179: How Sensory Impacts Learning & Behavior, with Laura Pet, OTR/L

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Parents often ask, “Is it sensory or is it behavior?” The truth is, sensory challenges cause behavior. Knowing that helps you determine a child’s intent and then zoom out and rewind to determine the particular sensory struggle that caused the behavior. There are many potential sensory struggles and they depend entirely on the individual.

In this episode, I’m joined by occupational therapist Laura Petix (aka, the OTbutterfly). Laura shares a variety of real-life examples to help you learn how to determine the specific sensory systems impacted in the tasks and activities your child or student struggles with. She explains the concepts in an easy to understand way so you better understand what’s triggering behavior and can formulate an informed plan to help.


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My Guest


Laura is a pediatric Occupational Therapist in Southern California. She is a wife and mom to a neurodivergent 4 year old with SPD and anxiety. Laura’s passion is educating parents about how sensory processing has a direct impact on learning and behavior. She does this via her social media (@TheOTButterfly), podcast, blog, 1:1 parent consults, online courses and programs for parents of kids with sensory challenges.



Laura Petix 0:03

It is more beneficial for teachers and adults to talk about everybody is different. Every single person in this group has a different way of saying something of learning something, there might be a few that have the same way. But that's the piece that we need to unlock in our kids so they don't feel stigmatized.

Penny Williams 0:24

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Welcome back to the beautifully complex Podcast. Today I have with me, occupational therapist, Laura Petix, also known as the OT butterfly, and we're going to talk about how sensory impacts learning and behavior, such an important topic because we know that sensory really fuels a lot of reactions and behaviors from our kids. So I'm really excited to share Laura's insights and expertise with you. Thanks for being here. Laura, will you start by introducing yourself just everyone listening know who you are and what you do?

Laura Petix 1:23

Yes, absolutely. Thank you for having me. Penny, thank you everybody for listening. As she mentioned, I am a pediatric occupational therapist, I work in a private clinic, one on one with children who have a variety of needs and supports that I help them with. I specifically work with children who have sensory processing challenges. And that can impact their behavior and learning at school. So we'll talk a little bit about that later. But I also spend some time coaching parents on how sensory impacts learning and behavior so that they can support their neurodivergent kids at home as effectively as possible. Lately, I've been really perfecting my conscious parenting, gentle parenting, there's so many different words for it. But I've been perfecting that part of my parenting skill with a neurodivergent twist. So I like to call it gentle parenting with a neurodivergent twist. Because I really, really believe in the approaches that those methods offer and how we see the child differently. However, I do believe that parents of neurodivergent, kids need a little bit more explicit examples of how you can apply those approaches to our own kids. And I have a neurodivergent child myself, she is almost five, she has anxiety and sensory processing disorder. And I have anxiety myself. So we have a lot of practice in understanding how different brains work. And I like to take that approach that I use with myself and help other parents find their perfect approach with their child with their specific needs.

Penny Williams 3:08

I love it. One of the biggest aha was for me was when my son started occupational therapy, I started learning about like how his brain works and how sensory plays into the behaviors that we were seeing. And it was so monumentally helpful to just understand him better and what he was doing and why he was doing it was really, really helpful for us. I want to start by asking you, is it sensory? Or is it behavior? Because I'm sure you get that question a lot. And I know it's an very important sort of lens for us to use for this entire conversation.

Laura Petix 3:46

Yes, this is the question of the year of the century for every parent who has a child with any sort of behavior. And then when you learn what sensory is, it's very easy for you to see how they are linked. And then I find that when parents learn about sensory processing, like you said, it's this aha moment, it's a lightbulb, but almost to the point where like, then you're like, is everything my child doing sensory? Then the next question as well, he does hit his sibling a lot. And I thought he was being a bad kid. So is that a sensory thing? Or is it a behavior? So I always get some translated form of is it sensory? Or is it behavior? And I spend a lot of my time trying to debunk or reframe this debate, which really, when I think about it, when I hear parents say like, I like to take a very specific example. So let's say the example is hitting like always hitting their sibling that's such a common way of sibling or a friend. Is it sensory, or is it behavior? And so when a parent is asking that, what you're really asking as a parent, what you're trying to really understand from that question is, Is my child hitting on purpose to be bad to get a reaction, or is it something they quote can't help with a sensory need.

