How to set just the right level of sensory challenge that keeps kiddos motivated but not frustrated?
We all love challenges, kids especially. Challenges drive and motivate us to do things. Psychology research summarized by Locke and Latham shows the higher the challenge (or goal difficulty), the bigger the effort (or motivation). It also shows that when challenge reaches the limit of our ability it starts to decrease our performance. So how can we as parents set the right level of sensory challenge for our kids?
We know that doing sensory activities can help regulate them, we know the more they are motivated to do the activity the easier it will be to maintain and repeat it, leading to better adherence to therapy programs or adjusted life style. But how can we identify what the productive level of challenge is? How can we teach them to identify that themselves?
The research can help a bit. It tells us of the 4 mechanisms through which goals affect us: focus, energize, persistence and knowledge.
When we place a certain challenge in front of our kids we help them focus their attention on the goal. It helps to be specific. Research shows they will exert more effort if we ask them to achieve a specific measurable goal rather than just asking them to do their best.
Goals tend to have an energizing effect that can help motivate our kids into action. As such they may be more effective when used in alerting activities rather than calming ones.
With control over time, goals can prolong the effort. There is a trade-off between intensity and time, so we can use them to extend short activities.
Some the of the challenges’ luring effect lies in their innovation. When trying to achieve a goal we discover new knowledge or strategy. By maintaining the challenge level we keep arousal level.
The best way to identify the right level of challenge for your kid is to observe. Trial and error works. If you see they handle it with ease, up the ante. If you see they are about to get frustrated, taper down.
When we started our sensory home program with our second child, we already had the indoor trampoline and appreciation to its potential… so when we placed our 2nd child on it we thought we had it made. Much to our surprise, she couldn’t jump. And with her short temper, it only took 2-3 attempts before she wouldn’t go anywhere near that thing!
So we had to dial back and start with bouncing her on a gym ball. We could then move on to bouncing on our bed and very slowly letting her control more elements on the bounce — start with the timing, through the height and finally we were just there to assist. One of our favorites, was turbo jumping, where she just starts the jumping process (or goes through the motions) and we give her turbo power and throw her much higher than the effort she put into it.
Identifying the productive level of challenge can be tricky. Even though for the most part we can rely on what we know and remember from last time, it sometimes behaves like a moving target. Jumping on one trampoline is not like all trampolines, morning isn’t evening and jumping with someone is nowhere near jumping alone.
Be mindful of what you can play with to adapt the level of challenge. Hugging a large gym ball standing up can be too challenging one day, but perfect on another. While hugging a soft pillow and rolling over it can offer an easier goal with a similar sensory effect.
There are some activities that have more built in flexibility. Perhaps the most flexible one is the obstacle course. We used to do an indoor one that started with climbing up a chair, jumping from it, running to the far end of the room to pick up a large water bottle and carry it back, placing it on the chair, then jumping as far as you can and hanging up from a bar (we had on the door frame).
It was easy to up the ante by increasing the number of chair climbs and jumps, adding a second and then a third water bottle, doing multiple jumps and lifting legs up or chin ups on the bar.
Feel the challenge
However, as a parent of two kids with sensory issues I have to admit that even with the built-in flexibility that comes with the obstacle course, there are times when you, as parent, simply don’t have the energy to identify the level of challenge or adapt to it.
It is for those situations especially that feeling the challenge was invented. There are many activities that you don’t have to think about what the right level of challenge is, you simply feel it!
Identifying the level of challenge takes up mental energy, so does adapting the activity. Feeling the challenge in your body, through resistance, does not require any thinking. In fact, some of these activities you can do sitting down and barely being awake… as long as you maintain the balance you prolong the effort.
So remember to: be specific, set goals for alerting activities, extend short activities and maintain level of challenge.
When you can: observe your child and be mindful of what elements of each activity you can play with to adapt the level of challenge.
When in need: choose activities with built-in flexibility making the adaptions a lot easier.
When desperate: simply feel the level of challenge through resistance type activities.
Oren Steinberg, parent & cofounder of SensoryTreat