturally improve.
I liken the small child to a sponge, with senses completely open to their surroundings. However, sometimes, these sensory impressions can be too overwhelming for the capacity of the child’s nervous system to cope, and “undigested” they remain in the body. These “undigested” sensory impressions may subsequently trigger an automatic behavioural response, with the child reacting as though the event is happening in present time. This behaviour is the child’s survival mechanism, a signal to us that something is wrong.
Working with the child’s innate desire for healing, my intention is to offer a safe space for stressful experiences to be “digested” and integrated as memories that can later be activated at will rather than as automatic triggered responses. The first step is acceptance of the child, reverence for who they are and what they bring, offering them a place of safety and trust. This stable connection gives the child permission to rest, and the opportunity to learn how to gently regulate their behaviour.
Development Happens Sequentially
Child development happens sequentially during infancy and early childhood, and this sequence can be disrupted in number of ways, including environmental stress or trauma. A stack of building blocks comes to mind, and when foundations are a bit wobbly, the whole stack can collapse. I assess children for gaps or incomplete stages in their early development, looking for the missing or “wobbly” blocks. Part of this assessment process includes a developmental history and a short interview with a parent.
Typically, I find developmental immaturities appearing as difficulties with sensory processing and integration, retention of primitive reflexes, fine and gross motor coordination, mirroring, retained midlines, unconfirmed dominance, poorly developed spatial awareness and body geography. I also look for signs of anxiety and restlessness, and their ability to connect and make eye contact with me. I often ask about friendships, and how they feel about school.
Parents are invited to complete a developmental history questionnaire, which includes information about their child’s early life and developmental milestones, their likes and dislikes, behaviours, talents and indications of major events that could have been traumatic.
Approach to Healing
As a therapist I offer a combined approach of Extra Lesson and Process-Oriented Psychology. The Extra Lesson is an individualised 1:1 sensory integration and movement program developed over 40 years ago by Audrey McAllen in the UK. It is designed to identify and address immaturities in early development, building firm foundations for subsequent physical, social, emotional, behavioural and academic learning.
My aim is to help the child to recapitulate incomplete or missed stages, developing motor coordination, and the ability to process sensory information. I generally see the children individually for an hour, once a week during term time, and parents are asked to support a short daily home exercise program. The underlying focus in a session is on maintaining a predictable routine and building body awareness through specific developmental exercises. There is no rush, no pressure to succeed, and we work at the child’s pace. As body awareness develops, I notice that the children become calmer and more able to stay “present” with sensations.
Playfulness and Acceptance
This is offered in an environment of playfulness and acceptance, as a means of connecting with troubled children. Craft activities, music, rhyme, rhythm, therapeutic painting, games and puzzles, are incorporated into a session, depending on the child’s interests. In this way the child learns to take turns, to listen and communicate, building important relationship skills, learning to self-regulate and develop a sense of self through personal achievement. Creative tasks such as baking bread can be immensely satisfying, and as well as building fine and gross motor skills, offer visible achievement, and a sense of “I can”.
I bring Process-Oriented Psychology into a session when necessary to help the child process and integrate withheld sensations that may arise. The child may not be consciously aware of stressful events in the past, and I will never ask them to “remember” anything. I can, however, facilitate expression, on the understanding that whatever rises to the surface, is ready to be dealt with. These sensations may be expressed through vocalisations, movements, visual images, play and sometimes through role playing. I am not trying to suppress the behaviour. Rather, my aim is to work with it, allowing whatever is underneath to be safely processed and integrated.
As a result of this combined practitioner and therapeutic approach, gains can be seen not only academically, but also with physical, social, emotional and behavioural learning. Parents have reported that the children become calmer, sometimes making friends for the first time. I often notice their behaviour becomes much more in keeping with their chronological age, and I also see signs of emotional maturity, developing imagination, and the children seem to be more “present”.
Healing Happens in Relationship
I believe that healing happens through relationship, and the most powerful therapy is human love. Working with stressed and anxious children, I liken the process to holding a tiny frightened bird. If I hold too tightly, the child will struggle to be free, but if I am patient and wait, holding gently, the child will feel safe and gain confidence when ready.
I believe that, through their behaviours, children are bringing us a message. I see these as non-verbal clues, a cry for help and a request for acceptance and understanding. Traumatic experiences retained in the child’s nervous system can be constantly triggered in a classroom environment, continually interrupting the child’s ability to learn. My experience shows that by identifying and addressing developmental delay that has occurred as a result of traumatic childhood experiences, we can create positive change in all aspects of learning – physical, social, emotional, behavioural and academic.
We can’t change the past, but by working together, we can help to create a better future.