And that's what you're trying to divide in your head. And so I understand where you're coming from. But why we should look at it differently is, first of all, the behavior is hitting. But behavior is anything that is observable, something that you do in reaction to some sort of stimulus in the environment, it doesn't even have to be another person. Yeah, if it's really hot, and I'm sleeping at night, it's really hot, I'm gonna like, pull off my blanket, and maybe even like, fan might sweat off a little bit. That's a behavior, I'm responding to a stimulus in the environment. If someone takes something from me, or if someone is really close to my body, and I hit them, the hitting is the behavior no matter what, whether it is sensory driven, or it's not sensory driven. And that's what I spend my time doing, instead of saying, Is it sensory or behavior? I like parents to understand sensory is behavior sensory responses is a behavior hitting is a behavior period. Now what we want to do is decide, is it sensory driven? Is the hitting being driven by a sensory component or a sensory need? Or is it being driven by something else, and this list of other or something else can be anything from social, emotional, cognitive challenges, communication challenges, emotional needs, connecting with a peer connecting with an adult, so many other things in that category? That's not sensory driven. But even if the hitting is sensory driven, it's still a behavior. And I would argue that both of those things, whether it is a sensory need, or some other need, whether it's building a skill, or a need for a connection, both of those our needs, and our quote, are more or less out of our child's control, in the sense that they're not doing it to be a bad kid. It's that there's something that they are missing, and that they need help getting.

Penny Williams 7:04

Yeah, because so often, it is not intentional, you'll feel feels very intentional to us as parents, right? Or as anyone around that child safe. If the child is hitting me, that feels pretty personal, doesn't it?

Laura Petix 7:17

Absolutely. Especially when they're older.

Penny Williams 7:19

Yeah. But if we just take the time to ask what's behind it, why is it happening? What is triggering it? What is it driven by as you're saying, then we can really be helpful. Plus, I think, we give our kids the benefit of the doubt that way. And it's a much more compassionate way to parent.

Laura Petix 7:37

Exactly different parenting approaches and different ways of disciplining your child's behavior, right discipline is just teaching them something right doesn't always mean punishment. And discipline does not equal punishment. But there are different parenting styles where you are separating the child's behavior from the child themselves, and all of the feelings and sensory needs and skills that they have and don't have, you're separating the behavior from the child, but different parenting strategies, some might focus only on the behavior and trying to change the behavior and stop the behavior and do all the things with the behavior. And then there are other parenting approaches where you focus more on the child and supporting them first, and the skills that they need to build. And then there are other parenting approaches where they don't separate the behavior from the child. And they think that the behavior defines the child. So there are so many different ways. But in general, I like to separate the child from the behavior, the behaviors do not become the child, the child does not become the behavior. But our first plan of action is to find out why because that's what's going to allow us to effectively help so whenever I get a question, my child is hitting, my child is biting, my child keeps running away, how can I help? And I always say, Well, before we get to the house, we need to understand the why because our approach to the house looks so different, depending on what the y is.

Penny Williams 8:56

Yeah. And what we're really talking about is the fact that behavior is communication. Exactly. What is the behavior trying to tell us? Exactly. And so let's talk a little bit about that process. As far as sensory driven behaviors. How do we figure that out? We see this behavior on the surface or child is hitting another child. We don't think it's intentional. How do we then figure out what is really driving that behavior?

