12/18/2013  |  Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L

Have a child that just won’t sit still? Having difficulty getting that one student to stay on task? Wondering why that child has a meltdown every day? Understanding the body’s sensory system and its impact on learning and behavior may be one of the keys to promoting success for all.

Sensory processing — often called SI or sensory integration — basically means the organization of sensations for use. During sensory processing, information from the sensory systems: visual, auditory, tactile (touch) proprioceptive (muscle and joint receptors that help with body awareness) vestibular (movement and relation to gravity) olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) is taken in, and basically filtered and utilized in the brain to make what is termed an adaptive or motor response. Riding a bicycle, writing with a pencil, putting on a coat or walking in a line in a crowded hallway are all examples of SI. Good sensory processing depends on each of the sensory systems doing their job efficiently and correctly yet Ahn, Miller, Milberger and McIntosh (2004) found at least one in 20 children may struggle with sensory integration dysfunction. Now termed Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD these children may be over or under responsive to touch, movement, sights and/or sounds and they may have corresponding gross and fine motor delays as well as behavior and learning challenges as a result.

Let’s take kindergartener Ashley for example. She has issues with tactile defensiveness or being overly sensitive to touch input. Light touch tends to activate the body’s protective touch system and the “fight or flight response.” Think about your reaction the last time you walked head on into a spider web or slapped a mosquito very forcefully that landed on your skin! Ashley’s sense of discriminative touch is not well refined so she tends to interpret most touch, especially light touch as threatening. While standing in line to go to lunch, along comes Rachel who begins to play lightly with Ashley’s hair. Ashley over reacts with her protective touch/flight or fight response and suddenly breaks the line and bolts and/or screams and hits Rachel. Does this scenario sound familiar? Sometimes understanding the sensory components underlying the behaviors can give new clarity and lead to more effective solutions. Ashley may need to be in the very front or very back of the line not in the middle and/or she could help carry something heavy, such as a milk crate or a small backpack with books, as deep touch pressure or heavy work helps activate the proprioceptive sense which may help with calming and organizing.

Tim is a fourth grader who struggles with attention and focus. He absolutely cannot sit still! Tim alternates between standing, then sitting, then kneeling in his chair, or rocks his chair back until he tips and falls. Does Tim sound like one of your students? His vestibular or movement system may be under responsive so he craves extra input to help his brain stay alert and organize. Using a ball chair in class for part of the day may be a good solution for Tim as it will allow him to get the wiggles out and get the movement input he needs during class without being disruptive to the other students. Research supports this as a study published by Schilling, Washington, Billingsley and Deitz (2003) found that ball chairs may help students with ADHD with on task behavior and more legible word productivity.

Finally there is second grader Charlie. He gets to school around eight a.m. Charlie is a sensory over responder, so his life is a constant barrage of sensory information from the perceived glare of the fluorescent lights to the sound of the HVAC system, to the lingering smell of the chemicals the janitor used to clean the night before. By about 10:30 a.m. every day Charlie has a full blown temper tantrum and gets put in “time out” — where it is quiet and away from the business of the main part of his classroom. Here he can reboot his sensory system so to speak. If only Charlie knew how to ask for this time so he wouldn’t have to get in trouble to get it or his teacher knew to automatically put a few minutes into his schedule during the school day, things would go better for both of them!

As we learn about how sensory tools and accommodations are helpful for students like Ashley, Tim and Charlie we can then begin to incorporate these concepts as part of good universal design for learning. Here are some super tips to get started:

Provide Movement Opportunities

Provide opportunities for movement while in class. In addition to the ball chair research as previously described, a chair cushion may be helpful for some students to help maintain focus and attention. Rocking chairs and/or standing desks may also be other good solutions. Other options include rotating tasks so a child can take a movement break during the day by walking down to the main office to deliver a message or get up to feed the fish or water the plants.

Sensory ‘Time In’

Provide a sensory “time in” space. This is a paradigm shift for many. The idea is to phase out or reduce the need for punishment time out and instead begin to incorporate quiet time into the schedule on a daily basis. In Charlie’s case above for example, a quiet space was created with bean bag chairs and some weighted animals — the bean bag to help define spatial boundaries and the weighted stuffed animals for deep touch pressure for comfort and calming.

At around 10 a.m. every day, Charlie was allowed five to 10 minutes in this quiet “time in” space to regroup. It was not given as a reward or as a punishment, just a part of his daily schedule. Within weeks his tantrums began decreasing. It doesn’t always take a big budget or a lot of equipment to make a sensory quiet space. As stated, beanbags and weighted items or a soft blanket work nicely. A small pop up or backyard play tent is another option. One innovative teacher creatively used a large appliance packing box carving out a door and a window then had her students paint and decorate the sides. Inside were a flashlight and a weighted blanket — perfect place to “chill out” and hopefully avoid future meltdowns.

Heavy Work Tasks

Provide opportunities for heavy work tasks. This activates the proprioceptive system which may help with body awareness, and regulate the alert state. (Think about how calm you are after having a good massage for example). Deep touch pressure/heavy work activities like vacuuming, sweeping with an added weight on a broom, pulling a heavy wagon, or carrying a weighted backpack are great options. Try a series of seated chair or wall pushups as a great method to engage this system before a test or other handwriting activities. Heavy work self-regulation activities like these may also help calm the body down after recess or rev up the body when sleepy/lethargic.

Fidget Tools

Provide fidget tools for attention and calming. Doodlers take in auditory information at a 29 percent better rate than the control group. So often students are asked to keep bodies and hands still when the opposite may have a better impact on focus and attention. There are a variety of sizes, shapes and sensory textures for fidgets that are commercially available and most can be cleaned with soap and water and/or a germicidal wipe. One smart teacher kept a plastic fishbowl full of fidgets at his desk that students could then use at key times during the day.

Oral Tools for Focus

Try oral (mouth) tools for attention and focus. We all use oral motor input to help with focus, precision and even strength. Think about the baseball pitchers that usually chew something — hopefully gum — during a game or check out the football players that chew on their mouth guards in between plays. Gum chewing may be beneficial in tasks requiring sustained concentration. As having gum and other nutritive (food substances) are not always an option in the classroom, there are a variety of non-nutritive tools including pencil toppers and other “chewies” that are durable and latex and phthalate free.

As human beings, we all have sensory needs and preferences. Understanding, fine tuning and implementing these basic sensory concepts may help all students, and teachers, become more successful. Make your classroom “sense”-sational!

Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L received her BS degree in OT from the University of Florida, and her Master’s degree in Education from Georgia State University. She is SIPT certified and has over 25 years experience in pediatrics with school-based services, acute care and outpatient pediatric settings including the Medical College of GA in Augusta, Ga. and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.
Comments & Ratings

  1/11/2014 8:01:43 PM
Carolyn Cruse 

President of Brianna's Advocate Group 
Thank You for this information, My cousin does not listen to me when I try and help her children. When I gave this to her she felt she was 'well informed!
  1/7/2014 8:47:46 AM
Gina G 

Awesome information! It is reaffirming to know that these options I offer my students truly do make 
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