Parents anxiously wait for their special needs infants to sit up, crawl and walk. That last skill can take extra months or years. Everyone, and I mean everyone, uses walking as a benchmark for maturity and independence.
They shouldn’t. A child with poor safety awareness isn’t safer when they acquire mobility skills. Sometimes they are much less safe. Yes, they may be able to move without your help, but they may need to be more highly monitored and given more assistance to learn how to be safe. They are exploring their environment and their new skills that took them a long time to develop. They have been wanting to climb on the couch for months. Now they can. Getting down the “safe” way isn’t as important to them, and maybe not as easy as sliding or rolling off. Oops.
What can parents do to help their child be a safer (notice I didn’t say “safe”) ambulator, crawler, cruiser, etc?
Talk about safety before they are independent. Will they understand what it means? Probably not, but your tone and your insistence on how movement is done says that you value safety and you want them to do the same. Kids learn from all of our actions. Make this one familiar to them by being very obvious and explicit.
Take your physical therapist seriously when she or he teaches you how to work on core strength and balance skills. Yes, I still maintain that safety is more than a sensory-motor skill, but having the best possible sensory and motor skills is important. Having good safety awareness and safety behaviors without these skills will make a child more vulnerable to falls and injuries.
The same goes for sensory processing activities. If your child cannot perceive the movement of falling, the tactile and proprioceptive change as they crawl or step on something, or tolerate multiple sensory inputs at once, they are much less safe, even with good strength and coordination. Really.
Know your child’s cognitive and social/emotional skills. Impulsive children are less safe overall. Children that cannot process your instructions or recall them without you are less safe. Children that enjoy defying you more than they want to avoid falling are less safe. If you know any of these things, you can gauge safety and react more appropriately. You will be less frustrated and more helpful to them.
Reward safe execution and do not reward unsafe behavior. My favorite way to avoid punishment but also to send my safety message home? Not providing eye contact or much at all in the way of conversation as I stop unsafe actions, and either removing a child from an unsafe situation or assisting them in using the safe method to execute their move. They get no satisfaction from seeing me react strongly, and they get the message that I am not accepting anything but their best safety skills as they move.
Stop a child that is moving in an unsafe way, and see if they can recall and initiate the safe choice before assisting. You don’t want to teach them that only you will make them safe and they need someone to be safe out there. They have to learn how to assess, react and respond, and all children can build their skills. Some need more teaching, and some need more motivation to begin to take responsibility for their safety. Give them both.
Carrying and holding kids is such a natural thing to do. But when your child has hypermobility due to low muscle tone, joint issues or a connective tissue disorder, howyou accomplish these simple tasks makes a difference. Your actions can do more than get them from one position or location to another: they can build a child’s skills, or they can increase the risk of damage by creating excessive flexibility or even accidentally injure a child’s joints.
How could something so simple be both a problem as well as an opportunity? Because hypermobility creates two issues that have to be addressed: Less strength and stability at vulnerable joints, and less sensory feedback regarding pain and position sense in your child. The ligaments, tendons, muscles and joint capsule at every hypermobile joint are more likely to be damaged when excessive force is placed on them.
Knowing how much force is too much isn’t easy without some instruction from a skilled therapist. Depending on your child to react quickly and accurately to accidental stretch or pressure by crying or pulling away isn’t a good idea. Their excessive flexibility reduces firing of receptors deep within all of these tissues in response to excessive force. You may have looked at your child’s shoulders or ankles and think “That looks uncomfortable. Why isn’t she fussing?” This is the reason. It means that you will have to be altering your actions to reduce the risk of harm.
As I mentioned earlier, this is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to teach your child about safe movement and positioning, right from the start. Even the youngest child will pick up on your emphasis on alignment, control and safety. They are always listening and learning from you every day, so incorporate effective movement into your handling and help your child build awareness and independence today!
Here are some strategies for you and your child:
Always spread the force of your grasp over their body, and place your hands on the most stable locations, not the most flexible. Lift a child through their trunk, not by holding their arms. If they cannot steady their head, support it while you lift. If you feel those little bones in their wrists and ankles moving under your grasp, support those joints instead of pulling on them. Not sure how to do this correctly? Ask your therapist for some instruction.
Do not depend on a child’s comfort level to tell you how far a joint should stretch. Think about typical joint movement instead. If their hips spread very wide when you place them on your hip, think about holding them facing forward, with their knees in line with their hips, not pressed together.
Give them time to move with you. Those over-stretched muscles are at a mechanical disadvantage for contraction. This means that when you tell a child to sit up, you have to give them time to do so before you scoop them up. They aren’t being defiant or lazy (I have not, in fact, ever met a lazy baby!). This is a neuromuscular issue.
Discourage unsafe movements. Some children find that overstretching their joints gives them more sensory feedback. It feels good to them. This is not OK. You will not be able to stop them every time, but they will eventually learn that their is a right way and a wrong way to move. Knowing why isn’t necessary. Yet. Teach them to respect joint movement and use things like graded joint compression and vibration (your occupational therapist should be able to help you with this) to give them the sensory feedback they want.
Bright kid: “Are there any sharks out there?” Gifted kid: ” The most common shark in the Atlantic Ocean is the ….”
