This is a long post, but I want to wrap up my series on sensory. I hope that this post provides specific information on implementing sensory strategies into your child’s day. I have had several questions on sensory strategies for specific students. If you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). If I don’t know the answer, I will find it for you!
- Most kids who have sensory issues need some type of regulation throughout the day. I have heard this referred to as “sensory snacks” (M. Laurent, 2017). This input is most effective when it is provided proactively, rather than reactively. Structure a schedule that includes sensory breaks as often as your particular student is in need. It is wise to schedule calming sensory breaks directly after a time of day that is over-stimulating (such as lunch). When an activity is known to be very difficult for a student, schedule a sensory break before and after this activity. Many times, if a student is asked if he or she needs a break in the moment, the answer is going to be “no”. It is very difficult for most students with ASD to veer from schedule. Planning these breaks in advance remedies this situation.
- Please remember, when helping a child with calming sensory, the environment also needs to be calm and quiet. Do not use this time to carry on a conversation with another adult or talk excessively to the child. Talking may be stimulating or even irritating to the child and this cancels out the sensory break.
- When a student is provided alerting strategies, end with a calming strategy to help the student control his or her body before moving into the next scheduled activity. Too much alerting can lead to negative behavior if the student feels out of control when leaving the sensory activity.
- Provide a clear end time to a sensory break. Sing a song or count with your student. If this does not make sense for the particular activity your student is doing, set a timer. If your student is upset, he or she may need an extra-long break. Gauge how your student’s system feels and if you think they are nearly calm, ask if they need one or two more minutes, then set a timer. Giving the student choice in the time is very important.
Alerting Sensory Strategies
The trampoline is a fantastic way for a student to increase blood flow and feel more alert. Structure this activity by asking the student to count with you as he or she jumps. When you get to a certain number, the student will know the activity is complete. In the same way, sing a song with the student, knowing that the end of the song signals the end of trampoline time.
Getting a drink of water is great for waking up our bodies. Your student may need the walk to the water fountain as much as the drink! If your student doesn’t like water, you may ask his or her parents to send in a sprite or flavored water.
Kids love to dance and it is great for getting our hearts pumping. There are fantastic websites with music and organized dances that help structure this activity so students don’t lose control.
Gum, mints or lollipops provide alerting input. This may help with the student who is constantly chewing on his/her clothing and pencils. It may even help for the student who constantly speaks out in class.
Putting scratchy Velcro on a student’s desk will give tactile input. This can alert the body through touch. Using a deep tub or sensory table; use materials like sand, hard noodles or rice to give input. Hide objects such as alphabet magnets in the materials and ask students to find them. This organizes the task and gives students purpose in the activity.
Set up a structured exercise routine. Include jumping jacks, jogging in place, hopping and wall push-ups.
Bouncing on a ball is alerting. Using the ball for a sensory break is best when the mind is occupied with a song or a story.
Many teachers use these exercise balls in the classroom. Using a crate and putting a ball inside can give more stability to the ball as a chair. Companies also make the balls with a back and stand for more structure.
Calming Sensory Strategies
Allowing a student to hold, touch or rub a soft item can be an easy way to provide a calming strategy that allows the student to stay in class and engaged in the lesson. Many kids love the sequined pillows and clothing that have recently become popular.
Student’s minds will be calmer and more organized with less visual stimulus. Using soft lighting or natural light. Minimize unnecessary visuals on the wall and keep the work area clean and structured.
I use two different calming practices with an exercise ball:
A. Place a gym mat on the floor where the exercise takes place. Help the student lay, belly down, over the top of the ball. Holding the child’s body, slowly move the ball back and forth. Some kids love the feeling of their heads hanging down toward the floor. If this is the case, pause briefly to allow this input before rolling back. Keep the movement very slow. If the child does not feel secure and comfortable, this will not be calming.
B. Ask the student to lay tummy down on a gym mat. Slowly roll the ball over the back of the child, pressing down lightly. It is important to get feedback from the child to ensure the pressure is the correct amount. Roll the ball back and forth while the student breathes deeply.
