What do we mean by sensory issues?

In the last number of years, our Early Childhood Teachers have observed more and more students in their classes with “sensory issues”.  By this we mean kids who are seeking sensory stimuli through movement, putting things in their mouths, requiring support to sit because of lack of core strength, difficulty regulating attention, focus and/or emotions, and many other signs.  We know that kids are smart and the behaviors we see are ways that they give us clues about what they need. We have been lucky to work with an excellent Occupational Therapist who has helped us to understand those clues. In the process, awareness and understanding within our community has grown and we have adjusted our learning environments to better meet these needs. One of the biggest learnings is that we have not 5 senses, but seven!

The Vestibular System

The Vestibular System operates through receptors in the inner ear in conjunction with position in space, input from the eyes, and feedback from the muscles and joints. It contributes to posture, stabilizes the visual system, and is the messenger of the sensory system regulating and communicating among the other senses. It impacts visual and special processing, motor and visual integration, bilateral integration, balance, and sequencing of tasks. Kids with poorly regulated vestibular systems can feel off balance and look for input to stimulate it. It is easier to balance when moving, so they might rocks, sway or bounce. In the classroom wobbly stools, cushions that allow for movement while sitting, therapeutic or exercise balls to sit on, and other alternate seating options can help these students to give input to their vestibular system within the class environment to help regulate their attention to have greater success during the day.

Below find an excellent 5 minute video that explains the vestibular system, signs that it might not be regulated adequately, and interventions that might help.

The Proprioceptive System

The body has sensors in our joints and muscles to help us to know where our body is in space. When we lift our arm, we know it is in the air because the sensors in our body tell us it is there. We do not need to look at it to know that. Individuals with poorly regulated proprioceptive systems do not. They need to look at it to know. As a result, they need to move their body or body parts to feel that they are there. These are the kids in the class who are constantly fidgeting, leaning on others, falling off chairs, pushing or playing too hard and/or breaking or knocking things over frequently because they don’t feel their body in space or feel feedback from the environment in the same way. This can make them feel uncomfortable in their own skin. These students need fidgets, they require heavy work activities, weighted pillows, and other tools and strategies to help them feel more grounded and then to better attend in the classroom.

Below find and excellent 5 minute video that explains the proprioceptive systems, signs that it might not be properly regulated, and interventions that might help.

Sensory Dysregulation : Tantrum or Meltdown

When the sensory system is in dysregulation, the brain produces high levels of cortisol and adrenaline because the fight or flight reflex is being triggered. Overtime, this can negatively impact memory and attention, increase anxiety, and lead to an increase in sensory meltdowns. A sensory meltdown is when a child is so overwhelmed by what is happening in her body that she cannot control her reactions. The only response to support a child in this state is to lessen all input, including talking, and allow the child to calm. Only once they are calm can you help process what has happened and come up with a plan for managing it better next time. This is different from a tantrum. In a tantrum, the child is controlling their behavior to get what they want. In that case you would acknowledge the need of the child without giving in to the inappropriate behavior. It is important to understand the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown because the appropriate reaction to a tantrum will NOT help a child who is in a meltdown from sensory overwhelm.

Sensory Diet

When specific sensory needs are identified by an Occupational Therapist, a sensory diet is created. The purpose of this is to give the body what it needs and craves in a therapeutic setting and throughout the day so that it will be better regulated and more able to attend and focus in class. Intervention can significantly improve the child’s ability (and teachers and parents) to understand and respond to their bodies needs. When their needs are met, they can be much more successful in the classroom.
Examples of Heavy Work, sensory diets, and a 7 minute Emotional/Sensory self regulation workout can be found in the links provided.


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