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Pediatric Therapy Corner: Groundhog Day – Like the First Day of School Every Day

By: Loren Shlaes, OTR
Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique
The movie Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as a hapless weatherman stuck repeating the exact same day over and over, never learning anything from his mistakes and becoming more and more frustrated and miserable. For some sensory defensive children, a typical school day is one in which he is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, because he hasn’t figured out what is expected of him and the adults don’t understand why they need to keep telling him.
One of the observations I frequently hear from the teachers of children who are sensory defensive and have attentional difficulties is that they continually enter the classroom and behave as if it’s their very first day of school. They walk in the door every day and have very little idea of what is expected of them. They are a bit lost and helpless until someone steps in and tells them what to do. They haven’t learned the unspoken rules of the classroom.
At some point early on in the school year, the other children in the classroom will have internalized the teacher’s expectations about what needs to happen when they first walk in {take off coat, place on hook, put backpack in cubby after taking out relevant classroom articles like homework or permission slips and handing them in, sit at desk, begin to work on assignment posted on board or continue with work from the previous day, etc.}.
The children we treat often remain clueless about what they should be doing and take up more than their fair share of the teacher’s attention, constantly asking for directions or explanations. Because they just don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing much of the time, they have to rely on the grownups to help guide them. Many times their requests seem trivial and the teacher feels that they are making up excuses to talk to her or be next to her.
And perhaps it’s true: when we are stressed, it is very calming and reassuring to have someone nearby who is not. Think back to a time when you were undergoing some trauma and how wonderfully reassuring it was to have a calm, focused presence nearby. Somehow this gave you what you needed to go on.
Other children can be equally lost but not show it. They sit quietly, not bothering anyone, but not learning anything, either. During classroom observations, I see them surreptitiously looking at their other classmates for clues.
Children with sensory and attentional issues who constantly require assistance to accomplish what is expected of them don’t have the sufficient internal structure in place to be able to work independently without adult direction. From a sensory standpoint, one explanation for this is that their defensiveness, which dominates their responses, prevents them from being able to internally organize, align themselves with their environments, and to think that far outside of their own internal processes. They are in survival mode, and can’t really do much abstract thinking about what they should be doing and how to go about doing it. They may also have difficulty generalizing, so that it doesn’t occur to them that the rules and expectations from one context would apply to another.
Defensive children have nervous systems that don’t adapt to novelty. For example, a tactile defensive child’s skin will be telling him over and over over that the elastic waistband of his underwear {which fits perfectly} is too tight and is hurting him, whereas another person’s skin would register the feel of the garment at the moment it’s put on, then filter it out so that it doesn’t register anymore. A nervous system that does not adapt well to novelty is going to continue to perceive school as an unaccustomed, unknown event and respond accordingly.
Being unable to adapt to novelty will also compromise the child’s ability to cope in a noisy classroom. For example, when you first walk in to a crowded restaurant at 8pm on Saturday night, with everyone chattering and loud music blasting on the sound system, you may think to yourself, wow, this is really noisy, then it quickly stops registering in such an intrusive way and you are able to focus on your dinner companions, read the menu, and enjoy your food and conversation. Your ears still hear it but unless someone drops a tray of dishes, it doesn’t continually travel to the forefront of your conscious awareness and distract you.
A child who is overly sensitive to noise, on the other hand, won’t be able to filter it out. It won’t change into background noise. The loud, high pitched sound will continually remain at the forefront of his awareness, and he will be disorganized and miserable as a result. These are the children who run around the periphery of the classroom, unable to focus, or shut down completely and try to hide in the corner.
A child who has visual spatial issues is also going to be at risk for feeling lost. He can’t always depend on his eyes or his sense of direction to tell him where he needs to go. If his visual memory is poor, he’s going to get lost on his way to class simply because he can’t remember how to get there. Maybe he can never quite remember how to open up the lock on his locker. Perhaps contending with the crowded, noisy hallways is too much for him, and he is so wrapped up in his defensive responses that he forgets where he’s going and what he’s supposed to be doing.
Perhaps his ability to take in and process language is impaired, so he simply can’t follow directions. This is common with children who are auditory defensive — they tune out voices, especially women’s voices, since the high pitch bothers them. Or perhaps their learning styles don’t mesh well with the school culture. Some children are better visual learners, but their teachers prefer to lecture and don’t back up the information with overhead projections.
A good treatment plan for this type of child consists of both direct and indirect interventions. Over time, sensory integration techniques will help the child negotiate the school setting by improving his sensory processing abilities. Implementing specific classroom strategies, like supplying the child with written reminders of what is expected and when, will allow him to function more independently until the internal structure is in place.
In my next article I will outline some strategies that can be used by the child and his teachers to help him meet the expectations of the classroom.
Featured Author: Loren Shlaes, OTR
Many thanks to Loren Shlaes for providing us with this article for our newsletter and website.
Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration and school related issues, particularly handwriting. She lives and practices in Manhattan. She blogs at

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