Habits. It brings to mind making your bed, eating your vegetables or getting exercise. Habits aren’t just about doing what you should, they are about making it easier. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your Sensory Processing Disorder child do a sensory diet every day? Wouldn’t it make you just fall out of your chair in happiness if they asked to do it and then had a better day because of it? Well, you are in luck!
Let me back up for a half second here. In case you are the ones wondering “why do I want to make doing a sensory diet a habit?”, we should start there.
Why should I do a sensory diet?
There are two different types of sensory activity diets: one to help the child’s overall sensory system process better over time and one to provide a specific sensory input to get a desired response (like doing jumping jacks to “wake up” the body before sitting down to focus for a test).
This blog will be focused on the first type, as making a sensory diet a daily habit is what lays down and cements the neural tracks of sensory processing. Doing that sensory diet once does help for that day, but it really doesn’t make much change to the brain and nervous system.
It is the process of doing it a little bit, day after day, that really makes changes. Repetition teaches the brain and nervous system how to take in, interpret, and respond to different types of input. In a nutshell, doing a sensory activity diet for 10 minutes every day can explode a child’s ability to process sensory input effectively! Sounds good? Let’s talk about how to turn that sensory diet into a habit.
Doing anything once is never hard, it is taking something and doing it every day that can be a challenge. This is where habits come in.
Easier, you say?
Okay, you want to know how habits make things easier? Think back to when you were learning to drive a car. Your mind was busy trying to think of which position in the lane to be in, when to turn on your blinker and hover over the break and how to time that yellow light. It wasn’t easy.
Now you don’t think twice about hopping in the car. It’s quite likely that your mind is exploring many other topics instead of the laws of traffic. It’s because you have done it. A lot. You know after you turn the key exactly what will happen next and next and next. Your mind doesn’t have to stay busy thinking of the process. It just makes it happen.
It would be pretty nice if doing that sensory diet just kind of happened, right? This is where habits step in.
I actually just finished reading “Automic Habits” by James Clear this week. It’s a great read (you can find it here). I am going to take his framework and turn it into a great way to make doing a sensory diet a habit. According to Clear, there are four laws for creating a good habit.
Make it easy
Want to make doing a sensory diet a habit? Make doing a sensory diet easy. Forget about using all those fancy therapy tools that you saw in the clinic or advertised online. If you have to wait for the sun to shine to go outside to swing, or wait to get out the slime when you have a better chance to supervise the mess, it’s too difficult to easily transform into a habit. You will do it sometimes, but not every day. That’s not habit material.
For it to be easy, you should be able to do it quickly and with little prep and forethought. Have a handful of activities of each type of sensory input ready to go. It’s okay to repeat them- the frequency of doing that sensory diet every day is much more important for the brain to be able to make changes. I will, at this point, mention that Sensory Sid Activity Cards have been instrumental for making a habit of doing a sensory diet with my kiddo. The activities use only common household items, so we get out the deck of cards and dive in. She picks one card of each color and way we go. Easy.
Make it obvious
My husband and I use white boards to help us keep track of our daily goals. We have two, one on either side of our table. Well, I was finding that I was doing a great job of getting the things done that were written on the whiteboard to left of the table, but I kept neglecting the tasks written on the right board. Why? Because from the chair I sat at, I looked directly at the left board, not the right. So, how obvious does obvious need to be? Pretty obvious!
For making our sensory diet a habit, what worked for us was putting our deck of Sensory Sid Activity Cards on top of our homeschool bag. For you, maybe that means a checklist of activity options by their dresser or at the kitchen table. Maybe it is a box of sensory tools that stays right by where they put their backpack after school, so they know that is what they do as soon as they get home. Whatever you do to cue yourself and your kids, make sure that it is super visible at a time that makes sense for doing that diet.
Make it attractive
How do you make a sensory diet that kids WANT to do? Make it fun! Give choices and let them pick. There will be ways for you to influence what they do later, first focus on making the sensory diet fun and a habit.
Another part of this law is what Clear calls “temptation bundling”. That means attaching the new, desired habit with something that you need or want to do. Like above, we need to do homeschool, so we’ve paired it with that. It can also be “finish your sensory diet and I will have your after school snack ready!” Teaming your new sensory diet action with a habit you already have in place makes it much more likely to get done.
Make it satisfying
Lastly, make doing a sensory diet satisfying. This can be as simple as a checklist of activity options that they check off, or pictures of the activities that they put away once done. I can tell you, being able to scratch through a completed item on my whiteboard is an incredibly satisfying moment, and you can start teaching your kids the same thing. Keep track of their habit streak and celebrate the wins.
The ultimate satisfaction of developing the habit of doing a sensory diet daily will be a year from now, when you realize that your child just put on socks without fussing for 5 minutes over how the seams felt, that they bravely tried the big slide for the first time, or that the teacher sent home a glowing report that they kept their hands to themselves in line all week. Oh, sensory progress feels good!