Interoception as a proactive tool to decrease challenging behaviour

Dr Emma Goodall, author, researcher and education consultant, explains the benefits of teaching interoception skills and shares teaching activities using three online resources which she has co-created.


What is interoception?

Interoception is sometimes referred to as mindful body awareness or somatic awareness. It's colloquially known as the eighth sense, with the other seven being sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, proprioception and vestibular (Lynch and Simpson, 2004). Interoception is an internal sensory system in which the internal physical and emotional states of the body are noticed, recognised/identified and responded to. Awareness of both these internal body cues is impacted in individuals who are affected by trauma, including intergenerational trauma, and neurodevelopmental disabilities including the autism spectrum (Schauder, Mash, Bryant and Cascio, 2015; Mahler, 2015).

Interoception skills are required for a range of basic needs, such as knowing when to go to the toilet, and more advanced emotions, like being aware that you are becoming angry or upset and managing these feelings proactively. When children and young people have not yet developed interoception skills they will struggle with their emotions and social interactions. These students require higher levels of co-regulation by their teachers, as they become dysregulated far more quickly than their peers, often resulting in much lower levels of learning and higher levels of take-homes, suspensions and exclusions.

Once a child or young person can recognise and understand their internal body signals for uncomfortable emotions, they can begin to work out what distresses or stresses them and then how to respond to these stressors. Parents and teachers may well have a good idea of the feelings involved, and their causes - but without learning it for themselves, the child or young person will never be able to learn to self-regulate independently and will require co-regulating throughout their education.

Resources for teaching interoception

The following resources can be used together or separately to introduce and teach interoception:

  • Ready to Learn - Interoception Kit (PDF 6936KB) by Department for Education, South Australia (2019) - for preschools and primary schools (plus families and allied health professionals)
  • Interoception Activity Guide 301 (PDF 3085KB) by Department for Education, South Australia (2019) - for upper primary, intermediate and secondary schools (plus families and allied health professionals)
  • YouTube videos about interoception and managing behaviour by Healthy Possibilities (2019).

The two resources from the South Australian Department for Education provide a brief outline of the evidence base for teaching interoception and offer a range of explicit teaching activities and resources for lesson planning and delivery. If you are new to interoception and are only starting to implement the approach, it may be helpful to browse the department's Interoception webpage or watch some of the videos on the Healthy Possibilities YouTube channel. These videos range from cartoon explanations of interoception to practical advice on how to teach it in the classroom, including videos which will introduce it to preschool and primary children for you. Additional videos explain the link between poor interoception and challenging behaviour and emotional dysregulation.

Together, the three resources link to multiple areas of the national curriculum, across all ages and stages of learning, including English, mathematics, science, PDHPE, creative arts and preschool. Links to specific syllabuses and general capabilities are noted in Interoception Activity Guide 301 (pp 5-14), together with brief examples. This information is also available as a separate download via Linking Interoception to the Australian Curriculum, General Capabilities and Embedding in Classroom Practices.

Educational significance

As its name suggests, the Ready to Learn - Interoception Kit is designed to ensure students are ready and able to learn prior to starting formal lessons. However, interoception and formal lessons can also be easily combined to enhance effective learning, as the curriculum links within Interoception Activity Guide 301 make clear.

When students are too stressed or distressed (whether due to high cortisol levels from chronic stress or because they are experiencing sympathetic nervous system overload - flight/fight/freeze/flop/drop), they are unable to learn effectively. At worst, they can be so disruptive that no-one can learn.

Teaching interoception using the suggested activities helps students connect to and learn to understand their own bodies and emotions. This develops the prerequisite skills for self-management and self-regulation. The suggested resources provide children and young people with the tools to know when they are developing emotional reactions, and the skills to be in control of those reactions.

Schools and preschools where interoception is being taught have decreasing behavioural challenges over the school year, while those where it is not have static or increasing behavioural challenges (South Australian school-wide behaviour reporting analysis 2016-2019). In the 230 schools and preschools using these resources, over the course of a term, children and young people have consistently demonstrated decreases in challenging behaviour and increases in pro-social behaviour, followed by increases in engagement in learning. School learning support officers/teacher aides who use interoception activities to start withdrawal group activities have reported much higher levels of engagement and learning in those groups as compared to not using interoception.

With most states and territories now focused on Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) or Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL), teaching interoception is a unique version of these approaches that uses universal design for learning philosophy to teach the prerequisite skills for self-management and self-regulation in classrooms, preschools and families.

Schools and preschools where interoception is being taught have decreasing behavioural challenges... and increases in pro-social behaviour, followed by increases in engagement in learning.