Laura Petix 9:22

Yes. So this question relies a lot on a lot of data points, so to speak, as parents, so you really do need to spend a lot of time observing. You might even get a pen and paper out and write down patterns of things. And when you notice them around certain environments, context, times of days, days of the week, all of those things to see if there's a certain pattern and that's always going to be your first step. But I'm going to give a very specific example of a behavior and show you just how many different ways that can be related to sensory and how you treat We need to understand your child's sensory patterns or needs a little bit to be able to get you closer to the answer. But at the end of it, it can be very complex. And this is sometimes when you do need to seek an evaluation or an assessment to truly see your child's sensory profile. But here's an example. Like I said, hitting is always like a really great one with a lot of complex layers. When this is a very realistic example, like a child is sitting in a group of whether it's his siblings, or cousins, or if we want to imagine were at school. And they're sitting in a circle playing with Hot Wheels, cars, rolling and playing, and maybe using those ramps and all of that, and your child is hitting another child or anybody that tries to grab the cars out of his hand. Right? If we don't zoom out, if we are just so zoomed in on that one microsecond of him hitting the kid who grabbed his car, our first thought might be Oh, he doesn't like to share, he needs to learn how to share his cars. That's what it is.

Penny Williams 16:06

Yeah. And I love that you use the word layers, because, yes, it could be a sensory trigger. But maybe that's more triggering, because there's other components layered on that. Maybe they're also having a tough time with frustration, tolerance, or, feeling like, they don't fit in the group that they don't have friends. So many things can be playing in there. But I love the idea that there's multiple layers to that too. And we have to be sort of detectives to figure out that it may just be one thing, or maybe multiple things and keeping our minds open to that. And you give the best examples. And love your examples. Because as a parent, it's so much easier for us to kind of have those big aha, because when we get those examples, and we can say, Oh, my kid does that my kid is hitting other kids at school, I'm constantly getting called at home. And I had no idea what might be causing that. Now I know what to look at, right? Yes. And it's so very helpful in that aspect. I would love to talk a little bit more about the sensory role with learning and in the school environment. Because I think so many kids struggle with that. The classrooms often are not sensory friendly. I know my own son had so many sensory challenges. He was both sensitive, and a sensory seeker in different ways. And so was really tough with the overwhelm the competing sounds right? Other people having conversations, overtop of maybe the teacher was a big aggravation for him. And it was driven by sensory. And so many parents really question how do I help my kid in the school environment? What do I ask for? What do I ask the teachers to do? To help in these ways?

Laura Petix 17:58

Yeah, so my dream is for one day for not only for classrooms to be more conducive to sensory learners, or everybody's learning style, right? The first thing to know is everybody has sensory quirks. Everyone has different learning styles, yes, but my dream is more also to the fact that schools classrooms, maybe OTS would go into classrooms that there is just more general education, to the wider public, of especially neurotypical children to learn that there are multiple ways of learning to read a book or to write a letter or to do all of the different things. We spend so much time as parents of neurodivergent kids spending so much time advocating and making our kids feel accepted. But there's not enough work on the other people who need to just become more accepting and aware that there are different ways to learn to communicate to process, right. So that's like, just like a bigger picture system wide thing, I hope one day would change. But yeah, in the classroom, just one little bit about why that happens, just so parents can understand. When your child is either like seeking out movement, right, like you mentioned, your child does, or has a hard time filtering out extra sounds, or has a hard time filtering out touch from the seams of their socks, anything sensory related, that we know that their brain works harder to do from a sensory processing perspective. All of those things that I mentioned, neurotypical people's brains do automatically without any extra effort. It's just kind of like running in the background. Right? Kids with sensory processing challenges.

Their brains are more like, inefficient, so to speak, it spends way more energy doing something that should be very automatic. So that naturally means that you have less brain space for executive functioning skills for social emotional learning, for all of the things that they are expected to do in the classroom. So what you're going to see is if you don't meet those needs for them by a common Dating the environment, by changing up their seating, their brain is going to spend so much time meeting those needs first, because their body is not regulated. And so if they're spending all of that energy on that, first, they're going to have less for remembering to raise their hand for remembering to put the marker cap back on for remembering to turn in his his sheet of paper, after he writes his name on it, because there's too many steps to that. But my brain was focusing on first filtering out that screech of the chair that someone just tucked in, and I had to look and see what it was all these tiny, tiny things, right. And so if teachers, parents, OTs classroom aides, if if we can take that load off of our kids by creating an environment that is more accommodating, and it's going to look different for every kid, but if we can do that, and spend more time acknowledging that, then we are going to do everybody in the classroom, a better service because everyone's going to be able to access the academic skills a little bit better. So some common sensory strategies in the classroom. Again, it's going to depend on each kid every learning profile, but the number one thing that like we always look about first is like seating arrangements, right?

