Some children have sensory processing difficulties that cause them to react differently to sensory input than others do. Their processing of information is impacted by many differing factors and can result in a reaction / behaviour that is out of proportion to what appears to be non-threatening sensory input and different to others, for example, the texture of certain fabrics or sounds.
Sometimes a child may behave in a way that you wouldn’t immediately link to sensory sensitivities. A person who struggles to deal with everyday sensory information can experience sensory overload, or information overload. Too much information can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly physical pain. This can result in withdrawal, challenging behaviour or “meltdown”.
If someone is communicating by behaviour, or not responding, don’t judge them. There are things that you can do to help. This can make a world of difference. Often, small changes to the environment can make a difference.
Here are some top tips to help children regulate their sensory needs:
- Have an awareness and understanding of the 8 sensory systems and how these may affect some children.
- Be a ‘Sensory detective’ by finding out what is going on for the child and what he/she needs.
- Do a sensory tour of the environment with the specific child in mind. Consider light, colour, sounds, patterns, surfaces, textures, reflections, and shadows.
- Closely observe the child to determine where he/she feels most comfortable, safe, and secure. Notice places the child appears to avoid.
- Discover whether activities are needed to ‘up-regulate’ or ‘down-regulate’ the child.
- Provide a sensory space where the child can access their sensory needs.
- Plan a sensory timetable / diet so the child has regular opportunities for the sensory input they require.
- Provide sensory resources to meet the individual needs and interests of the child.
- Provide ‘choices’ of sensory activities for the child.
- Ensure sensory activities are fun and engaging.
- Teach the child to recognise their individual sensory needs and to identify the sensory input they require.
Encouraging children to fulfil their needs independently.
- Provide predictable structures and routines to support the child’s emotional well-being.
- Stay calm, patient, and positive and support the child to access the sensory input they need.
Supporting Children with Sensory Processing Needs in the Early Years by Cumbria County Council
Classroom difficulties with auditory stimulation:
Some children experience difficulties, so they are unable to filter out the unwanted noise. These common background sounds may be a constant distraction and can overwhelm them. Certain noises may make them feel anxious as they do not know what they are and how to respond. Some sounds from toys and resources in an early years environment can also be confusing and cause distress. These children may have difficulty hearing information and processing it; this will make it difficult for them to respond appropriately. They may also misinterpret or miss subtle information when following verbal direction, e.g. “Line up for outdoor play” is quite different from “Line up behind Harry for outdoor play”. If children miss one small part of a direction is can alter their response quite significantly. This can appear as unwanted behaviour.
If a child is experiencing difficulties in this area, they should be referred for a hearing test to rule out any other medical difficulties.
Classroom difficulties with visual stimulation:
Without a regulated visual system, we cannot focus on the important details that help us understand the world around us. We are constantly surrounded by a range of objects and resources but, with a regulated visual system, we can focus on the details we need to and ignore those we don’t. Some children are unable to filter out the unwanted visual stimuli. The wealth of objects they see may be a constant distraction and can overwhelm them, resulting in them not being able to focus and engage. These children may have difficulty selecting the appropriate visual information; this will make it difficult for them to respond appropriately in given situations. Their responses can appear as unwanted behaviour.
A classroom toolbox of ideas
- Time out/stress alert card – a pass, which gives the pupil permission to leave the room.
- Tactile Box- This can be filled with fidget toys to help keep hands busy and to provide a child with a lot of sensory feedback, which can help some children feel calm.
- Headphones – Allowing the use of ear defenders or headphones to block out noises such as school bells,
- Sunglasses– Allowing the use of sunglasses or blackout blinds to reduce bright lights.
- School uniform- How school uniform affects sensory varies among children and it depends on how they react to stimuli around them. When a child is uncomfortable physically and emotionally, they cannot function at their best. So, it will affect the concentration. The constant irritation of clothing tags, seams and waistbands can be very distracting and distressing. Allowing a child with sensory processing needs to wear a slightly different piece of uniform may make a big difference in their being able to attend a learn in school. The duty to make reasonable adjustments also applies to school policies, including a school’s uniform policy.
