Sensory processing

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Sensory processing

These sensory regulating activities enable children to regulate their alertness to a ‘just right’ level, which in turn, maintains attention and concentration to classroom activities. Those working with the child need to be responsive to how the child is, and use these strategies when they needs them.

Movement breaks

Offer regular movement breaks during the day. Heavy muscle work allows the brain to receive increased feedback on the position of our limbs. The more feedback we can get through heavy muscle work, the more likely we are to have a greater awareness of our body. These activities have a calming effect and help increase attention and concentration.

Movement seeking

If a child becomes fidgety, offer them a move 'n' sit cushion to regulate their alertness and maintain concentration. This will offer the movement they are seeking.

Oral feedback

Offer crunchy snacks, a water bottle or drink through a straw. The oral movement of crunching on a snack or sucking through a straw or bottle helps to regulate alertness to a ‘just right’ level. This improves attention to task. For example, when doing table top activities, let the child have access to a water bottle.

Theraputty

Theraputty exercises help to develop increased hand and shoulder strength, while also improving finger dexterity and pincer grasp. This will positively impact on handwriting, fastening buttons and zips, and pencil grasp. Theraputty also offers increased proprioceptive feedback which acts as a calming activity to support regulation and alertness.

Regulating strategies

If a child communicates they are either too high or too low, support them to use their strategies keyring to select an activity which will support them to reach a ‘just right’ level of alertness again. Consider a  range of activities which target various senses to support them to regulate alertness, for example: oral, tactile, sound and proprioceptive feedback.

Fiddle toys

Some children respond positively to tactile feedback. Using a fiddle object helps them to maintain prolonged concentration to a task. This can be anything small such as Blu-tack, a paper clip, small piece of theraputty, stress ball or a sensory fiddle toy.

Alertness speedmeter

Encourage the child to use their speedometer which prompts them to think about their alertness levels. Learning how to independently recognise their alertness will allow them to think about what they need in order to reach a ‘just right’ level of alertness again. Prompt the child to communicate there alertness at various times of the day and ask them what they needs to reach a ‘just right’ level of alertness again.

Brain breaks

These are five quick and simple techniques that can be used in any environment to help the child to focus on tasks and act as calming.

  • hold each wrist with the opposite hand and try to pull apart. This gives resistance to the muscles and joints in the arms
  • place palms together in prayer position with elbows out to the side. Push palms together and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat up to five times
  • sit with hands on side of the seat of the chair and push up so feet lift off the floor and bottom of the chair
  • star jumps 10-15 repeats
  • place both hands against a wall and do ‘wall push ups’ (see if their nose can touch the wall). Do this 10-15 times.

Dots and squeezies

Check for painful areas or damaged or sore skin first of all. If found do not continue.

Dots and squeezies is calming and focusing. It is ideal as a warm up and attention getting activity before settling down to do a task. It also helps prepare the hands for writing or other fine finger activity.

  • squeeze firmly but not painfully, the top of the left thumb with the fingers and thumb of the right hand. Alternatively you can squeeze your whole hand around the thumb
  • continue with the top, middle and bottom pads of all the other fingers and thumb of the left hand
  • squeeze the middle section of the left hand, especially the soft areas
  • repeat with the right hand
  • cross wrists over and squeeze firmly with both hands just below the opposite wrists.
  • continue to squeeze, moving hands slowly up each arm until you reach the shoulders
  • slowly squeeze back down to your starting point.

Sensory breaks

What are sensory breaks?

Sensory breaks are quick and simple techniques that can be used in any environment to help a child focus on tasks and to help with calming. Each of the techniques has the same effect, so choose ones the child enjoys and are appropriate to the situation. You may need to demonstrate the techniques to make sure they know how to perform these movements.

When are they used?

They are particularly useful after transitions, such as arrival at school, break, lunchtime, and to help children focus on tabletop activities.

These breaks are really short and will be beneficial to all the children. They work best if the whole class takes part.

Why are they used?

These activities provide vestibular input (movement) and proprioceptive input (deep pressure). They have a calming and organising effect, helping to regulate attention and arousal levels.