Whether you're a sensitive kid to sound or you need movement, so having a lot of options for where they can sit in the classroom, and how they can do work. So like, yes, you want them all to be reading, but do they have to be reading at their desk, and he read on his tummy in the beanbag, or, yes, you want them to be working on this math worksheet, but my child has a really hard time remembering how to hold the pencil and still writing the numbers. So he's gonna get all of that wrong, even though he knows the math. So can he use your stamps of numbers instead? And stamp the answer instead of writing it with a pencil? I love that idea of can he do his work standing, standing at a table? Maybe instead of sitting down? Can he do it on a clipboard while sitting on a beanbag? Like, just finding ways where, if you as the teacher are thinking of what is my goal out of this assignment, this activity? Is the writing of the numbers or spelling the words really important? Or can I have him like audibly spell it to me, so I know he understands the information. So it's accommodating your demands on the academic piece, but also accommodating the way that kids learn by allowing them to use noise reducing headphones by allowing them to sit somewhere outside of the circle time, maybe behind the kids if they need to stand up and move and rock but can still listen to the story or the lesson. So just being more flexible in the way that your classroom looks.

And then the one step further, like I said, that we always miss is, okay, once you get your teachers to accommodate that, can you go a step further and educate the entire classroom of these tools are here for everybody to learn? Best, right? So this rocking chair seems to work for this child. And you might see him using it. That's how his brain learns best, you are free to choose that if it works. Sensory tools are not toys. They are meant to help you learn. If it doesn't help you learn that that tool is not for you. But we want to get away from like, only Johnny is sitting in that corner because he needs quiet. Yeah, yeah, we do want your child to access the sensory tools. And we don't want every kid to be using a wobble stool because it's fun, we don't want and then then your child who really needs it can't access it. That becomes a problem too. But it's just a general education that like everybody's brain learns differently. And some kids learn better standing up, some kids learn better with headphones. And that's just a matter of fact, nothing wrong. Nothing worse or better. It's just a different way.

Penny Williams 23:48

Just the way it is. Yeah. And that really breeds a culture where kids don't feel so different. Like my son when he was young, he would not use the special paper because he needed the help with his handwriting. He would not, have the fidgets on his desk because everybody wanted to know what he had. Yeah. And they weren't supposed to have it right. And then he felt bad about having things that other kids couldn't have. And you know, it was a whole, a whole journey. But yeah, he felt so different. And if they just would have talked more about how everybody's different and how, yeah, some kids need a wiggle seat and some kids need, to be in the back of the classroom be able to walk while they're learning their spelling, then they wouldn't feel so singled out, they wouldn't feel so bad about it.

Laura Petix 24:36

Exactly. I almost always recommend whether the school is providing a support like a sensory tool of fidget as a cushion seat or if it's the parents, which parents buy them all the time and send them to school. I usually encourage parents to buy like a couple extra just to have in the classrooms that's like anybody can use these and then the parents take it with them like to the next classroom like second grade, third grade, fourth grade, but just so that your child Hell's used to seeing like, if anyone else needs a fidget, it's up here. But then making sure your child has theirs on the desk, but knowing that, like, oh, anyone can use one too, if they need it and taking that stigma special treatment away from your child, and just more of like, this is what this person needs to learn with. And that difference sometimes to kids still feels bad. Even as adults, there's nothing wrong with being different, but to kids, they always just want to fit in and look the same. So I think it is more beneficial for teachers and adults to talk about that everybody is different, not just this one person is different from the group. But every single person in this group has a different way of saying something of learning something, there might be a few that have the same way. But there's I promise you, like he is not the only person that learns a different way. It's just everybody has different things about them. I think that's the piece that we need to unlock in our kids. So they don't feel like others or like stigmatized,

