Harnessing the power of habits to make sensory integration home programs easier
Getting the kids ready in the morning and out the door on time is my first routine of the day. As such it sets the tone for the rest of the day. Until not too long ago this tone was not a happy one. This time pressed routine was filled with ‘hurry up’ anger. This was so entangled into the morning routine that I didn’t even notice. So much so that when things went smooth and easy one day it felt like I forgot something…
Reading from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg I learned about the loop of habit that includes: cue (or trigger), routine and reward. Following his advice I identified my cue was time based, my routine was shouting and my reward was getting out the door on time (or nearly on time). So I started asking myself whether there is another way to get my reward on time.
Most kids, and my are no different, need to get their body in sync to start the day. For my older boy this means juicing up his energy levels to get organized faster, and for his younger sister it’s more about calming down and focusing on the task at hand. Both goals can be achieved with the right sensory activities. There are plenty of sensory activities that can do the job: jumping on a trampoline, deep body massage, wheel barrow walking and more. But who has time (or piece of mind) to do these sensory activities every morning?
The study of habits has been dedicated to losing ‘bad’ habit. People use the habit loop to get rid of bad habits such as smoking, eating too much etc. But habits are also great. They play a major role in making our lives easier. They take up very little power from our ‘battery’. They save us all the energy of making decisions. We make a decision once and then stop thinking about it and repeat it automatically. And the real beauty is that the more we repeat them the more they are reinforced, and hence the less we need to think about them.
Equipped with this insight I started looking for ways to make Sensory Habits. Realizing that I will never be able to stick to a strict sensory exercise plan on a daily basis, especially during morning routine when we are all in such a rush, I needed to come up with ways to streamline sensory activities into our routines. Understanding my habit loop helped. I needed to find a new routine that got me the same reward (getting out the door) on the same cue (on time).
So I came up with the medals system, at first I broke down the whole routine into its basic building blocks or phases: waking them up, then out of bed, dressed up, fed and out the door. Each phase had its own cue (preceding phase and time) and its own sub-reward (out of bed, dressed…). Then I realized that my kids don’t share the same reward system. While my 9 year old could get the gist of why getting dressed slowly will eventually make him late for school, he needed help executing. His 3 yrs old sister however could not care less for getting ready on time.
The trick was to create a sensory habit for my kids, one that has a reward similar to mine, for each phase. If I could get them to do their sensory activities out of habit I wouldn’t have to work hard at getting them going; and, if that habit was built into our daily routine I wouldn’t have to remember when it’s time for activity, making my mornings a lot easier.
Gold medal activities were ones that had the exact same reward as mine (such as running to the door); Silver medal activities were activities that may not have the same reward but they were using the same object, making it easier to transition to the next phase (such as pushing against the door). And finally bronze medal activities were all the ‘regular’ sensory stuff we could do at any time (such as trampoline), they took us off track from the immediate next phase, but helped get my kids’ body ready to go, so in total they had an overall positive impact on getting us out the door on time.
So here is how our morning looks like today:
We get out of bed by jumping as far or as high as we can out of bed (gold). And if that doesn’t work, we first jump on the bed a few times (sliver). Alternatively my wife or I spin hug them on out of bed or piggy back them to the next phase (gold again).
In the next phase, we hold their cloths up high so they need to jump to get them, or if we don’t have the time, we place their cloths on top of the closet where they need to climb to get them (both gold!). A second best is to dress up a large and heavy doll with the cloths we picked and carry her around a bit (sliver). Another good silverish activity involves tickling after each garment is worn.
Eating is done sitting on a special sensory pillow placed on a chair, with heavy utensils (sliver). And brushing teeth is done with a vibrating tooth brush (gold). My kids then carry their backpacks around the house (sliver) before we hold a running contest who gets to the door first (gold). The door is opened by one of them (or both) against my resistance (gold) and if they get there before I do they push against it (sliver).
A day full of habits
Sensory habits is not just a morning thing. This approach works beautifully with any family routine. It has transformed our days. Here are a few examples:
Bedtime story books are no longer carried by us. My wife usually does the reading. My daughter chooses a book and my wife chooses another, heavier one. Carrying both books to bed is a great golden activity.
House chores are a source of many sensory opportunities. Pulling laundry out the machine, carrying the basket and hanging on a line or placing in the dryer — all make for high Karate gold.
Anywhere we go opens up sensory opportunities to push doors, climb up the stair, jump off pathways, stamp while we walk, play catch or simply pull each other.
Even quite drawing can open up the sensory gold mine. By hanging on strongly to the marker my daughter is asking for I get her to make a great effort to pull it out of my grip.
Easy to do, hard to break
By tying these sensory activities into our family routines we harness the power of habits to work for us. It takes one time to look carefully at your routine and identify the sensory opportunities. On the 2nd time around you can introduce the activity, and by the 3rd or 4th time your child will have adopted the activity into his/her own routine.
Because these activities are an integral part of the family routine, you got them doing sensory activities automatically, like any other habit they don’t think about. You won’t need to ask them or remind them — the cue is already built into the habit. You may take a bit longer to get rid of your own old habits but don’t worry about it, your kids will remind you — whenever I start to open the door myself I get pushed aside with their ‘who can over power me to open the door’ game (and I always let their newly acquired habit get the better of my old one).
Sensory home programs, or sensory diets, are hard to maintain. Remembering to do activities, and finding the time and energy throughout the day is extremely difficult. So any sensory activity you can make a habit of by blending it into your family routine is one less activity you need to remember doing.
Finding these sensory opportunities throughout your daily routines is thegold rush for families with sensitive kids.
Oren Steinberg, parent & cofounder of SensoryTreat