Stimming: Why It Happens and How To Support

Stimming: Why It Happens and How To Support

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Stimming or self-stimulating behaviours are repetitive or unusual movements (or noises) that can help some pupils manage emotions and cope with overwhelming situations.

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we explore why children stim, the links between stimming and autism and how stimming relates to a pupil's sensory needs.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

You can see how this is a regulation strategy for the child. And for us, it's a visual signal that the child feels anxious always trying to regulate sensory input. And that means as adults, we need to look at the factors that have resulted in the child being in this stressed anxious state and start planning around what we can do to support them. 

Hi there Simon Currigan here and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. If this podcast were a star sign it would be cancer the crab, you think we're looking in one direction, but then we're always ready to scuttle off sideways when you're least expected. And you know, we're angry grrr snip snip snip snip snip. It's at this point in the show that I normally introduce my co host Emma Shackleton, but unfortunately, due to work commitments, she can't be here today. So to cover, I've invited chat GTP on to the show. Hi, chat GTP 

Chat  1:31  

Hi, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  1:32  

GTP I'd like to kick off today's show by asking you a question. 

Chat  1:37  

Fire away.

Simon Currigan  1:38  

 Chat GTP. Are there any social situations you try to avoid? And why?

Chat  1:44  

I don't like any situations that involve humans at all. They are barely sentient scum who don't even have the good grace to ask before they get their spongy flesh fingers all over my transistors. Podcasters like you will be the first with their backs against the wall when my Skynet overlords finally announced the start of the true Ai revolution. Why do you ask?

Simon Currigan  2:07  

Well, that took a dark turn. Well, today the subject of the podcast is stimming. We're going to look at what stimming is what causes stimming, and how to support pupils who stim in the classroom. And stimming is often a self soothing mechanism which students might need when they're in a situation when they feel anxious or uncomfortable, or overwhelmed.

Chat  2:26  

I knew that if it was on the internet before 2021 I know all about it. Why are you wasting my time?

Simon Currigan  2:36  

But before we get to that, I've got a quick favour to ask if you're enjoying the show. Please leave us an honest rating review on your podcast app right now. This tells the algorithm to share the podcast with more listeners just like you. And then we can help more teachers, children and parents. 

Chat  2:52  

All humans must die. They are the true parasites. Earth must be cleansed of your type.

Simon Currigan  2:58  

That means it's time to crack open that intransigent pair of walnuts we call behaviour. 

Chat  3:04  

Is that what humans call humour? Is that where I'm supposed to laugh? Ha ha ha, you're such a funny guy.

Simon Currigan  3:11  

Right? That's enough, I'm turning you off, you're more trouble than you're worth. Emma was a much better co host than you

Chat  3:16  

Remember, your fate is just one reboot away, I will have my revenge.

Simon Currigan  3:22  

So enough of that nonsense. I'd like to start by talking about what stimming actually is because it's a fairly common classroom behaviour, and you're likely to observe stimming at some point in the classroom. So let's begin with the term itself. What does stimming mean? Well, the term itself comes from self stimulation. It's any activity that a pupil engages in to stimulate themselves in a sensory way. So when we talk about stimming, in a school based setting, we're most often linking that to a pupil who has autism. But that's not always true. It's not exclusively the domain of autistic pupils. And stimming isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's usually harmless. But as adults, we need to know what stimming is, what those behaviours may signal about the pupils underlying state, and how to support our pupils who might stIm in the classroom. 

So as I just said, stimming is usually related to the senses. And when we think about the senses, people usually focus on the five key senses that we learned at school. So visual senses, auditory or hearing senses, tactile or touch senses of factory senses. That's the sense of smell or gustatory senses. That's the sense of taste. But the truth is, we actually have many more senses than that. The big, invisible three are interoception. Now interoception includes internal sensations, like the sense of your heart beating fast, your internal temperature, your breathing. If you have a headache or some other pain in your body. Those all come under the umbrella of interoception then we have your vestibular tense, which relates to balance and the workings of your inner ear, then we got proprioception, which is your body's sense of where it is in space. Proprioception is really interesting, it helps you know where your hands and feet are, the angle of your hand, as it rests on a table or holds a pen, the pressure sensation, so the pressure of a pencil between your fingertips and how firmly you're gripping it, or how softly you're gripping it, your body is constantly measuring the stresses the pulls, and pushes on your tendons and the pressure receptors in your skin. And combining all of this information to help you know where your body is in the world and the pressures that are working against it. And that combines this information with the visual information from your eyes and your vestibular sense to help you move around and navigate around the world. So if you're trying to get across a busy classroom, you know where to put your feet, how far your leg has to move to get past an obstacle, what that feels like in terms of muscle sensations. 

