A Child’s Job is to Learn and Play

iStock_11560023_XLARGE.jpgOctober is Occupational Therapy (OT) month! For those families who are new to OT this school year, you might be wondering what OT is all about.

A young child’s occupation is to learn and to play. An OT can help a child to develop skills to succeed in this occupation. There are several areas that the OT on your child’s team may address, depending on his or her unique skills and needs. Aside from supporting the development of your child’s fine and gross motor skills, and promoting independence in everyday self-help activities, OTs can help children learn to understand and regulate their emotions and their sensory needs.

OTs are often called upon to offer advice and problem-solving strategies when a child is acting out or melting down at home or at school. This brings me to one of my favourite books, The Whole-Brain Child written by Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. (Did I mention that OTs tend to be serious brain nerds??) This book offers a practical approach and some valuable strategies that foster healthy brain development, leading to calmer happier children and families. By understanding some of the basics about how the brain works, we can better understand and respond more effectively to tough situations and build stronger relationships with our children.

Dr. Siegel describes the “upstairs brain”, the part of the brain which makes decisions and balances emotions, as being under construction until the mid-twenties. In young children especially, emotions tend to rule over logic. It is no wonder that preschoolers have tantrums!

During a tantrum/meltdown, the “downstairs brain” takes over. The “downstairs brain” is more primitive. it is responsible for things like breathing and blinking, for fight and flight reactions and for strong emotions like anger and fear. Dr. Siegel explains that techniques such as timeouts or negotiating are not effective when a child’s “downstairs brain” is fully on and the “upstairs brain” is essentially off! Instead, at times of high stress for a child, he suggests that adults instead try connecting with soothing hugs and calming words. Only later, when the child returns to a calm state, will he or she be better able to listen and talk about what happened.

Here are two other whole-brain strategies to try with your child:

  1. Name it to tame it – Telling stories to calm big emotions. We all feel better after sharing a scary or painful experience with someone. Helping a child to use their left brain to “name” their fears and emotions helps them to understand or “tame” them.
  2. Move it or lose it – Moving the body to avoid losing the mind. Movement is a powerful tool for the brain! If your child resists getting dressed, say “let’s do 5 jumping jacks together, and then we’ll put your pants on.”

The Whole-Brain Child – 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind written by Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PHD. (2011)

Written By Susanne Williams, B.Sc. O.T. (c)


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