TEACHER SAYS; PICKLE PATH TO PROGRESS
EVELYN PORRECA VUKO
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST
Monday, November 27, 2000 ; Page C04
Max fell out of his seat 37 times last week. He blames it on the chair. The
excuse he gave for the fight in his sixth-grade math class was that somebody breathed
on him too hard. When the school bus brakes screeched in his ears, he punched
a hole in his seat the size of a grapefruit.
It could be crossed sensory circuits making Max cross.
Teacher Says: Have a pickle. Use sensory tools for calming and increasing his
productivity and self-esteem. This means, however, trying a thing or two that
would have driven old Mrs. Siddupstrait to early retirement or you to the corner
to write 100 times you'd never do it again.
Kids like Max "can't depend on their bodies to give them correct information
and that can make furniture and even people unsafe," says Diana A. Henry,
a Phoenix-based occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration. If
Max's senses can't receive, modulate, integrate and organize input, he lands on
the floor, then goes through the roof.
Sensory integration dysfunction can exist alone or be "a part of other
diagnoses like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette's Syndrome
or autism," says Henry. But, she adds, "It isn't only special-needs
kids who can't sit still, can't follow directions, can't keep their hands to themselves,
don't do their work and don't pay attention. Sensory integration benefits all
And even adults. "No one is too old for it. Neuroplasticity, changes in
the way the brain receives and interprets information, continues until we die,"
says Henry, who travels cross-country with her husband in a fifth-wheel home called
"ATEACHABOUT" conducting workshops for students, teachers, administrators,
parents and therapists. Her "Tool Chests" offer over-the-counter sensory
integration exercises, games and activities that can be tailored to fit a kid's
She advises teachers and parents to "be a detective, watch their behavior.
It tells you exactly what they need." You get an edge with kids Max's age.
"The 11-to-13-year-olds can verbalize and tell you what their behavior is
all about," she says. "Then, tell them they aren't clumsy, bad, dumb
or lazy, and that they are not alone."
But what about that pickle? Some kids find sensory comfort and support in foods
with a sour taste. "Big, sour pickles are great sensory tools," says
Henry, who is quick to tell students, however, that "these are not rewards.
They are tools to make your bodies work better."
Though the following ideas would shoot Mrs. Siddupstrait straight out of her
sensible shoes, they might comfort, activate or calm Max's senses and derail any
* Eat food in class. Find out what will help Max take the bite out of sixth
grade. "Mouth tools provide oral stimulation that improves focus," says
Henry. Any adult who has ever chewed a pencil, sipped tea or munched endless bags
of dried papaya while working knows that "mouth tools" also relieve
tension. Foods that are crunchy, chewy, salty, sweet, sour or spicy, or ones that
can be sucked, bitten, pulled or licked provide good sensory feedback. Henry suggests
popcorn, pretzels, string licorice, water bottles or carrots, "but beware
of allergies," she adds.
* Stand up and wiggle around. Shaking and moving around will help Max "tune
in, be ready to work and get those wiggles out," says Henry. Make learning
syntax a moving experience for Max and his classmates or cousins. On a chalkboard
or wall, post sentence parts in varying order: subject, predicate, direct object,
indirect object, prepositional phrases. Then print nouns, verbs, objects and phrases
on cards. Starting with a subject, Max and his buddies position themselves under
the sentence part that their word matches. Once the sentence is properly formed,
have them "activate" a sentence like: The waddling bird gave a wiggling
fish to the trembling turkey on the table.
* Switch seats. "The brain forms maps not only on the basis of the scenery,
but also from the body's relationship to the scenery," says Eric Jensen,
author of "Teaching With the Brain in Mind" (ASCD, $21.95 at www.ascd.org).
Build mind maps in spectators, too. Before each new sentence in the activity above,
have groups switch from chairs to the floor to the top of their desks or across
the windowsill. At home, cousins can move from chairs to a tabletop to perching
along the arms of the sofa. To keep chaos to a minimum, intersperse sentences
with having the whole group do "a slow stretch, long inhale and slow exhale,"
* Jump up and down in your seat. If Max is in pre-school or the early grades,
try the following exercise to take the edge off of his anger. Have kids pretend
they are popcorn cooking in a popper. "This is a quick way to get going and
then calm down," says Henry. Sitting on a chair, Max uses his hands and feet
to push his body up and down. Use hand signals to direct him through the "cooking"
process. Chair push-ups also strengthen little hands and arms for the hard work
of handwriting. Add a mouth tool by sharing a popcorn snack.
* Send hand signals across the room. "Slow, rocking, rhythmic, repetitive
movements are relaxing," says Henry. Borrow the classic military semaphore
flag signaling system for calming, focusing and increasing visual skills. Letters
and numbers are signaled across the classroom or the back yard using color and
wide arm movements. "Make sure kids cross their hands across the midline
of their body because it integrates both sides of the body," says Henry.
Instead of the standard red and yellow flags, Max can wear two different colored
gloves. "Heavy lifting is calming," says Henry, so have him use small
hand weights when signaling. Max can take a spelling test, practice Spanish vocabulary
or do math equations as spectators perch in ever-changing spots all around him.
Find the semaphore alphabet at www.anbg.gov.au/flags/semaphore.html
Though some might dispute the theories of sensory integration, there will be
days when nothing works better or faster than a pickle to dill-iver Max an upbeat
groove. Simple sensory tools work because they appeal to the toddler in all of
us--the cantankerous crybaby who could always be calmed by presenting us with
two chocolate chip cookies, one for each hot little hand.
Diana Henry speaks tonight, 7:30, at St. Columba's Church, 4201 Albemarle St.
NW; details, 301-652-2263. $15 admission. "Tool Chests" available at
Contact Evelyn Vuko at email@example.com,
or at The Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
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