Cabin fever is beginning to set in, folks. We’re all feeling it, and it’s starting to show. Kids’ emotions are turning into mine fields, and parents might be peering into their handy-dandy-parenting-toolboxes for answers only to find that their supply of helpful strategies is running low. Things might be getting hard at home, but Dr. Andrea Ogonosky has tips to help our children (and us) get through the day.
When I last spoke with her (virtually, of course), she held a wide-eyed and serene grandbaby on her lap as she peppered me with suggestions for how to help children cope with the challenges of being trapped at home for weeks on end. It’s important to note that our kids may feel overwhelmed for any number of reasons right now—the extreme changes in routines, the transition to online learning in lieu of a classroom with their peers, the palpable uncertainty for the future that hangs over us all. Children can feel overloaded and overwhelmed emotionally or cognitively. This will morph into frustration, which then presents itself as defiance. Parents and teachers are well-acquainted with defiance, and we usually remember that defiance is a symptom of an underlying problem for the child. We are all doing our best right now. But being home all day with our family, many of us juggling work responsibilities while simultaneously helping our kids with their online learning, creates unique challenges and high-strung emotions. It’s hard to be a ninja parent during times like these.
But Dr. Ogonosky is here to help by reminding us what’s important! And this week she is cheerleading for Motor Breaks. Dancing, jumping, obstacle courses, any sort of physical exertion, movement, and sensory stimulation (or de-stimulation if need be) to help relieve the pressure in a child’s overloaded brain. Whether a child is feeling over-responsive or under-responsive to sensory input, motor breaks are key to helping them decompress and to prevent the leap from feeling overwhelmed to a full-on explosion.
Here are four ideas that you can easily do at home:
- Create a safe sensory corner. Take a part of a room and dedicate it to seeking sensory input. A beanbag, an indoor tent, blankets, pillows, a mattress, or stuffed animals. Make a safe space for your child to touch things. Touch is a calming sensation, and this can help a child’s feelings de-escalate. A sensory corner is a place for a reprieve, and if your child doesn’t go to it on their own, you can give them cues. Don’t forget visual cues work just as well as verbal ones. This can be a hand signal, a small hand-made sign, or an image that you can keep on your phone.
- Create a sensory box. Take an old shoe box or other small box and stuff it with small items that your child can touch and manipulate in their hand. Squeeze toys, tiny beanbags, small stuffed animals, feathers, cotton balls, anything that you have lying around and is soothing to touch. Even an empty water bottle or bubble wrap! These might be noisy, but squeezing those kinds of objects can feel extremely satisfying.
- Provide some heavy exertion. When our brains become overloaded, physical release is a great pressure valve. Take a chair and load it up with heavy objects and then ask your kid to push it back and forth across the room. Create a climbing wall in the backyard. If you have a trampoline, encourage your child to go at it; if you don’t have a trampoline, maybe use a pile of overstuffed pillows or place a moratorium on the no-jumping-on-the-bed rule. Teach your child how to balance a book on their head and then walk around the room with it. Be careful not to create overstimulation by pushing your child into a frenzy of physical activity, so provide these opportunities in a controlled way by being in charge of when the activity begins and ends with the help of recognizable cues and a timer.
- Create an indoor (or outdoor if you can) obstacle course. Rearrange the furniture and other items (safely, of course) and provide start and finish lines with a piece of yarn on the floor. Create a chair fort with a few chairs and instruct your child to crawl through it. You can always vary up the course, the sequence of objects, or the number of times to traverse it. Invite your child to create their own obstacle course as well!
- If you haven’t already, ask your child’s teacher for advice. Teachers rely on creative ways to provide mental breaks to their students every day, and many of them involve motor skills and sensory stimulation. Don’t be shy to ask for help. If your child has an IEP, take a look at it because it may provide ideas as well.
Motor breaks can be a fun way for the whole family to interact, and they can also give everyone in the household a needed break, not just the children. Movement and physical play are good for everyone, and they are crucial for kids’ healthy development. Don’t let the demands of online learning outweigh the need for good old-fashioned playtime and build in these motor breaks throughout the day.
Dr. Ogonosky also emphasizes the need to be purposeful with our kids as we help with their sensory input and output. Use recognizable cues, set a timer, and control the situation when it is appropriate (such as when inviting your child to rearrange the living room).
New routines and the uncertainty affecting everyone can create new sensory issues for kids, especially for those with sensory modulation difficulties or other developmental disorders such as ADHD, autism, sensory disorders, or executive functioning. The ideas Dr. Ogonosky provides are helpful for all children, but they are especially useful and important for families of these special needs children. A common theme in special education is that what’s helpful for special needs kids is also helpful for all kids. And I think we’ll find that motor breaks will be helpful for not just kids but for everyone in their families as well.