Sensory strategies

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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 or response that matches the nature and intensity of the sensory input and environment. 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).

Which type of sensory support is best?
Sensory equipment and supports are designed to help with sensory modulation 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 to 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
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.

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.

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.

Chewy toys
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.

Kim Griffin
Author: Kim Griffin

Kim Griffin
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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
X: @Griffin_OT
Facebook: @GriffinSensoryOT

 

 

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