Going back to school or heading to preschool is an exciting time for children. This multi-sensory emotional experience comes with a mixture of nerves, anxiety, and sometimes fear. After the last 18-months and current uncertainness, all emotions felt by children and parents while transitioning into more of a routine than many of us have had in a while are valid.
School and classrooms offer a multi-sensory emotional experience, which is great if you are a highly regulated child with an exceptional attention span. However, if we put ourselves in our kids’ shoes, it’s a big ask to sit still, pay attention, play nice, make friends, and use their manners, all while they’re beneath a deluge of sensory input.
The central nervous system cannot learn if it doesn’t feel safe and secure. Once the flight, fight or freeze reflex kicks in, learning and meaningful interaction with others come to a screeching halt. Parents of children with anxiety, sensory processing disorder, autism, or developmental challenges know exactly what this looks and feels like. It’s heart-wrenching to feel their pain. As a parent, you want to grab them from the brink and say, “It’s safe here with me” but, it happens too fast. In the flip of a switch, the central nervous system, whose job is to protect, takes over, and they freeze.
It is critical for parents, caregivers, and teachers to understand that children also cannot learn or interact when anxiety is high, or their sensory systems feel threatened. In this 1994 article, THE EMOTIONAL BASIS OF INTELLIGENCE, Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Beryl Lieff Benderly discuss psychology’s longest-running controversy – nature versus nurture – and the inherent limitations of standard IQ testing without also considering emotional, relational, and sensory experiences. While written over nearly thirty years ago, Greenspan and Benderly’s sage advice holds true yet today.
When parents, caregivers, and teachers learn to co-regulate with the child, interaction is allowed to continue. When we are attuned to the child’s needs – that is, we meet the child where they are at – we can begin to build safe environments outside of the child. Over time they can begin to feel secure within themselves. This process takes time, trust, and attunement. An extra dose of patience is always helpful, too.
The sensory-motor system needs to stay regulated for a child to move throughout different environments during the day. In one school day, a child travels from the classroom to the playground, lunchroom, art class, throw in a P.E. class or after-school sports/activities, and perhaps a bus ride home – that is a lot of information flooding in! Not to mention, they are switching subjects, classmates, and teachers during this same period of time. Sensory whiplash!
Behavior is always purposeful. Adults mustn’t invalidate what a child may be trying to express through their behavior, especially if it comes from a place of fear. Empathizing with their experiences, even when you don’t understand them, making the child feel seen and heard, goes a long way toward securing their central nervous system and regulating the sensory-motor system.