Practical tips for using sensory equipment and approaches in the classroom, by Kim Griffin
Occupational therapists often recommend sensory strategies, such as using wobble cushions or weighted products, and movement breaks, for children with sensory processing challenges. This article will explore why these strategies may be helpful for certain children and how to monitor effectiveness.
Arousal and sensory modulation
Arousal relates to how alert the body is. Many things can affect a student’s level of arousal, including basic things like sleep, general wellness, hunger and the need to go to the toilet. Arousal can also be affected by stress and sensory processing – in particular sensory modulation.
Sensory modulation is “the ability to produce a behaviour and/or response that matches the nature and intensity of the sensory input and environment” (Miller, 2014). The brains of children with modulation difficulties do not interpret the sensory messages they receive from their body effectively. This means they may not generate a response that matches the sensory information they receive (Bialer and Miller, 2011).
Their response might be bigger than is expected (over-response or over-sensitive), for example, a child that can’t ignore and keeps attending to background sounds. It may be less than expected, for example, a child who doesn’t respond to their name being called (under-response or slow response). A third type of response is sensory seeking. This is when the child tries to get more of the sensory input, for example, the child who is fidgeting with items on their desk.
Sensory modulation affects arousal and attention. A child who is sensitive might be in a higher alert or stressed state due to too many sensory inputs. The child who is slower to process sensory inputs, on the other hand, can frequently miss information. A sensory seeker might have to expend most of their energy on trying to increase their arousal level so they can attend to the teacher. Each response affects the child’s ability to focus on the teacher and complete their learning.
Which type of sensory support is best?
Sensory equipment and supports are designed to help with sensory modulation and/or to help to increase or decrease a child’s arousal. Each child is an individual, so there are no universal solutions for all children. Different sensory supports and equipment are designed to help with different types of sensory system. They are also designed help to either increase or decrease a child’s arousal. Here, four common supports used in classrooms will be discussed. An occupational therapist can help with assessment and recommendations.
Wobble cushions are plastic air filled cushions which come in a few different sizes. These cushions can be helpful for children who are constantly moving about, fidgeting and maybe rocking in their chair. They may also help a child who is slumped in their chair and appears to have low energy as it might help to “wake up” their system.
It is hypothesised that these children use their movements to help to stay alert and to increase their arousal. The cushion can provide a more appropriate and less distracting way for them to receive movement whilst sitting in their chair. It is expected that the child would move about on the cushion, however, behaviours such as getting up out of their seat or rocking back in their chair should decrease.
Weighted vests or lap pads
Weighted products include vests, lap pads and blankets. The theory of a weighted product is that they provide additional deep touch pressure. Sensory integration theory suggests that these sensory inputs are calming for the nervous system and help to decrease arousal. When using these, it is important to ensure that the child is always supervised and that the product does not ever impede the child’s breathing. The general weight recommendation is a maximum ten per cent of the child’s body weight. Although this figure does not come from any rigorous study or research, it is a good guide to follow.
Weighted products, especially lap pads, can be helpful for children who fidget due to poor body awareness. This is because the extra weight can give them extra feedback about where their body is so they can focus on their learning. Weighted blankets can be a good addition to a sensory calm space as they can help children who are in a higher arousal state (for example in meltdown) to calm down. It is important to make sure though, that you can see the child’s face to monitor their breathing and arousal.
Sensory movement breaks or circuits
Sensory movement breaks, or sensory circuits, are another common sensory strategy that schools implement. These usually consist of a variety of movement activities that are set up for children to do with the aim of helping them to regulate and organise their arousal for learning.
The challenge with movement breaks is that different children can have completely different sensory needs. Bouncing on a trampoline might help to organise one student, but it could completely dysregulate another. Therefore, when using this kind of strategy, it is important to ensure you monitor the child’s responses and tailor the movement to meet their individual sensory needs. When working well, the movement or circuit should help the child to return to class and attend and focus.
In addition, recent thinking (Miller, 2014) suggests that sometimes the sensations children are seeking (such as movement) do not necessarily organise them. Their movement may not improve arousal or help the child to settle and focus. Miller (2014) currently recommends that the movement needs to be structured to facilitate the child’s arousal. For example, the child should complete a certain number of movements (perhaps 20 jumps and stop) or the movement should be organised into a sequence or routine. Heavy work (push, pull and carry) activities should also be included within the movement breaks to help with regulation.
A large number of chewy toys are available in different sizes, shapes and textures. They are designed to help children who chew on non-food items, such as their collar. Chewing typically helps to decrease arousal and calm the individual down. When choosing a chew toy, it is useful to consider where in their mouth the child chews. If they chew at the front, a round shape might be preferred. If they chew at the back, then a longer shape might be best.
One thing to consider with chewing is that it can often be an indicator of increased arousal, or increased stress. It can be helpful to consider what else is occurring in the environment which might be increasing the child’s arousal. Changing this may have a bigger impact than a chewy toy.
How to monitor progress
The goal of using any sensory strategy or equipment at school is to facilitate attention, learning and participation. Targets should be set before sensory strategies are tried. Think about the changes you would like to see for the child by using the sensory strategy. These might include:
- increasing time spent completing activities or tasks or attending during sensory input
- increasing the number of times the child puts their hand up to answer a question
- decreasing the number of times the child needs reminders from the teacher to pay attention
- increasing the amount of work the child produces or completes
- decreasing the number of times the child engages in a specific activity, such as distracting peers, touching others, or being out of their chair.
Once you have set a target, monitor the child for two weeks and record a baseline level of performance. For example, at the outset, the child might need six reminders per lesson from the teacher to stay on task. Then, once the sensory strategy is implemented, continue to monitor. In the case of the reminders, a reduction in the frequency would suggest the strategy is helping.
It is also important to check with the child to find out what their views are. Some children might not like the strategy, or they may not want to be different from their peers. Where they are able to, make sure you include them in decision making.
It is important to avoid writing goals or final targets that state the child will be able to manage without their sensory support or equipment – for example, “By the end of KS1 Jon will be able to sit in class without his wobble cushion.” This might seem like common sense, but unfortunately, I have read this kind of goal far too many times to count.
The children who are more likely to benefit from sensory equipment or supports are the children that have difficulties with sensory modulation. These children have difficulty maintaining the optimal arousal level required for learning and participation. Researchers (Miller, 2014) are showing that this difference in sensory processing occurs at a nervous system level. If the sensory support helps, it’s because it is giving their body (and nervous system) the sensory input it needs to be successful with attention and learning.
I would advise you to think of sensory supports in the same way you would a pair of glasses or a hearing aid. You would never write a goal recommending that the child would be able to manage without them. If the sensory support is helping the child, removing it should never be the target. If you have access to support from an occupational therapist, they will also be able to help you with choosing correct supports and writing relevant goals.
- Bialer, D. and Miller, L.J. (2011), No Longer A Secret – Unique Common Sense Strategies for Children with Sensory or Motor Challenges, Future Horizons, USA.
- Miller, L.J. (2014). Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder – Revised. Penguin Random House. USA.
About the author
Kim Griffin is a paediatric occupational therapist with extensive experience of working with children who have sensory and/or motor skill challenges, including those with autism and dyspraxia. Her current focus is on creating online training and resources for schools, teachers and parents.
website : GriffinOT.com
Facebook : @GriffinSensoryOT
Twitter : @Griffin_OT