Penny Williams 26:00

it's so needed because my son went through his entire schooling, feeling like there weren't any other kids like him. I mean, in ninth grade, he said that to his special education teacher, there's nobody in this entire building. That's like me, and there were like, 2500 kids in that building. Right? Yeah. And so those conversations are so so valuable. And I think we can help to support them as parents in the classroom, as you were saying, If we send three wiggle seats, and instead of just one, and we talked to the teacher about how we want to make sure that our child doesn't feel singled out, and that, they could have a conversation about how everybody learns differently. You know, my son in first grade, he had the most wonderful teacher who did differentiated instruction. And she was just amazing. She always put movement in and tactile and just all these things to make sure she was giving every learner an opportunity. And she actually taped a big rectangle under Luke's desk. And as long as he was in that rectangle, and his stuff was, he was considered on task. So very often, he'll be on his belly under the desk, doing his worksheet, right. And that's, that's totally fine, because he was learning. And he was doing what he needed to do. And that's really, as you were saying, we have to figure out what is the ultimate goal? And how can we be creative for our kids so they can get there.

Laura Petix 27:19

Exactly. And then the last thing I usually remind parents is that like, well, he's gonna have to learn how to sit at a desk someday or to do things he's told. And I'm like, Well is he like, or like, when you're an adult, you typically find a lifestyle that works for you, when you go to college. If you know you're not a morning person, you don't sign up for that 8am class, you will your cut your days at the later end. If you know you're an active person, you become a gym person that goes to the gym at 5am. Before you go to work. If you need a lot of movement. If you don't like a lot of people, you will find a job where you can work from home, create your own business, and never have to talk to another person other than people you want to engage with maybe on video games or like your neighbor or like you can tailor your lifestyle to what works best when you're adult. So you don't have to conform to the neuro typicality. Like the world that is created by neurotypical people for neurotypical people. You don't have to fit into that you do want to be able to do your daily tasks. And a lot of that does require that you access certain skills that feel more quote like neurotypical but we shouldn't have to shy away from or worry about, like having too many accommodations for our kids, especially in school.

Penny Williams 28:36

Yeah, I'm so glad you brought that up. Because we hear that arguments so often as parents that, they have to learn to do this eventually, or, or we even feel that way as parents because we worry about their future, right? So I'm really worried about my kid being able to hold down a job and be successful. I'm gonna worry about every skill that I think he might need in the future. Yeah. And instead, we really need to be letting them guide us. The kids need to guide us on what works for them. Yep. What sort of support do they need? What sort of jobs might they like to have? You know, if, if they couldn't imagine sitting at a desk all day, every day? Yep. Then maybe they need to be thinking about being an occupational therapist for one thing, or you have a gym teacher or you know, something that keeps them moving throughout the day. And that's part of our job as parents really is to help support that journey of figuring that out exploring those options. But we can't get tripped up today about what our kids may or may not be able to do or fit 1015 20 years down the line. Right?

Laura Petix 29:41

Exactly. And I think that the number one skill, you can teach your neurodivergent child even more than any executive functioning communication, sensory skill, fine motor skill, daily task and before any of that the best skill you can teach your child is self advocacy and for that They need to be very aware of their strengths, as well as their limitations. And there's nothing wrong with with having limitations or things that you know that are going to be harder for you. That is something that you need to understand and how to leverage your strength, and how to feel comfortable advocating for the extra accommodations you might need in your workplace. Or when you are hiring, and they say, Do you have any questions for us? Don't be shy to ask, what is your policy on taking 20 minute breaks, instead of a 15 minute break in the middle of the day, like all of the things you need to ask and know what makes you the best version of you and what you need for that, don't be shy to ask for it, and to be able to explain and be aware of your strengths as well.

Penny Williams 30:47

Yeah, that's so important. And I feel like, again, it's such a journey, and we get so wrapped up in where we think we need to go. And we really need to be open and creative for our kids. That's what they need from us, their sensory needs demand that their social, emotional needs all of these other needs, that can feed into behaviors we talked about in the beginning, they all need to sort of be guided by our kids and not in such an overt, direct way. But just you know, let them show you what they need, or be really aware of what's going on so that you can see what they need. You know, if every time your child is trained to do math homework, they get up and they start walking in circles around the table. What kind of signal is that? Right? What are they telling us? How are they trying to guide us to what they need? It's super, super important, especially when they're not aware enough to advocate. So they, they know they need something different. But they don't know what yeah, we can look for those clues.