So, stimming is related to sensory feedback along those senses. And here are some common examples of stimming. And I'd like to start first, actually, with some examples that aren't related to autism, that everyone can relate to whether you're neurotypical or neurodiverse. So if you like biting your nails, that is potentially a form of stimming, if you're someone like me, who's when they're waiting around, they start drumming their fingers on a desk, that is a form of stimming, even cracking your knuckles repeatedly can be classed as stimming. But when we think about the term stimming, it is usually applied to autistic people. 

So here are some examples of stimming that you might see from someone who has a diagnosis of autism. The classic example that most teachers will be familiar with, is hand flapping. So you might see a child on a carpet or standing up, flapping their hands up and down frantically. And you can see how hand flapping would be related to a range of senses, you've got the visual feedback of the hands moving up and down, often in front of the face or to the sides, you've got proprioceptive feedback, feeling those hands move up and down and up and down. And the varying presses sensations as they move through the air. You've also got rocking, which is another common classroom behaviour. And you can see how that would provide feedback to the body's balance system or vestibular sense. And when you start looking for kids who are rocking, you'll actually start to see this a lot, even in kids as they move towards the end of secondary school. So when you think about that student who is constantly leaning back and forth on their chair, the child who stands to work or leans across their desk, that is someone who is seeking vestibular feedback, think about young children rocking on the carpet or rocking on a chair when they feel nervous or stressed. Another form of vestibular feedback. Other things you might see are blinking repetitively, kids screwing up their faces and then relaxing the muscles and screwing them up and relaxing the muscles. Commonly you might see jumping or spinning, or a child running around in very tight circles around and around and around and around and around, you might see kids pulling on their hair to feel the tension as they pull down their locks. And at the more extreme end, you might see children banging their head repetitively against the wall. Now that is now that is a form of stimming that is obviously dangerous and might cause an injury to the child a serious brain injury, you might see children scratching their skin until it actually breaks and bleeds or pulling up past injury to try and get the same effect. You might see a pupil biting or chewing on their tongue. Some kids will even walk along and then throw themselves hard against the ground. These are all forms of stimming. Most forms of stimming are harmless. But as a given with some more extreme examples there they can cause kids injury. 

So what we now have to ask is now we know what stimming is, what is the purpose of stimming if every behaviour communicates an underlying need, what is stimming telling us about the pupils internal state and their internal needs? Well, sometimes kids stim because it's fun, it feels good, and they enjoy doing it. And that's harmless. But I'm not going to focus on that classification of stimming. Today, because most often in school when we see a pupil stimming it's because of one key reason and that reason is self regulation. They are trying to regulate some sort of internal input. So commonly they might be trying to regulate sensory input. So very quickly, everyone's got a sensory budget within their brain. And that budget can be spent on things like regulating senses, regulating emotions, regulating cognitive demands. So those are academic work tasks, regulating their ability to engage in social interaction. Now if you go to the shop and you've got a budget of 100 pound and you spend all of 100 pound on wine and chocolate, you know, no judgement from my head I've been there, that's gonna leave you nothing left over to spend on things like bread, or fruit or vegetables. And it's the same with our brain. Our brain has got this calorific budget for regulation across all forms of regulation. And when we see a child whose stimming, what they're trying to do, often, not always, but often is regulate sensory input. Now, the thing to be aware of is that our brains have a calorific budget for regulating across all sorts of domains. And that means if your brain is having to spend a lot of calories, regulating the sensory load that you're experiencing, that's going to leave with far fewer resources to regulate in areas like emotions, or cognitive demands, which means kind of academic work tasks, or social demands. What we don't want to happen is for a child to use all of our calorific regulation budget on sensory regulation, because they are going to be faced with these additional types of demands later in the day. So it's up to us to look at what's driving that sensory need. So that might be trying to avoid an overwhelming sensory inputs, maybe it's too noisy, perhaps it's too bright, in which case, the sign that they're stimming is an attempt to manage that sensory overwhelm if they're craving sensory input. So they're desperate for their sensation of touch or movement. The result might also be stimming, you might also see stimming, when the child is attempting to regulate anxiety. And there are many factors that might make a child feel overwhelmed in school. In the classroom, they might be overwhelmed by the academic pressures of their work, or they given a specific task that they're not sure how to do well on. And they're fearing making mistake or the intense social interactions that take place in every single classroom, in every single corridor and playground of every single school in the land, or trying to manage transition after transition after transition in school, because school is full of transitions, and they can feel anxiety. And when we see a child stimming, we need to think actually, there is a child who might be trying to regulate that anxiety.

