Submitted by Mike Clark, OTR/L, occupational therapist at Valley Medical Center’s Children’s Therapy clinic
The sensory systems (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, body awareness and balance/movement) affect us during every second of our lives. Dealing with all this information is a basic, but often overlooked, skill in helping children with their learning and development. Sensory processing and integration help a child build skills to figure out important information while in a place where many things may be going on; controls arousal systems in their bodies (like flight or fight/freeze), and shapes the activities children like or don’t like. Maybe you can even think of a place or activity while you were a child in school when the setting made you feel uncomfortable: like the overwhelming noise from a busy cafeteria; or hating the feeling of wet paint or sticky glue on your fingers in art class. When the setting does not line up with a child’s sensory system, it can be hard to pay attention, stay calm, and want to try different or new activities.
One way to support a child’s sensory needs is by offering sensory “tools” and making changes to the setting when you can. Sensory tools can be as simple and direct as offering noise-cancelling headphones to your child and teaching them (or their teachers) about when it’s a good time to wear them, or offering a fidget to help your child pay attention while listening to a lesson. Other tools include a visual aid or schedule to help your child organize tasks during busy moments. For example, a checklist of step-by-step directions to help get your child ready for class when they walk into a busy classroom, instead of impulsively getting distracted from the excitement and activity of the room.
Adapting the setting is important to limit sensory input that may keep a child from managing their emotional responses. Some adaptations can help the entire class, like using peaceful music in a dimly-lit classroom after recess. However, most changes to the setting need child-centered information about what they are sensitive to for creating a truly supportive environment.
Through a sensory-based lens, parents should look carefully at how their child responds to different activities. Learning and understanding what sensory factors may create a challenging (or motivating) task can help parents to build tools and strategies to support learning at home and in the classroom. If parents feel that their child’s sensory processing needs are hurting their ability to learn and be a part of everyday activities, they may benefit from an occupational therapy evaluation to assess sensory processing and integration needs and build strategies to help their child.