Introducing Headphones to the Tactile and Auditory Sensitive Child
As an occupational therapist, I have found listening programs such as the Integrated Listening System and Therapeutic Listening to be very effective in addressing auditory perception, attention, concentration, vestibular issues and much more. However, we tend to face a very specific challenge before we can implement the intervention: how are we going to keep the headphones on the child for 30min or more!? This is a huge challenge for most clients and must be handled carefully. If we rush or force this process, we risk treatment plan failure and delay the child’s recovery and the intervention process.
Let’s start with some basic suggestions for helping a child who has a hard time wearing headphones:
Don’t rush it: let your child become accustomed to wearing the headphones gradually.
Put the headphones on yourself: let the child see you listening to music and wearing the headphones. I sometimes wear the headphones myself during a session and in time, the child becomes curious and wants to wear them. I may also have the child’s parents wear the headphones during our session. Let the child see you enjoying it and having fun.
Keep the headphones around: have the headphones close by even during non-listening sessions, so the child sees them and becomes more comfortable with them.
Practice with noise blocking earmuffs: if necessary, introduce noise blocking earmuffs (like headphones without the speakers) to get accustomed to having something over the ear. This can be done at anytime but preferably when the child is in a crowded or loud environment.
Gradually introduce the headphones: observe your child and watch for signs of curiosity. Even if it is for a few seconds, put the headphones on and take them off. The first few times, the child may resist or push you away and that’s okay - it doesn’t feel safe to him yet. Remember: for a child, auditory input is scary and unpredictable. You have to prove to the child that it is calming and predictable, and most of all, that he has control.
Only low frequencies please! Lower frequencies are grounding and calming; higher frequencies can be alerting and stressful.
While trying these techniques, watch your child closely: is he or she becoming more relaxed while using the headphones? Look at body posture to assess stress: facial grimace, shoulders shrugged, fisted hands, dilated pupils, wanting to run away and aggression are all signs of continued stress.
Once the child can wear the headphones for 5–10 seconds without these signs of stress, you can move on to scaling their time with the headphones:
Time it: once child is learning to relax try extending the time they wear the headphones by setting longer and longer time goals: start by counting to 10. It is very important you communicate the time goal, so the child knows when the headphones will come off. This contributes to their sense of safety and control. If the child is progressing quickly, feel free to use a timer (visual is best) to allow for longer time goals.
Distract the child: keep interesting toys close by and the moment the child puts on the headphones, shift your conversation and attention to another activity. As much as possible, engage the child in other activities so he can wear the headphones longer. When you see discomfort and the child wants to take off the headphones, start counting to 10 before taking them off. This way, he learns to push through and persevere with activities even if they feel uncomfortable.
Be creative and increase your time: by this time the child will be tolerating some tactile and auditory input, so focus on increasing the length of time in each session. For example, make bunny ears for your headphones. This can be a good fine motor activity while listening and at the end the child can put his bunny ears on his headphones.
Rewards and acknowledgments: don’t forget to let the child know he did a great job!! Reward him at the end of the session. You can build a reward chart and the child can earn a prize that you have previously discussed.