Heavy muscle work allows the brain to receive increased feedback on the position of our limbs. The more feedback we can get through heavy muscle work, the more likely we are to have a greater awareness of our body.  These activities have a calming effect and help increase attention and concentration.

Activities

Pushing hands

Place hands together with palms facing each other with elbows out to the side (like a prayer) and then push as hard as you can for up to five seconds.

Pulling hands

Link your fingers together (as in the picture) and try to pull your fingers apart. Hold this for five seconds.

Pressing hands down on the desk

As you stand up, push down forcefully on to the desk, as if you are trying to push the table into the floor and hold for up to 10 seconds.

Rubbing hands together

Pretend that you are washing your hands thoroughly (rub the outside and inside of your hands) whilst counting to 10.

Rubbing arms

Rub up and down your arm while counting to 10. Repeat this on the other arm.

Fingertip tapping

Alternately tap each fingertip on the table, like you are playing the piano or typing.

Hand spans

Spread fingers out and then close them. Hold the stretch for three seconds.

Hug yourself

Cross your arms around your body and squeeze yourself for three seconds.

Wall push-ups

Stand an arm’s length away from the wall, with your hands at shoulders height, keeping your back and legs straight.  Bend your arms as you move your chest and face close to the wall to perform a push-up. Complete a maximum of 10 push-ups with breaks if needed.

Sitting on hands

Place your palms on the chair seat and sit on top of them. Count to five and remove your hands.

Squeezing a soft (stress) ball

Squeeze the ball and roll it in circles/up and down on the desk. Alternate the ball between hands.

Pushing down on head

Place both hands on top of your head and push down for a maximum of three seconds.

Stretching

Stretch your arms up to the ceiling. This can be achieved in standing or sitting. Hold the stretch for five seconds.

Floor push-ups

Try push-ups on the floor. The knees can be on or off the floor as you do the push up. Complete a maximum of 10 push-ups with breaks, if needed.

Chair press-ups

Place your palms on each side of the chair, then push down while lifting your bottom off of the chair. Hold this position for as long as you can or up to three seconds. Make sure your feet are off the floor, as this means you will put more weight through your arms. Repeat this up to five times.

Self care activities

Some children can find learning and developing their self-care skills a challenge, including tasks like teeth brushing and hair washing. These tasks can be difficult due to sensory sensitivities or motor planning challenges. These children need different strategies to build up their skills and confidence in this area.

Helpful strategies

  • break down tasks by giving instructions stage-by-stage. Use visuals and photos to help identify a sequence to carry out each task. Laminate these (if possible) and put up in the bathroom to use as part of the morning and bedtime routines
  • use equipment to make tasks easier, for example non-slip matting, soap dispensers or a long handled brush
  • practice large movements to develop motor planning and kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of the body in space) before trying smaller movements
  • give physical prompts, if necessary, for example physically directing hands through a movement
  • give definite time limits to the task and acknowledge your child’s feelings.

Tooth brushing

Before brushing try:

  • firm massage to mouth
  • blowing bubbles or whistle
  • deep pressure to mouth by chewing on something strong, pliable, and suitable to put into mouth, such as chewy tubes, can help to calm a highly sensitive mouth before brushing teeth
  • place an electric or vibrating toothbrush next to the mouth and teeth
  • use a visual timer and checklist.

During brushing

  • use warm water
  • always brush in front of a mirror so the child can see what they are doing or what you are doing to them
  • using a toothpaste pump dispenser may be easier to use than a tube.
  • play music – use an app such as Brush DJ
  • use less toothpaste
  • use flavourless toothpaste or toothpaste that does not foam.

