Kim Griffin explains sensory circuits.
What is a sensory circuit?
Sensory circuits are similar in function to a gym circuit, but instead of focussing on fitness, they focus on supporting arousal. Arousal is the body’s level of alertness and it can range from sleeping to highly stressed. In order to learn, a student needs to have adequate arousal to focus. Sensory circuits can help students with this.
Sensory circuits have evolved from the sensory diet concept. Sensory diets are a set of specific sensory strategies created for one student to help to support their readiness to learn. The term ‘diet’ was used to liken sensory needs, often movement, to the body’s need for food as fuel. Some children benefit from additional sensory input as fuel for learning.
The benefit of using a circuit is that more children can be involved at the same time. A well designed sensory circuit will support each child’s individual arousal needs. So, if the student needs to increase their arousal, the circuit should support this. If they need to get organised, the activities in the circuit should help with this. For individuals who are sensitive, it should help them to calm down.
Before you start
It is important to consider the individual needs of the children, setting a goal is a great way to monitor if the circuit has been helpful. If your students are super fidgety and inattentive, the goal may be that they are able to sit and concentrate on lesson input for 15 minutes. If your child is really overloaded when they come home from school, then the goal may be that they calm down in a safe and organised way.
If you have a lot of children who are very fidgety in class, then movement to increase their arousal coupled with heavy work to finish should help. This could include pushing, pulling and yoga.
If you have children who are more sluggish and struggle to maintain sufficient alertness, then more movement could be the best choice as they will need to increase their arousal.
If a child needs to calm down, yoga, heavy work and breathing activities should be in the circuit.
Setting up a circuit
Circuits will look very different from school to school and house to house, as it will depend on what space and equipment is available. It should also depend on the needs of the children that are doing the circuit!
It can be helpful to schedule the circuit into the daily timetable. Some schools do them first thing in the morning, other teachers use them as a break between lessons to help children to refocus. Parents of children who are easily overloaded find them helpful when their child arrives home from school.
You will need to consider the time, space and resources you have available. At school the PE hall and equipment can be great, or potentially the trim trail in the playground. Some schools have additional sensory equipment, like scooter boards and trampolines. At home you can also make use of playgrounds, your garden and even your sofa.
Example circuits at school
Willow class set their circuit up in the hall. There is a jumping station, a stretching station, a dancing station and a balancing station. The teachers vary the activities at each station through the term but always set up the four stations, one in each corner of the hall.
The jumping station includes: jumping on the spot; star jumps; scissor jumps; tuck jumps; hopscotch; jumping side to side and jumping backwards. Stretching includes yoga style stretches. The dancing station usually follows a video on screen, with the volume down low so as not to disturb the other children. The balancing station sometimes uses the balancing equipment in the hall but also includes balancing on one foot, tree pose from yoga and lifting legs or arms (or both) when on all fours.
Children with really low arousal (slower sensory responses) alternate between the jumping and dancing station completing each station twice. Children who need to regulate and calm down alternate between the stretching and balancing station. Those who need to increase their arousal but who also need to organise their thinking (typically called sensory seekers) complete all stations in this order, jumping, balancing, dancing, and finishing with stretching.
Sarah is usually pretty overloaded after school. When the weather permits, her mum leaves the car at a local park close to school and meets Sarah at the school gate with her scooter. She has created a circuit which includes scooting to and around the park. Next, Sarah goes on the swing for five-ten minutes and she finishes her circuit by climbing up and down the climbing frame.
If the weather doesn’t permit, they create an indoor circuit at home. First, they pull all of the cushions off the sofa and create a ‘tunnel’ by putting two cushions down on top of each other. Sarah has to crawl between the ‘tunnel’ whilst her mum or dad add some resistance to the top cushion. Next, they have a wrestle with the cushions. They stand one cushion up between them and Sarah tries to push the cushion over using her hands then her feet. To finish, Sarah lies over the top of her gym ball and rocks backwards and forwards using her feet for five minutes.
For her snack, Sarah will have something chewy, like a flapjack or dried apple or mango and some raw carrots. She also has a straw style water bottle (e.g. Camelback). Because this snack gives a lot of proprioceptive feedback, it helps to decrease her arousal.
If you are running a circuit with multiple children who have different sensory needs, then you will need a system to ensure they access the most appropriate activities for them. There are two ways you can do this.
Firstly, you can colour code the circuit. This could be done with coloured numbers which the children need to follow in sequence. Or, you could just use coloured cones to show the children which activity they should move to next.
Or, you can give each child an individual activity schedule. The schedule will show them which activities they should go to in the circuit. If your circuit stays the same each half term, you can print off static schedules, or have them up on the smart board. In some cases, children could have their own laminated schedule which changes each week.
Remember, there is no one size fits all solution for any sensory support. You need to consider what the aim of your sensory circuit is, and monitor to see that it has the desired impact.
It may take a few attempts to get it right and that’s OK!