Why is my child having a hard time sitting on a chair? How can I help my child to better focus on a task or sit on a chair?
It is often a headache for a parent to have their children sitting on a chair or focusing on a task for a period of time. Children tend to be hyperactive. They can get easily distracted and have a short attention span. They are constantly moving or even trying to escape. Kids will rock back and forth, spin, roll, or swing. These behaviors are also typical to see with the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sensory processing disorder (SPD) population.
These behaviors and movements give them the sensory input they need to help them calm down, concentrate and function. Their bodies are working to self-regulate the sensory input they receive from their surroundings.
In this blog, we are going to break down how sensory processing, attention and motor skills affect kids ability to stay on task while sitting in a chair, and how parents can help.
Motor skills are skills needed for physical movement (dexterity, coordination, strength). It is the body’s ability to move in certain ways in order to function. Motor skills are divided into fine motor (fingers and hand movements) and gross motor (arms, trunk/posture, legs).
When kids are sitting in a chair, their overall motor condition affects their tolerance for a task.
For example, if a child has lower muscle strength from inactivity, they can become tired easily while sitting in a chair. You may see children favoring slumped posture or “W” sitting posture (After age 2 or older).
Sensory processing refers to how people process sensory input (such as vision, hearing, touch, balance, and internal sensation). A person can be undersensitive or oversensitive. This will lead to sensory seeking behavior (like rocking in a chair) or sensory avoiding behavior (like covering the ears or eyes to block out noise or light).
If you have a child who is undersensitive, they may constantly look for sensory input with constant movement. They can do this by rocking back and forth or kicking their legs while sitting in the chair.
In today’s world, we get distracted easily with too much input. Our phones, jobs and entertainment can cause us to have a shortened attention span. Children generally get distracted with things they are more interested in. This is typical behavior for kids.
Kids who have more trouble with attention (as typically seen in the ASD and ADHD population) may become more easily distracted or bored compared to their peers.
Should I stop the movement?
We don’t want to stop the sensory needs and the movement!
Why does my child rock, bang their feet, or wave their arms? Children are often unable to express the needs or the feelings of their bodies. However, movement is communication. They may be communicating that they need the extra sensory input, are feeling overwhelmed and need less input, are feeling tired from motor fatigue, or are having trouble with attention. These are all necessary for the regulation of sensory and motor input as well as attention.
Once their sensory needs have been met from the extra movement, they often will be able to calm down, follow directions, and concentrate better on tasks. As an occupational therapist, sensory regulation is my first priority.
However, in some cases, these behaviors are not acceptable. For example, it can be distractible to other students in the classroom or affect the mealtime.
Tips to help them to learn new tasks or focus on tasks:
Instruction and routine
Children show increased ability with following directions and focusing on tasks when they start going to school because of the instruction and schedule.
Visual timer, like clock or timer app
“Sit on the chair for 5 minutes” or “Sit on the chair to finish your homework” – which sounds easier? Setting short limits on how much time is spent on a task can help kids focus.
Some children have shorter attention spans and require more frequent sensory breaks, such as running around, swinging, or jumping.
Use rewards or praises as a motivation for kids to participate in tasks they don’t prefer.
“Positive reinforcement” – an approach to increase desired behaviors by focusing on the positive and offering a reward (praises, snacks, toys)
Simple and clear instructions
Some children have a harder time following directions because their brains process information for a longer period of time.
Simple and clear instructions will help some children to understand and follow directions better.
For example, instead of saying “can you put down the toys and come sit down on the chair”, use “toys down, and come sit down”. More like a command.
Every child is different, and OT will provide an individualized plan for every child depending on their personality, sensory processing, and needs.
**A tip for parents to help your little one sit on a chair:
I’ve heard a lot of parents asking me how to make their children sit on a chair longer, especially during mealtime. First, we have to understand that humans are not born to sit on a chair. Children spend a lot of time playing actively or sitting on the ground when playing. Often, they don’t have the chance to practice sitting on a chair until they start going to school where they are asked to sit on a chair for a long period of time. You can help your child by learning to sit on a chair by engaging them sitting on a chair or on a parent’s lap when playing with toys.
Please consult with your Occupational Therapist to find a therapy that is appropriate for you or your child.
I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy