Learning and growing through adaptive responses

An adaptive response can be defined as an appropriate action in which an individual responds successfully or make an adjustment to an environmental demand (Ayres 1979). It is a measure of the individual’s ability to cope with and successfully meet an environmental challenge. Integration of sensations is critical so that we can react to the sensations from our bodies and environment in a meaningful way. In order to keep on growing and learning, we must be internally driven to actively participate in a purposeful activity, so that we can build on previous positive experiences and gradually expand our ability to adapt. The effectiveness of an adaptive response depends on the accuracy of our sensory perception and sensory feedback from our bodies. Adaptive responses imply that we are a little more effective than what we were previously able to do.

In a therapy session, adaptive responses can be facilitated by means of creating the “just-right challenge”, not too easy, and not too difficulty, bearing in mind the child’s unique level of skill (including strengths and vulnerable areas). The child has to exert some effort to get it right, in other words, a little out of their comfort zone. In life, individuals have to face challenges that are presented by their environment or people in their environment, without taking into considering each individual’s capabilities or emotional state, which can sometimes be a stretch too far. Some might be more effective than others, seeing that the environment in life is not necessarily adapted to suit the individual’s needs or skill level. However, an informed person can assist someone else to achieve success, and experience a sense of mastery over their environment by making subtle changes to an activity, breaking tasks down into smaller steps, or providing a little bit of support, until the individual (child or adult) can do things successfully on their own.

Adaptive responses can be observed on different levels (Smith Roley, Blanche and Schaaf 2001):

  • Motor adaptive responses can easily be observed e.g. being able to hold on while swinging, or while being pulled/pushed, being able to maintain balance on a moving surface, being able to throw a ball into a basket, riding a bicycle over obstacles without falling off, being able to run and kick a ball, getting dressed independently, eating with utensils, independent toilet routines.
  • Organisation of behaviour in time and space can be observed when planning and packing for a holiday, or sports game the next day or the coming weekend.
  • Emotional adaptive responses can be observed when someone is able to remain calm in a stressful situation. For a child it might be having fun without the presence of a primary caregiver at a playgroup or birthday party. For older children or adults, it might be coping with slightly less sleep, or dealing effectively with unpredictable change, or going to an unfamiliar place to do something without exactly knowing what is expected.
  • Physiological adaptive responses can occur on an autonomic nervous system level which are not so easy to observe e.g. improved respiration and heart rates, digestive functions and sleep/wake cycles.

Remember that we all make mistakes, but we try and learn from them. Please reassure children that it is OK to make a mistake, things do not have to be perfect or work out perfectly the first time. Guide them through possible frustrations by finding alternative solutions so that they can try something different e.g. a different approach, to achieve success. There is more than one way to do something.

An important achievement for each family is that we just try our best everyday. Today’s best may not be the same as yesterday’s or tomorrow’s best, and that is OK. Participating in movement activities, getting some fresh air and vit D from the sunshine is wonderful for everyone.

When attempting new activities, remember that each child is different in terms of interests, age and skills, so we have to make sure that we present them with a challenge that is not too easy, or not too hard for them, but just right so they can exert some effort and achieve success. And to ultimately have fun!

Adaptive response 1: holding on & moving forward

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