The School Day
Start and end of the school day- Staggering the start/end of the school day allowing the pupil to come into the school building earlier, or later, than other pupils to avoid the noise and commotion of the playground and the school bell.
Lunchtime/Breaktime – Make different arrangements for breaks and lunchtimes, for example setting up a quiet lunchtime club or allowing a child with sensory needs to go into the dinner hall before others. Try not to put a child in a situation where they may be anxious that someone will touch them, for example, lining up.
Moving between classes- The child may become anxious in busy environments due to noise, dislike of crowds but also worrying about being touched. This can cause anxieties in schools for example in busy corridors; some children find it easier to leave a lesson a few minutes early to avoid the busy crowd. In secondary schools, allow pupils to leave classrooms early when changing lessons, to avoid crowds and the hustle and bustle of corridors.
Assembly can be difficult for students with sensory needs. A student who is overresponsive to sensory input may find assembly overwhelming due to the noise, unpredictable visual input from others and the close physical proximity of other students. If a student seems overwhelmed in assembly, the following strategies are suggested:
- Position the student at the end of a row so he/she can have more physical space and avoid the unpredictable tactile input from others.
- Allow the student to sit on a mat or cushion to indicate personal space which others cannot invade.
- Position the student at the back of the assembly hall with permission to leave if feeling overwhelmed.
- Allow the student to wear ear defenders (or similar) to reduce the noise input, but these should only be used as part of a desensitisation programme.
- Allow the student to use a calming resource in assembly such as a weighted lap cushion, a fidget item or a chewy item.
- Provide the student with a visual card to indicate when he/she is feeling overwhelmed and needs to leave the assembly hall.
- Introduce the student to assembly gradually, and increase the time spent in assembly over several weeks or months.
Accessing toilets – Children with sensory difference may find using the school toilets very overwhelming due to the lighting, noise of driers, smells and small crowded space. They may also have sensory issues around going to the toilet anyway (see bladder and bowel section). Consider alternative arrangements. Consider switching hand dryers off and providing paper towels instead. , allowing children a quiet toilet visit just before break. Even the type of toilet paper or the small of the soap can be challenging. If you have a child with toileting issues in school it is worth a quiet conversation to find out the route cause as it may turn out to be something simple.
Classroom seating – The child may feel more comfortable sat at the end of the table in the classroom, so the possibility of touch is reduced. Children often lean back in their seats because the chairs are hard and uncomfortable, and they’re expected to sit in them for long periods of time; leaning back is their way of stretching and releasing excess energy. There is a wide variety of different types of alternate seating. Wobble cushions, also called sensory cushions, fidget cushions, or movement cushions, are frequently available in schools. It may also help to schedule movement breaks or use a weighted lap pad.
Carpet time – Some children find it difficult to sit for even a few minutes on the carpet. Constant interruptions, wriggling and shuffling really eat into valuable learning time and can be incredibly frustrating. Most teachers have heard of carpet places, where each child is allocated a particular place according to their needs and the dynamics of the group.
Quiet space- Create a quiet space in school for a child that they can go to when they feel overwhelmed. This could be the corner of the classroom. Use a pop-up tent or sheet to create a space where you can put a bean bag or pile of cushions along with soft lighting and some of their favourite toys / books. This could be a chill out space or if you’re a safe crash space if this is what the child needs (providing proprioceptive / deep tactile input to aid self-regulation). Try using calming music or different sounds (such as nature / beach sounds) to see how your child reacts, this can provide some good background sounds to calm their nervous system or help them to block out sounds they are struggling to tolerate / filter out.
Following instructions– Children with auditory processing difficulties may find it challenging to follow instructions especially if their other senses are overwhlmed by different clothes, echoey room, outdoor noises, bright lights and the noise and smell of other children. You may find children copying others when they haven’t understood. Break instructions down into simple ateps and try and establish that the instructions have been understood.