Suggestions for using these resources

Educators could show some of the videos from the Healthy Possibilities YouTube channel to their students and then discuss, or they could simply start using the activities in Ready to Learn - Interoception Kit or Interoception Activity Guide 301. These activities can be used in any order, though it is preferable to start at the beginning and work through them. To improve self-regulation in the classroom (or preschool) effectively, interoception activities must be taught 2-3 times a day. Most educators find that teaching an activity or two before rollcall, and after recess and lunch is the most effective and simplest way to embed interoception in the school day. Each activity takes 1-5 minutes to implement and teachers simply read the dot points whilst modelling the activity as students follow along.

An interoception activity focuses on a particular part of the body for 30-60 seconds. Students observe and label the movement and part of the body involved (for example, toes - stretch and curl up or curl under). They are then encouraged to identify a change in their body state (for example, hot-cold, soft-hard, stretch-relax) and where they felt that change (arch or ball of foot, on top). The change in body state is always repeated a second time, and the whole class is asked to focus on noticing what they feel in a very specific part of their body. When undertaking interoception activities 2-3 times a day, decreases in challenging behaviour and increases in engagement in learning should be noticed within 8-10 weeks.

Secondary teachers have indicated that they find watching a short video on Dan Siegal's hand model of the brain (2:52) can be useful as an initial introduction to students. A follow-up discussion can focus on how helpful it can be for students to have their thinking cap of the brain connected, and how interoception re-engages their thinking cap. Educators can increase confidence prior to presenting activities to students by watching a short video on How to develop interoception (2:37) or How to teach interoception (5:30).

Teaching activities

Using the warm-up style interoception activities and tracking students' personal bests (for example, 'how long can I hold a wall press/plank?') can be the easiest ways to get upper primary and secondary school students to engage in interoception. This is reflected in Interoception Activity Guide 301. This guide also includes a food and technology unit plan which has been developed and successfully implemented by staff at Paralowie R-12 School in South Australia for their Years 8 and 9 students (pp 46-58).

The Ready to Learn - Interoception Kit contains three mini lessons and numerous activities which can be used with the whole class to settle students after recess and lunch. An example of the activities presented is 'Feeling muscles - hands'. In this exercise, students start by sitting down, resting their hands on top of their thighs (teacher demonstrates). Then everyone stretches their fingers as wide apart as possible and holds them tense in this position for 30 seconds. Everyone then rests their hands again, so they should be relaxed. Students are then asked by the teacher: 'Where could you feel your muscles when your hands were stretched?' Students can either point or say where they felt something. The teacher then asks the students to repeat the stretch for another 30 seconds, this time focusing on a specific part of their hand (such as the webbing between their fingers). Each time the activity is done for the second time, a different place can be designated for the students to focus on. After the second stretch, the students can be asked if they felt it more. It can take up to 12 months for some students to feel some areas of their body.

Time trials in several South Australian schools showed a decrease from up to 15 minutes to 5 minutes from coming in to starting work. These interoception activities can thereby serve to increase both available teaching time and the likelihood that students will be neurologically and emotionally ready to learn.

Experimenting

Sports teams may find their accuracy of play improves as their collective interoception increases - which could form a scientific experiment.

Another interesting way that primary school teachers have creatively incorporated interoception into their lesson planning is to get students who are already familiar with the activities and theory behind them, to design, record and present their own interoception activities to their peers.


References and further reading

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2019). General capabilities.

Department for Education, South Australia. (2019). Interoception Activity Guide 301.

Department for Education, South Australia. (2019). Ready to Learn - Interoception Kit*.

Department of Education and Training. (2009). Belonging, being & becoming - the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.

Healthy Possibilities. (2019). Home [YouTube channel].

Lynch, S. A. & Simpson, C. G. (2004). Sensory processing: Meeting individual needs using the seven senses. Young Exceptional Children, 7(4), 2-9.

Mahler, K. (2015). Interoception: The eighth sensory system. Shawnee, KS: AAPC.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA; formerly Board of Studies NSW) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2006). Creative arts K-6 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). Mathematics K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). PDHPE K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2017). Science and technology K-6 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2018). Science Years 7-10 syllabus.

Schauder, K. B., Mash, L. E., Bryant, L. K. & Cascio, C. J. (2015). Interoceptive ability and body awareness in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 131, 193-200. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.11.002

*Kit contains:


How to cite this article - Goodall, E. (2020). Interoception as a proactive tool to decrease challenging behaviour. Scan, 39(2).

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