A weighted blanket is invaluable for a child who needs to calm. When the child is under the blanket, provide a mindful distraction to help calm. Avoid technology during this time, as the light can be stimulating. Read a book to the child or have him/her read the book if that is preferable. Offer the student a crossword puzzle or word search. Some students enjoy lying on their backs and having bubbles blown over them. If you are practicing breathing exercises, have the student blow the bubbles back up. (It is tempting for student to want to pop the bubble, but this becomes an alerting activity if they do this. Always encourage them to keep their arms under the blanket). Providing a finger massage adds extra input with the weighted blanket.
Swinging is fantastic for calming. Many students like to swing on their tummies with their heads pointing downward. In order to calm, the swing needs to move back and forth. If the student moves the swing in a circular motion, this will become an alerting activity.
Weighted backpack walks are excellent calming breaks. Fill a backpack with a heavy object (I typically use books). Ask your OT to help with the proper amount of weight. The student wears the backpack on a walk around the school. Tape pictures of a preferred object with numbers around the building. The student walks to each picture in number order and follows the same path for each walk. This structures the activity and gives a clear ending to the walk.
A scooter board can provide great calming input. To structure an activity with this tool, have the child lay on their stomach on the board. Use an inset puzzle and place the pieces on one side of the room and the puzzle board on the other side. Have the student get a piece, scooter to the puzzle to put it in and go back and forth until the puzzle is complete.
Put an X on the floor for a starting point and an X for the destination. Using a medicine ball, ask the student to move the ball from the starting X to the destination X. Ask the student to move 3-4 medicine balls.
Chair push-ups give deep sensory input. This is not disruptive to a class and the student can remain focused on the lesson while he or she completes this activity. If the student is not in a chair, doing wall push-ups provides the same input.
A rocking chair or gaming chair is calming. Add a weighted blanket or lap buddy while in the chair to provide extra calming input.
A shower brush, loofah, or a sensory brush (your OT may have one) can be used to brush a child’s arms or legs. Do not use anything abrasive and ask your OT for guidance before initiating this tool.If a child is highly sensitive to touch, this may be an alerting strategy instead of calming.
Don’t discount the power of scents! Lavender and vanilla are typically the two most calming scents. These may be in the form of a diffuser or lotion. On the flip side, do not wear strong scents that may be averse to students.
Being tightly wrapped is typically very calming. Use a gym mat or a blanket and have the student lay on one end. With the student’s arms at his or her side, roll the mat so the student feels very secure. Make sure the student’s face is upward and the airway is clear.
Other items that may give this kind of sensation include: compression shirts and pants, a snug vest (the OT may have this) or a tight jacket. These items allow the student to remain in class and stay engaged in learning.
Breathing strategies, yoga and mindfulness are excellent strategies to calm. Use visuals and body movements to help students understand the process and slow breathing down.
Playdough, putty and fidgets provide sensory input and occupy the student’s hands. These tools are most helpful when a student is engaged in a lesson or story.
Legos can be calming because of the force it takes to place them together. Creating the patterns also occupies the mind, typically making it easier to calm.
Coloring and writing on a dry erase or chalkboard may allow for calming. The pressure of pushing down and the rhythmic movement gives great input. This is typically more successful in conjunction with another activity the student needs to listen to, but does not need to engage in writing or watching.
Auditory stimuli is a trigger for many students with sensory sensitivities. Using headphones is an excellent way to minimize the input. The headphones should not be worn at all times, as they can become a security blanket for students and this may lead to anxiety in the anticipation of noise.
*These are generalized statements. All students will not respond in the same manner. It is important to take data on your student’s reactions to the sensory input you provide to decide if the activity is appropriate. The trampoline is typically alerting, but can be calming due to the proprioceptive input to some kids. Weighted items can also be calming or alerting, depending on your student. Heavy work is an equalizer: it can be calming or alerting depending on what the student needs.
Thank you to Megan Laurent, Occupational Therapist, for reviewing this information and keeping me on the right track!