Movement Breaks- Movement (vestibular) and muscle work (proprioceptive input) can be helpful in regulating a child’s nervous system. These can be helpful to use in the form of a movement break. Some children need movement to alert them and some children need movement to calm and regulate.
Deep pressure, for example massage style touch, can be calming to the nervous system. Some children like to wear tight fitting clothing, for example sportswear (can be worn under other clothing), some children like to carry something weighted / have a weighted object on their laps as this weight provides deep tactile input. Some children like to wear a weighted backpack, and this be packed with their items for the day.
Getting changed for PE-Performing self-care tasks involves a series of complex processes, such as sequencing, motor planning and body awareness. Other areas also have to be considered: adequate attention levels are required if the activity is to be achieved and sensitivities to tactile experiences have to be overcome, e.g. from clothing etc. Tying shoelaces is a complex task that requires more advanced, fine motor, visual-perceptual skills, and proprioceptive processing skills.
PE participation– Joning in PE lessons can be a valuable part of a child’s day if the activities chosen help them with the sensory differences they face and do not push them beyond their capacity. The proprioceptive and vestibular systems are especially important for physical education and sports and some activities such as trampolining and swimming can be rewarding. A lesson which allows movement can help to regulate a child with sensory processing differences. (more details below).
Stimming – Allowing a pupil to ‘stim’ (self-stimulatory behaviour – rocking, spinning, hand/finger flapping). Children should not be made to feel embarrassment about stimming. Acceptance and understanding is the best route. However if the child is becoming distressed, talk to the parents to find a solution. This may be to find the child a safe place to do this and talk to parents if a “alternative” stim would be more suitable for school.
Movement Break activities
There is no one size fits all to movement breaks. The primary goal is to help the individual be more organised and ready to start their tasks.
The general rule is – faster and less rhythmic movement is more energising. Slower, more rhythmic movement is calming. And, heavy work, or activities with a lot of push and pull can help to both calm and organise.
You can watch to see how the individual attends and maintains focus after the break. If their attention has improved, then the movement was likely the right solution for them. However, if they are more dysregulated it will need to change.
Movements that fit into the Classroom
- Jogging on the spot
- Star jumps
- Touch your toes and stretch to the ceiling
- Press down on your desk and hold
- Press your hands together and hold
- Marching on the spot
- Cross march where your left hand touches your right knee then your right hand to left knee
- Making circles with your arms outstretched
- Jump to the right then then left
- Twist to the left and right
Tasks throughout the day
- Rubbing out white boards
- Chair stacking/moving stools
- Holding the door
- Fetch the box
- Songs that use movement and learning.
- Carrying fruit bags out at playtime.
To help individuals to refocus you can also add in a calming activity at the end. This could include
- Ten breaths (breathing for relaxation – 7 in, 11 out.. as long as the difference is 4).
- Holding a yoga pose
- Sitting with eyes closed for a count of ten Heavy Work/ Resistance Activities
- Digging and pouring (e.g. with sandpit or water tray)
- Rolling and cutting out play dough
- Crawling through tunnels/under obstacles
- Resistance band exercises
- Pushing a cart, wheelbarrow etc.
- Using the ‘wheely’ /’skate’ resources on the playground.
- Carrying a weighted bag (no more than 5% of their body weight.
- Tug of war / pushing the hands together /against the wall or chair.
- Rock climbing.
- Hanging from a monkey bar
Proprioceptive and vestibular systems and PE
The proprioceptive system helps us to modulate and calm our stimulation level so that we can focus.
What you might see:
A child that is struggling with body awareness and body position might:
- Walk into others while looking ahead
- Trip over
- Have poor fine motor skills compared to peers, or difficulties with precision movements
- Have poor body awareness, such as difficulty assuming postures in P.E.
