It has nothing to do with sensory! So why else would a child act out in class?


By Occupational Therapist - Mariza Ferreira

This is the sixth and final blog in a series which I have been writing for Potential Plus UK since 2021, aimed at teachers to help them support children who have high learning potential (HLP or gifted), including those who have dual or multiple exceptionality (DME or 2e).  I am posting the blogs here as well, as I think it applies not just to teachers, but in the home environment tooHappy reading.

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for reading my blog posts for Potential Plus UK over the last year, in which I have explored some of the sensory, motor coordination and emotional regulatory issues that could be negatively affecting children with high learning potential.

I trust that I have been able to help you recognise and help those children with high learning potential who struggle with their handwriting, are constantly on the go, and overly sensitive to touch, visually busy environments and noisy environments.

As you know, I firmly believe that children have a fundamental need to ‘fit in’ and ‘be good’. If their behaviour is therefore not as expected in class, such as them being aggressive, oppositional and argumentative, then you have to explore the possibility that this could be related to sensory processing difficulties.  Children often use behaviour to communicate the messages they do not yet have the words for.

Sometimes, however, the out of sync behaviours of children with high learning potential have nothing to do with sensory…

Over the years I have worked with many children who have dual or multiple exceptionality (DME) – also known as twice exceptionality (2e) -, specifically those with high learning potential and sensory processing difficulties or disorder. I have come to realise that not all behaviour which appears to have a sensory base, is in fact sensory!  For example, a child who is often on the go with lots of ‘out of seat behaviours’ could display this behaviour because he has a neurological need to move more (vestibular sensory seeking behaviour).  However, it could purely be because the child is not challenged adequately enough on a cognitive level in class and therefore find themselves intellectually bored.  Wandering off in all sorts of ways to get the stimulation they need, will therefore (unconsciously) seem like the most logical thing for them to do. I call these non-sensory or motor issues, the ‘non occupational therapy factors’ or ‘non OT factors’ when I speak with my own colleagues, which I think all professionals working with DME children need to be mindful of.

Another example to illustrate my point is from the mother of a young child I worked with, who told me that he once swiped all the papers and writing equipment off his table whilst the teacher was explaining what the class had to do.  This child had severe auditory sensitivities, and at first I thought it was because the class was perhaps too noisy on that occasion.  However, once I worked with the child and we explored coping strategies together, he revealed that he swiped the materials off the table as he was highly frustrated with how easy the work was which they had to do and that he felt the teacher was wasting his time.  He was 5½  at the time…

It can be hard for teachers, parents and even occupational therapists to spot intellectual boredom as a core reason for a child’s unacceptable behaviours.  This is especially tough when you consider that children with high learning potential and DME sometimes struggle with more mundane academic tasks such as simple adding and subtracting in class, yet at home in their spare time they like doing much more complex mathematics in their heads!  At school they may sometimes show no interest in reading the age appropriate books which form part of the curriculum, leading teachers to believe that they are behind with their reading; whilst at home they have read a whole series of much more advanced material.

It is understandable and quite common to hear educators say that it is impossible for a child to be “bright” or have a particular strength in a subject area when they have not seen any evidence of it in class.  In fact, they may have only observed the opposite.  The danger of  continued misidentification of a child’s true academic potential and ability by the significant adults in their life, is that the child develops a mistrust of these people or authority figures.  This can lead to the child giving up trying to prove himself and his abilities or potential to achieve, disengaging from schoolwork and in extreme cases, becoming a school refuser.

What Can You Do to Help?

First of all, let me say that I am not a teacher, so you probably have more ideas than I have.  As a therapist I feel more comfortable highlighting the issue of intellectual boredom as a possible reason for unacceptable behaviour in class.

My encouragement to you would be to be open to the idea that intellectual boredom could be a root cause for behaviour.  If a child has already been identified as having high learning potential it will be easier to make the link.  But if no formal testing has been done for a child who regularly has ‘flashes of brilliance’, then perhaps you could suggest this course of action to the child’s parents and / or your school?

To combat intellectual boredom, you can provide work that is much more involved or at a deeper level.  I am aware that most teachers already present work at various levels of difficulty, such as in maths, and that may be all the stimulation a child needs.  But there is the risk that the child with high learning potential and DME does not engage with this type of work, as he does not see its relevance.  Providing greater context as to why the work is important now, or linking it to a special interest of the child, could be the motivational boost the child needs.

I can highly recommend that teachers and schools get in touch with organisations such as Potential Plus UK, who have many advice sheets on exactly this issue, and who also provide regular training to teachers on how to enrich lesson presentations.  None of us have to go this alone, and my motto is to get good advice wherever it is available.

Lastly, dare I say it, embrace the possibility that THAT child could possibly be smarter than all of us together.  As a therapist working one-to-one with children with DME, I am acutely aware that the children I help are very smart, and have the potential to far succeed what I have achieved and will achieve in life.  I am okay with that, and quite like the idea that I may be helping the greatest artist, surgeon, engineer, architect, code breaker, electrician or plumber the world has yet to discover, reach his or her potential.  I hope you will see it this way too!

Your specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist


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