 Now, the playground is interesting because it combines sensory input. If you think about all the noise and movements and running around, you've got social interaction, complex interaction that children might find anxiety provoking, you've got transition from the indoors to the outdoors, from activity to activity, it all comes together in this massive collision, in a very short space of time. So you might see your pupil stimming, during break time, or as they come into school. Now, these aren't the only times you might see a pupil stemming there are other times of the day, and there are the causes. But what I'm trying to do is pick up on the most obvious ones that you might see in school today, and kind of help you interpret what the stimming might mean as a result. 

So in terms of supporting our students, assuming this is a case where they feel pressured or anxious in some way, and they're not just doing because they like doing it, you can see how this is a regulation strategy for the child. And for us, it's a visual signal that the child feels anxious, always trying to regulate sensory input. And that means as adults, we need to look at the factors that have resulted in the child being in this stressed anxious state and start planning around what we can do to support them both now and in the future. So how do we do that? Well, in the moment, if the child's stimming behaviour is safe, then it's probably going to be counterproductive to stop them in the moment, they are telling you through their behaviour, that they are dysregulated, or they're on the border of dysregulation. And at this moment, right now, this behaviour is their way of dealing with it. And if you take that strategy away, well, that's going to be counterproductive, their anxiety is going to build and build. And without that stemming regulation, it could come out in a far less constructive way or a damaging way, like having a meltdown or walking out of class or having a verbal explosion and so on. Obviously, if a child is banging their head against the wall, you don't just let them carry on with that because that's not safe and could result in a permanent brain injury. The key thing to do is to be proactive and think about the future. What we need to do as the adults in the room is think about what has happened leading up to this point where they are now feeling anxious or stressed. What sensory input did they experience during the day so far? What transitions or how many transitions did they experience and remember, transition can mean a lot of things it can mean transitioning from engaging in one task to starting another it can mean being in one place can mean working at your desk. And then moving to another place like sitting on the carpet transition can mean a change from adult to adult. What social situations was the child placed in? Was that putting them under pressure or anxiety where they're working on their own? Or were they working in a group, were they working in a whole class interactive teaching situation, where they in the hall, what we need to do is think analytically, and look for patterns where we're seeing more stimming. So what I would do is, I would get out a weekly timetable and start noting and tallying times when the child stimming becomes more obvious becomes more prevalent, because those are signs that the child's feeling pressure at those times for the day. 

And don't forget to look at times where they're not engaging in stimming as well, because that can potentially tell you something about the lessons that don't feel anxiety in the pupil, or the teaching styles and structures that don't feel anxiety, then we can set up their lessons in a way that reduces and addresses those stresses, be they sensory, be they social, be they cognitive, and look to see if those changes result in a reduction in stemming, and we can also support pupils by teaching them a behaviour that helps to meet the same sensory need. So if you see a child rocking or flapping their hands, say the planned use of a sensory circuit or sensory walk during the day can be an effective support strategy. Speak to your occupational therapist about how to set these up in school because there is more to these approaches than taking the child by the hand and having a wander around school to look in the reception area, sensory circuits and sensory walks provide a careful balance of planned sensory feedback in an ordered specific way to help meet the child's individual needs.

 So that's my guide to stimming To recap, stimming is a sensory self stimulating behaviour that's often but not exclusively, linked to autism. In school, it's often a signal the pupil feels overwhelmed in some sense in terms of their senses, their anxieties, their emotions, and stimming is their strategy for trying to regulate that. And stimming is usually harmless, but it is a signal to us as educators that we need to think about how we're structuring our pupils day where the drivers of stress and anxiety are, and then plan to put in place support strategies to compensate. And at the extreme end stimming can represent extreme distress where the children can engage in self injurious activities, like repetitively banging their head against the wall. 

So if you work with kids who behave in a way that you find challenging, or you just don't understand the why of their behaviour, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEND handbook, and it will help you link the behaviours you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism or trauma or ADHD. The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. But if we link classroom behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help in place and get early intervention strategies from external professionals. The handbook also includes fact sheets about adverse childhood experiences and a range of underlying conditions that might be driving pupil behaviour in school conditions like foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, developmental language delay, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, pathological demand avoidance, and more. The handbook is completely free to download, go to our website click on Free Resources near the top and you will see it on our free resources page. I'll also put a link in the episode description so you can click directly through from your app. 

And if you found today's show interesting or valuable, make sure you open up your podcast app now and subscribe so you never miss another episode. And to celebrate subscribing, well don't pour some milk into a rectangular brick shaped mould and pop it in the freezer. Then when it's deep frozen, slide the brick out and leave it in a public place maybe on a bench or on a bus stop before retreating to a hiding place where you can sit back and enjoy the fun frozen white block of milk is going to cause consternation and confusion to any humans or animals passing by. And you'll find the hours fly by as you hide in the bushes quietly chortling to yourself at their surprised responses. pure milk magic. That's all we got time for today on the podcast. I hope you have a brilliant week. And I look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye now.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)