by Sandy Wainman, OTR/L is Director of the LifeSkills

When you fill a cup with liquid, there is only so much you can pour into the cup: If you pour too much into the cup, it will overflow and you will have a mess.

Similarly, each of us is a cup: we all have limits as to how much we can take. When a cup is absolutely full to the brim, adding just one more little drop will send the liquid overflowing out of the cup, onto the table, making a mess.

When we overwork and keep pushing ourselves, if we continue to run around, if we don’t rest, pretty soon we become overloaded. Our “cup” fills up and in many cases, overflows. When that happens we can become irritable, short-tempered, easily frustrated, and grumpy.

This is exactly what happens to children with sensory integration difficulties…their bodies – their “cups” – become so full, so overwhelmed, that they can no longer control themselves. When they “spill over” we could see crying, screaming, kicking, running, hitting, self-mutilation, anger, and defiance.

The challenge as adults is to realize that a child has no control over the level of his “cup.” Children do not have the maturity or awareness to say to themselves, “I’m feeling overwhelmed with all these people around me, and the sound of the television is bothering me, and that little boy crying over there is making my nerves raw, so I need to find a quiet place and calm down.”

Our job as parents and teachers is to help each child find “just right.” That is the place where the cup is not too high, but not too low. It is the place where a child feels his best, or, can function at her optimum level. There are very specific things we as adults can do to help:

When a child’s cup is filled to the very top, do NOT add more! A child who is overloaded, who is running away, pushing away, has no eye contact, is saying “I won’t” or “I hate it” needs to be calmed down by using small, tight, quiet places or rhythmical rocking, little to no language. Do an activity: walking, pushing or pulling, trike or bike riding, that provides forward/backward repetitive movement, and on a flat surface. If you’re in public, in a store, for example, try some very firm, very tight bear hugs.

When the child’s “cup” is too low: fill it up so it can work! A child in this state may act hyper and fidgety. He moves fast and never stops. This child may break toys and crayon or pencil tips. His body slumps and slouches. He acts uninterested and is hard to get going in the morning.

The way to get this type of child to “just right” is to focus on heavy muscle work that is slow and uses the entire body. For example, have the child do crawling, bear-walks and crab-walks. Climbing is an excellent exercise.

One final note: as adults, one of our first reactions when a child is out of control and unfocused, is to start talking – even yelling – at them. This can really put a child over the edge. You know yourself that when you’re overwhelmed, the last thing you need is for someone to start telling you what you should do and what you’re not doing right. The sound of someone’s relentless badgering can send you reeling. The same is true for children. The less we say, the better.

Focus on getting children to do the activities that will help their bodies – help their “cups” – stay balanced and functional. At the “just right” state, it will be possible to teach and reason – and best of all – at “just right” your child will be able to listen and learn!

Sandy Wainman, OTR/L is Director of the LifeSkills clinics and school. She has created a home/school reference chart to help teachers and parents keep each child “just right.”