Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Can't My Child Behave During Circle Time?

Which do you prefer in a restaurant, a banquette or a table in the middle of the room?  Banquette, right?  Ever wonder why? It's because your back is not exposed to people walking or moving behind you, so it's easier to let down your guard and  focus on the meal and conversation.  

A sensory defensive, hypervigilant child can't truly concentrate with his back exposed, which is often the case during circle time.

Circle time is often one of the most difficult school related activities for the children I treat. Over the years I have seen so many children fail to meet the grownups' expectations when they are required to sit quietly and attend while on the floor.  They can't pay attention, they move around, they speak out of turn, they lie down, they tune out,  they lash out.

Why are they acting out during such a seemingly innocuous time of day?

Circle time often means sitting very close to the person next to you, with no furniture to help guard and define the boundaries of your personal space. Children who are tactile defensive generally don't like to sit in close proximity to others, especially to other children, who are less predictable, and therefore potentially more threatening, than adults.  I have often seen tactile defensive children suddenly, and with no warning, strike out at classmates who were sitting too close by.  It's like petting a cat who suddenly startles and scratches.  The light touch receptors gets overloaded, a switch gets tripped,  the fight or flight part of the brain instructs the system to defend itself against an attacker, and... pow!

  Another circle time issue I have observed over and over: two children get into an altercation while sitting next to a sensory defensive child, who immediately joins the fray.  Again, it's that primitive part of the brain getting tripped, and the child not having yet developed the restraint to be able to override the primitive response.

Children who don't have good extensor tone or a strong trunk have a terribly difficult time sitting unsupported on the floor.  If you observe a child sitting on the floor with his legs in front of him, and his arms extended behind him to support his upper body, he's working so hard to keep himself there that there's not much energy or attention left over to devote to the day's lesson.

If a child simply can't sit still during circle time, moving and changing his position constantly, chances are he's very uncomfortable and is seeking a way to hold his body that won't be effortful and/or painful to  maintain.

Children with sensory issues don't possess good regulation of their arousal and alertness levels.  Their engine speeds are often too low, and they struggle to stay present and tuned in during class.  Often, when you put them so close to the ground, gravity beckons, and they're gone.  This is especially true if they're not good breathers, eaters or sleepers; their bodies are chronically short on oxygen, fuel and neurotransmitters.

  Judging from my observations over the years, circle time is not very exciting, especially to an under reactive child who requires more intensity than others to maintain his engagement and arousal in a classroom setting.  Generally circle time consists of a lot of talking and no movement, so a child who needs to move, and a certain amount of excitement in order to keep himself tuned in, doesn't have much luck on the floor.

Have you ever been to a movie or a live performance that went way over your head or was just really, really, boring?  Did you tune out, daydream, or even fall asleep?

Auditory defensive children often unconsciously block out voices and language, so if they are sitting on the floor, struggling to remain upright, a bit short of sleep, oxygen and nutrition, and don't really comprehend what's happening... can you blame them for not being fully present?

In my next post, I'll talk about some of ways I help the children I treat manage circle time.


Catherine Vlasto said...

Great post, Loren! My son has never liked circle time, which put us out of the library story hour pretty fast. How does that work for ADD? I know you work with sensory issues but the non stimulation of the brain during that time is a big issue for those children as well. I look forward to your next post.

Amy Waldhauer said...

I see this all the time at the dojo. The "special needs" kids are like this, but so are the very young ones (chronologically as well as physically). I look forward to the next post so I can find out how to help.

Pierrette and Lorna dEntremont said...

Thanks Loren for this post and great blog! The special needs community is very fortunate to have you in their midst. I have just become one of your blog followers to return often.

Andrea from Rochester said...

Thanks Loren. This is very helpful! I teach second grade and have many children who fall into ths category. I have been struggling this year with meeting their needs and your blogs have truly helped. I can't wait to see your strategies for helping these students.