There are a number of ways that you can help a child with their body awareness and body position:
- Involve them in lots of activities that involve effort such as playing tug of war: the proprioceptive system is stimulated by pulling or pushing and heavy work activities
- Encourage them to wear a rucksack
- Encourage activities that will help them such as swimming, trampolining, playground equipment, jumping or running
- Encourage them to do jumping and star jumps
- Climb on playground equipment
The vestibular sense provides us with a good posture, balance and movement sensation.
A child that has an over responsive movement system may:
- Be fearful of movement
- Not want to play on playground equipment
There are a number of ways that you can help a child with an over responsive movement system:
- Encourage participation in the type of movement they enjoy or tolerate
- Never force them to participate in an activity
- Combine movement activities with opportunities to experience proprioception (body awareness)
A child that has an under responsive movement system may:
- Be ‘on the go’ more than their peers
- Need movement in order to concentrate
- Take excessive risks such as not showing fear when jumping from a big height
There are a number of things that you can do to help a child that has an under responsive movement system:
- Provide your child with ample opportunities to experience movement, such as swimming and trampolining
- Create a safe environment in which they can experience movement
- Provide more opportunity to practice certain movement related skills such as jumping and swinging
- Split the day into small sections to allow for frequent movement breaks
Why is P.E. often difficult for children with dyspraxia/ DCD (Development Coordination Disorder)?
From the Dyspraxia Foundation website:
As gross and fine motor difficulties are affected many children may experience some or all of the following difficulties:
- balance – fall over, wobble, difficulty standing on one leg
- eye hand coordination- catching balls, aiming, predicting how fast a ball is approaching or moving
- eye foot coordination – difficulty with trapping a ball, kicking with good direction
- motor planning – difficulty planning the correct movements needed to carry out a task so difficulty with climbing onto and off apparatus
- stamina – tire easily, have difficulty with long distance running
- spatial awareness – difficulty accurately predicting people moving around them so knock into others or objects, cannot find an open space
- speed of processing – difficulty being able to coordinate all their movements into a timed response so may miss the ball
- short term memory – remembering rules
- fine motor skills – changing for and after lesson
- self-organisational skills- Forgetting and losing PE equipment and kit, lose change of clothes
The problem with team sports
Children with dyspraxia/DCD often find team sports particularly challenging. Apart from the physical difficulty of manipulating equipment such as a bat, having a good aim or catching or kicking a ball, their difficulties often result in:
- a struggle of constantly observing their surroundings
- reacting quickly to the changing environment
- manoeuvring themselves around others and the pitch
- tiring quickly
- anticipating the reaction of others
- anticipating the speed, distance and direction of the ball
- staying focused for the duration of the game
- understanding the rules and strategies of a game.
As team games are usually competitive it may lead the child to feel frustrated and have feelings of low self-esteem.
Strategies to help
- Allow the child to have Velcro instead of laces or buttons on their clothing
- Not all children can learn by watching others, those with coordination difficulties may need to be taught all skills.
- Help the child to position himself properly before starting an activity by placing his feet and hands correctly. Use the child as a model to demonstrate the starting position to the rest of the class. Provide hand-over-hand guidance to help children feel the movements.
- Give clear instructions one at a time, allowing the child time to organise their body into the right position before the next instruction is given.
- Use a variety of equipment to help the child throw and catch such as scarves, balloons, bean bags, kooshes, juggling balls, large balls before moving onto tennis balls
- Use larger bats as well as ordinary balls and get the child to bat a balloon first or use their hand before moving onto batting with a smaller ball
- Use music, counting or a rhythmic rhyme to reinforce movement patterns. Some children have difficulty getting started or knowing what to do next so using repetitive phrases such as “I can move my left arm, left arm, left arm, I can move my left arm just like this” may help.
- Provide children with a marked spot, gym mat or hoop on the floor to indicate the “space” that they should return to when directed by the teacher. It helps the child to have somewhere to aim for, rather than wandering aimlessly or getting in the way of other children.
- Use cones, lines on the floor or other markers to indicate the area in which the activity is to take place. This will help children to contain their movements if they are prone to “over-shooting” when moving around.