Do you have a gifted kid? Do you teach one? You might not be able to tell the difference between a bright child and a gifted child by the number of letters they know, or the facts about dinosaurs they can recall. Here are some distinct signs that your child, student or therapy client is actually gifted:
They are not a joy to teach. Bet you didn’t expect that! Yes, the gifted child isn’t usually sitting there soaking up knowledge. They are out there arguing points and doing their own experiments. They see the subtle differences, so they are going to bring up the exceptions to ALL of your rules. They don’t like rules and correct answers nearly as much as the bright kids. They are interesting to teach, but they won’t be as easy to teach as the bright children who simply learn what they are told and repeat it back to you.
They learn fast. Really fast. The typical child will need 15-20 repetitions or demonstrations and practice to learn a skill. The gifted children may only need 1-2 repetitions to learn. The bright children need 5-8 reps. So if you demonstrate a dance move or how to write a letter and your child copies you perfectly the first time, you may have a gifted child in front of you!
They NEED complexity and novelty. Note that I said “need” versus “prefer”. These kids don’t love routines. They learn them quickly, but they find them boring, not comforting. They don’t want to hear a favorite book again as much as they want you to read the next book in the series. Without sufficient stimulation, the gifted child will go find her own entertainment and probably tell you what to do with your routines! Bright children are often happiest when they can show you what they remember. Gifted kids like to show you what you aren’t seeing or mentioning about a topic.
Gifted children are intensely curious. This is different in magnitude from a bright child, who is interested in many things and consistently pays attention to stories and lessons. The gifted child wants to know everything, and they want to know it now. If the questions that you are asked show a level of synthesis you would not expect based on age and exposure, you may have a gifted child in front of you!
They have a lot of energy. The gifted child may not need that nap, or they may collapse suddenly due to their full-on approach to life. They could wake up totally ready to go, and go to sleep talking as well. This is a child that isn’t going to want to be quiet when they have something to say. The bright kids raise their hands and wait to be called on. Be prepared to expend some energy yourself to engage with a gifted child.
Their passions and ideas can result in daydreaming and preferring to work alone on their projects. This doesn’t mean they can’t be social. But it may mean that they see no point in gluing construction paper triangles onto a pumpkin when they could be creating a pumpkin patch and a corn maze like they visited this weekend. They won’t passively complete your project when they have a better idea of their own.
If you have spotted a child that may be gifted, you will want to offer them the opportunity to expand and explore within your classroom or your home. You don’t need to label them. If you find that their abilities place them far outside the reach of your class plan or they complain about school, it may be time to pursue formal testing. Linda Silverman, a psychologist with a specialization in working with the gifted, suggests that any child that tests more than 2 standard deviations from the the mean (statistically far from average) is in need of special educational services. Just because gifted kids are not below average doesn’t mean that they don’t have needs. To learn more about gifted kids, read How To Talk So Your Gifted Child Will Listen and Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling. Some gifted kids have other issues. Read Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help.
And remember that “gifted” doesn’t mean “better kid”. It just means better skills. The gifted population has been hammered for being elitist, when in fact, they receive a lot of criticism and prejudice as well as glory. Treating these kids fairly will allow them to thrive!
Many of my clients are in a rush to get their kid trained in the next few weeks for school. They have been making some headway over the summer, but things can stall out half-way through. Here are some common reasons (but probably not all of them) why kids hit a plateau:
They lose that initial boost of excitement in achieving a “big kid” milestone. Using the potty isn’t an accomplishment now, it is just a chore.
Parents and caregivers aren’t able to keep up the emotional rewards they need. It is hard to be as excited about the 10th poop in the potty as the first time.
The rewards used aren’t rewarding anymore. A sticker or a candy might not be enough to pull someone away from Paw Patrol.
An episode of constipation or any other negative physical experience has them worried. Even a little bit of difficulty can discourage a toddler.
Too many accidents or not enough of a result when they are really trying can also discourage a child.
Using the potty is now a power play. Some kids need to feel in control, and foiling a parent’s goal of toileting gives them the feeling that they are the ones running the show. “I won’t” feels so much better than “I did it” for these kids.
Their clothes are a barrier. When some families start training, it is in the buff or with just underwear. Easy to make it to the potty in time. With clothes on, especially with button-top pants or long shirts, it can be a race to get undressed before things “happen”.
Should you pause training? The answer is not always to take a break. I know it sounds appealing to both adults and kids, but saying that this isn’t important any longer has a serious downside. If your child has had some success, you can keep going but change some of your approaches so that they don’t get discouraged or disinterested. If your child really wasn’t physically or cognitively ready, those are good reasons to regroup. But most typically-developing kids over 2 are neurologically OK for training. They may need to develop some other skills to deal with the bumps in the road that come along for just about every child.
Sometimes addressing each one of these issues will move training to the next level quickly! Take a look at this list and see if you can pick out a few that look like the biggest barriers, and hack away at them today!
You don’t have to offer your child a tablet. Try a book or a sticker activity instead!
Yes, tummy time. It isn’t just for babies anymore.
Why? Because occupational therapists know that the physical effects of working against gravity to push one’s head and shoulders up, and the firmness and warmth of contact with the floor are also sensory-based modulation strategies. What helps babies build core control can also calm upset or disorganized toddlers and older kids.
The decrease in visual input can improve calmness and attention for those kids whose eyes dart everywhere. Not everyone can handle a visual stimulating room. Some children need more vestibular input to reorganize, but some do better with the stillness of “tummy time”.
Having trouble convincing your child to lie on their belly? Join them, or get a sibling to model it. Make a special new book collection for tummy time, and only have it available at that time. Get a tent, and add the effects of an enclosed space to tummy time to make it more deeply calming.