Sensory Strategies for a Successful School Year

Sensory Strategies for a Successful School Year


When it comes to having a successful school year, paying attention is a key part of learning the material being taught.  There are many sensory strategies that can help children pay better attention.  Many of these strategies can be beneficial for numerous kids (not just those with more significant special needs), and some are even used on a daily basis by adults without realizing it!  Do you squeeze a stress ball, turn the music on or off, chew gum, or take a walk to help you refocus and get your work done?  These are all strategies that target your body’s various sensory systems, which include tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), proprioceptive (body awareness), and vestibular (balance and movement).  For a detailed explanation of each sensory system, check out this blog.  Below are some strategies that can easily be implemented before, during, or after school to help improve your child’s attention and arousal level.

Fidgets – Fidgets are small manipulatives that can help keep fingers and hands busy so that the rest of your body can focus on listening and engaging in the task being completed.  This can stimulate the child that needs a pick-me-up to stay engaged (“daydreamer”), or calm the child that would otherwise be out of his chair or picking at his notebook numerous times.  There are many fidgets on the market, and finding the right one can mean some trial-and-error.  Some fidgets can be too distracting.  Others get lost easily, or can become messy!  Here are a few of my favorite fidgets for during the school day:

·       Finger Spring: these rubber springs are quiet and easily manipulated.  But when your child needs to write, it can twist right around a finger or pencil, leaving hands free to get work done.

·       Kneadable Eraser: I love fidgets that double as a functional tool!  This eraser can be squeezed and manipulated like putty, but still serves a purpose and draws less attention to itself.  Some companies make scented kneadable erasers, which provide olfactory input as well!

·       Velcro – Adhesive-backed hook-and-loop can be stuck onto many surfaces to give your child an opportunity to seek out some tactile input to refocus.  Place a piece on your child’s pencil box, agenda, or another item easily accessible throughout the day.  Talk to your child’s teacher about placing it on the underside of his or her desk!

More movement – For kids that need more movement, there are some good tools out there that provide just the input your child’s body is craving:

·       Wiggle Cushion – placing a wiggle cushion on your child’s chair allows him to rock, wiggle, and move just enough to provide the vestibular input he needs, without risking falling out of his chair or distracting other students.  Not only do these come in different sizes, but most have a smooth and a textured side (and different cushions even have different textures) to further customize it.  Altering the amount of air inflated into the cushion can also change how much movement is allowed. 

·       Theraband – Tying a piece of Theraband around the front two legs of a chair allows your child to get proprioceptive input from the resistance, which can minimize the constant swinging of legs under the chair! 

Heavy Work – Tasks that require actively using your muscles can help regulate arousal levels:

·       Classroom chores – talk to your child’s teacher about your child being assigned a role that provided him with heavy work opportunities throughout the day.  Perhaps that is carrying a book or stack of papers to the office, watering the plants, or sweeping the floor. 

·       Heavy work in your seat – some exercises can be taught to your child that provide heavy work without leaving their seat.  Chair pushups and isometric exercises (pushing your hands together or pulling them apart with hands held) are easy to learn and are not too distracting to other students nearby.  A small picture of the exercises taped to your child’s desk can help remind her to use them!

·       Sensory breaks – Allowing your child to stand up and complete a heavy work activity for a few moments can sometimes pay off.  The temporary disruption from their work can mean they return to the task and get several minutes of good work done!  Wall pushups or crab walking are a few examples of breaks that can get your child to refocus.  Some teachers even find that these kind of strategies work for the whole class!

Snacks – Along with providing nutrients your body needs, the right snacks can provide sensory input to change your child’s arousal level:

·       Gum – while chewing gum can be distracting for some students, for others, it provides proprioceptive input through chewing, swallowing (saliva)and breathing,  which can be calming and organizing.

·       Crunchy foods – crunchy snacks are alerting.  If you child needs a pick me up during the day to regain or maintain focus, consider snacks that have a crunchy feel: carrots, celery, crackers, or pretzels are great options.

·       Chewy foods – chewy foods, like licorice, a bagel, or beef jerky, on the other hand, are great heavy work activities for your mouth! 

One thing to remember is that, while some of these strategies can be fun, fun is not their purpose.  It is important that these strategies are considered “tools” and not “toys.”  Talk to your child and your child’s teacher about the benefits that these tools have.  Rather than using these as a reward or punishment, these tools should be available as needed.  If one is too distracting or is not having the desired effect, it may not be a good fit, and there are plenty of other tools to try! 

Ask an OT at Lowcountry Therapy Center for more suggestions of individualized sensory strategies that may help your child based on his or her specific needs and sensory system.

Author: Krista Flack, MS OTR/L

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