- Encourage the children to verbalise their plans for movement. For example ask the child what they are going to do next, do they need to throw harder or not so hard? Should they aim more to the left or right? What could they try to improve their performance?
- Encourage children to beat their own records for example, how many times they are able to bounce and catch a ball. Asking the class “How many people beat their own record?” gives the child with dyspraxia the chance to share their success.
- Where appropriate allow the child with dyspraxia to continue to focus on skill development, rather than team games.
- Only give a few rules and instructions at one time and ensure the child knows these before giving more
- Reward effort and participation
Skills required for getting changed for PE
Dressing can be a complex process and children need to be able to master a number of skills. See below for more details.
- Motor Skills: where a child needs to be able to move their limbs and body in a full range of movements requiring muscle strength and flexibility at their joints.
- Coordination: where a child needs to be able to create co-ordinated movements, using one arm and both arms. A child also needs the control of hand movements that require fine motor skills, such as fastening buttons.
- Balance: being able to maintain their balance whilst changing posture/ position both with eyes open and shut
- Fine motor skills: being able to reach, grasp and release objects in order to complete tasks such as buttoning or holding the item of clothing.
- Perception: having an understanding of various sizes and shapes of buttons and also knowing the size of arm holes.
- Stereognosis: being able to feel their way without relying on sight such as finding arm holes with a jumper over their head or fastening buttons behind at the back.
- Body schema: being able to tell right from left and the difference between arms and legs.
Calm and Alert – Activity Suggestions
To decrease arousal level/ levels of alertness
- Provide safe ‘womblike’ space using blankets, pillows, beanbag chair or large cardboard box; can be under a table, or in a corner of a room away from the main activity, it should be used as a soothing place chosen by the child or directed by an adult as needed; allow child to access this place and encourage then to take time there to ‘slow down’.
- Chewy or crunchy food can be organising for some children
- Climb on playground equipment safely
- Slow movements such as rocking in a rocking chair; rolling over a gym ball
- Body squashing (see description in next section)
- Deep pressure is calming; massage, firm hug etc.
- Reduce lighting and noise in the room (ear plugs or small headphones, tapes of soft music, dim lights, and sunglasses as needed).
- Soft, rhythmical music
- Deep pressure/ proprioceptive input, hugs; firm rubbing of back or hands/ feet; roll ball over child (body squashing); push against objects such as balls, walls etc.; wheelbarrow walking; dough, clay or Thera putty activities.
- Blow bubbles or oral motor activities (blowing/ sucking etc.)
Proprioceptive system in the classroom
Some children do not adequately receive or process information from their muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, or connective tissue. This results in insufficient feedback about movement and body position. Strategies that might help
As it has a calming and organising effect on the nervous system proprioceptive activities can be useful for a child who is over-alert or excitable and needs to calm down and focus on an activity.
Children who are under-responsive to proprioceptive input may seek out additional proprioceptive sensations to increase their knowledge of where their bodies are in space. During circle time some children always lean on the person sitting next to them which can be irritating for class members. Children can be observed leaning on the desk and supporting their head with their hand. Some children are unable to walk down the middle of a corridor or room, so instead run their hand or roll along the wall.
Activities for the Classroom:
- Do wall push up with claps in between
- Chair push ups in sitting
- Use stretchy band to pull on and make body movements
- Carry appropriately heavy books and hand out to the class/ to the office/ another classroom etc.
- Push the lunch trolley etc.
- Climb on playground equipment
- Use Thera putty while sitting at desk
Vestibular System in the classroom
Vestibular activities include any movements that involve the head moving through space. To stimulate the vestibular system use activities that are stop and go and that occur in a variety of planes (e.g. forward and back, side to side, up and down).
It would also be advisable to do vestibular activities alongside proprioceptive activities.
Activities for the Classroom:
- Use wobble cushion (if this is not too distracting)
- Have regular movement breaks, this can be incorporated into class activity i.e. handing out books etc.
- Use play equipment during break times