Laura Petix 31:53

That's right. Yep, that's right, their body is telling you exactly what they need. But they might not have made that connection yet to like a higher awareness of like, oh, I need movement, they might not be able to say that there might just be like, I don't know, I just have this urge to get up and pace and move. But it does take teamwork to put those pieces together. And that's when sometimes when you're it's still not making sense to you, as a parent, you have all of these patterns and like you can talk about them very clearly, like, Oh, I know specifically at this time every day he has to do this, I can't figure out why. That's when you definitely can benefit from seeking support from an occupational therapist, and they can help put those clues together. So you're kind of gathering all the clues, the OT might ask you questions to get some more clues. And then the OT will put it all together in this sort of way of like seeing your child in a different lens that will make it all make sense. And hopefully give you that like lightbulb moment. And then from there, you guys can come up with the best approach on not only helping your child build those skills, but also how can you accommodate your home environment, your school environment to help your child succeed best?

Penny Williams 33:04

Yeah. And very individualized. By working with an OT, you get exactly what that child needs exactly. A very clear picture of where they are and what their needs are. Yeah. So as we wrap up, I would love if you would share with appearance listening, or teachers and educators what one action item can they take right now to help their kids or affect some change in the world of sensory?

Laura Petix 33:33

Oh, that's such a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is kind of what I mentioned earlier, where let's spend a lot of time just spreading awareness about the idea of neurodiversity period, which if anyone listening to this, neurodiversity applies to everybody, everybody's brain is different. Our kids with specific needs, like sensory needs, maybe ADHD, autism, they are considered neurodivergent. But as a whole, as a human species, we are neurodiverse. So let's spread awareness of that brains work differently. And the first thing I would say, for you, as an adult listening is to list down sensory things, sounds, sights, smells, tastes, movements, that you really really love more than a typical person does. Or that you hate. More than typical person does. Like for me, it's like mushrooms and like movements and stuff, like get dizzy easily. And then also what things that you do to regulate your body when you're when you're sitting and listening to a very long talk. Are you a pen clicker? Are you a foot Tapper? Are you a hair toiler all of those things and then when you have that listed, share that with your child, with your students and start that conversation. This is what I need to regulate. I need quiet, I need dim lights and I need like something to click. That's how I learned best or to get really focused. What do you need? I noticed you really like to lay on the floor. or to do coloring? Does that make your body feel calm? So just starting those conversations, but not just with your neurodivergent? Kid? Yes, with everybody and just bringing awareness like, Oh, that's really cool. Your brain focuses best with music, like this is a big thing at home working from home, me and my husband have very different work from home styles. He loves listening to music and having background sounds like he can't work if it's too quiet. And I'm quite opposite, I need silence. And that is very different. And just that fact of realizing that can go a long way. So I would recommend anybody listening to take note of how you learn and regulate best and share that with a child that you're working with.

Penny Williams 35:41

Yeah, such a fantastic idea. I love that action that people can take right now. And using ourselves as an example. It humanizes us, and it lets our kids know that everybody truly does have differences. Every single one of us. Yep, it's really reinforcing that message. And I love it. Yeah, for everyone listening, I want to make sure that you know how to learn more from Laura and connect with Laura, through her website, and social media. All of those details and links are available in the show notes at parentingADHDandautism.com/179. For episode 179. And Laura, again, I thank you so much, your examples and the simple way that you are letting parents know what to look for, and how to help their kids is so important. And we surely appreciate you sharing some of that with us today.

Laura Petix 36:38

Oh, it was my pleasure. It's one of my favorite topics to talk about. So thank you for having me and everyone. Thank you for listening.

Penny Williams 36:43

With that. I will see everyone on the next episode. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and thebehaviorrevolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That’s what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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  • parent of a 6 years old Sharni Banfield epileptic and mild autistic. I learnt alot so I need to stop deal with behavior and punishment

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