Signal-to-noise ratio is not something parents think about a lot. But it matters. The question is, how easily can my child detect what matters in this situation? Is there some kind of background noise that is blocking the signal? Sometimes the reason why a child is being unruly or ignoring instruction is because there is too much “noise” in her brain.
When I say noise, I mean a competing sensory input. It could be actual noise, but it could be the scent of popcorn, the feel of an irritating tag in a shirt, the sound of a tv show in the background, a wave of exhaustion, or any of a hundred other things.
So, what can we do about sensations that distract?
Well, first of all, we can reduce the noise, or at least be aware of it and work around it. We all know that our kids are not at their best when they are hungry, thirsty, tired or need to use the toilet. So we try to keep those things under control. What about other needs, like the need for exercise or for affection or for solitude or for a break from too much stimulation? Those ones might not occur to me right away, and it sometimes takes a few melt-downs before I work out the pattern, and make sure those needs are addressed. This is sometimes referred to as watching a child’s “sensory diet”. And, if I can’t avoid an unpleasant or overwhelming sensation for my child, at least I can make an effort to be aware of it, and to help my child cope with it. (“Those construction workers next door sure are noisy, aren’t they? Would you like to go for a walk to the library, or maybe watch one of your videos with my headphones on for a while?”)
And the alternative to reducing noise is boosting the signal.
This doesn’t mean yelling. It often means getting closer and quieter. A parent’s instructions are easier to hear when the attachment is strong, and when the parent makes eye contact, gently touches, and speaks softly. A voice so low that a child can just barely hear it is non-threatening, but very powerful. It makes your child’s curiosity work for you. The other advantage to this kind of signal boost is that (unlike yelling) it calms the parent, too, and a calm parent is much more likely to have a calm, co-operative child. Pro tip: Make sure that you also use this tone to share good news (“I just remembered that it’s ice cream night tonight!”) so that your child won’t see it as negative and avoid your whisper.
Signal-to-noise affects much more than just parent-child interactions, though. There is a lot of work being done in the world of psychology and special education about Sensory Regulation. When we help kids cope with sensory “noise”, they learn more about how to regulate themselves. We naturally try to show our children how to raise their energy when tired, and to reduce it when angry or frightened, but there seems to be some real value in teaching this as a specific skill. If we can help our kids to manage their own sensory diets, we are setting them up to successfully detect the “signal” in school and in a lot of other “noisy” environments.
If you want to know more about this, you could check out the “Zones of Regulation” or the “ALERT” program. If sensory issues are a big deal in your house, you might want to read “The Out-of Sync Child” or ask me about Sensory Processing disorder.
So, tell me, how do you work with your kids when it’s too noisy? Have you tried these approaches?