Try different toothbrushes

  • smaller toothbrushes with softer or harder bristles
  • three sided toothbrush
  • an electric toothbrush
  • finger toothbrushes
  • chewy toothbrushes that release fluoride as the child chews
  • toothbrushes that play music or bleep once two minutes is up
  • wisit the websites oranurse.co.uk or boots.com for a selection of the tooth care products

Hair washing

Preparing for hair washing;

  • let your child fill the bath themselves and set the temperature, making sure that the boiler is set so the water cannot get too hot. They can add their own bubble bath or none at all if that is what they like
  • involve the child in choosing their own bubble bath, shampoo or soap so they can get the product they feel they can use and tolerate
  • if your child will tolerate it, use deep pressure to give a head massage before washing. Massage the scalp first before getting it wet or use a vibrating hairbrush.

During hair washing

  • warm the shampoo in your hands before putting on your child’s head. It is cold straight from the bottle
  • when rinsing the water from your child’s head get them to lean forwards rather than backwards and hold on to the sides of the bath as this is a more stable position
  • some children feel physically insecure when they close their eyes to have the shampoo rinsed off. Use a tear free shampoo so they can keep eyes open
  • it helps for your child to hold a clean flannel over their eyes too. If they need their face wiped with a towel between each rinse do so. Another alternative is to use goggles or a visor to protect their eyes
  • sometimes using a big bowl of water can provide more force and pressure rather than smaller cups. It also takes less time and fewer rinses.
  • sometimes using a more pressurised spray from the shower head is more comfortable than a weaker spray. Letting your child choose and control the pressure
  • using a bath mitt rather than your hands to wash your child’s hair can help. Press down to give deeper pressure
  • encourage your child to wash themselves. Self-initiated touch will be easier for your child to cope with
  • it can help if you let you child watch or play with the shower head or rinsing vessel for a bit before you wash their hair and rinse it.
  • having background music can create a more calming or fun atmosphere
  • use ear plugs or waterproof head or ear bands to prevent water getting into the ears
  • try no-rinse shampoo and bathing products. These are available at: completecareshop.co.uk/personal-care/no-rinse-shampoo-and-body-wash/ or purpleturtle.co.uk/waterless-shampoo-caps.html  as well as many other suppliers (make sure you shop around for the best price)
  • if you take a bath with your child, let them pour water over your head and face before doing it to them.

Hair brushing

  • prepare the scalp beforehand by pressing down on your child’s head or giving a soothing head massage.
  • use a tangle free conditioner
  • use a brush with lots of bristles or a specialist detangle comb. This reduces unnecessary tugging at the hair
  • let your child see themselves in a mirror while you brush. This will give them a greater sense of control and help them tolerate the brushing more easily
  • if your child can brush their own hair, let them. They will have an easier time anticipating and controlling the pain of hitting a knot
  • try sitting your child in a beanbag or wrapping them up tight in a rug for deep pressure, while you brush. Some parents have success with weighted vests or weighted lap pads
  • always brush from the bottom up. For long hair hold into a ponytail whilst brushing the knotted ends out
  • use fun hair accessories or doing hair with friends
  • if holding a hair brush is difficult use one with a strap across it, like a pet’s brush 
  • long handled brushes and combs are available if your child cannot reach behind their head 
  • sometimes children miss brushing the opposite side of the head because of poor midline crossing. Encourage the child to check whether they have completely brushed their hair in a mirror or remind them to brush the whole of the head
  • consider the virtues of a shorter cut until the child becomes less sensitive.

Hair cutting

  • prepare the scalp beforehand by pressing down on your child’s head or giving a soothing head massage
  • ask the hairdresser to give your child a big, soft brush, a dry washrag with baby powder, or a hairdryer set on cool to blow off stray hairs as it is cut. Use baby powder on irritated skin. Avoid letting the hair fall onto your child’s arms
  • use a towel and a clip rather than a Velcro fastening cape. The Velcro may be irritating on the back of the neck
  • bring an extra top so your child can change afterwards. Return home straight away for a shower to remove any leftover hairs
  • consider having your child’s hair cut at home, away from a salon with unfamiliar smells and sounds
  • let your child use a weighted lap pad for calming or play with a toy
  • if your child is sensitive to sound, avoid use of a buzz-cut razor. Alternatively you could try to desensitise your child by asking the hairdresser ‘play it’ to them on another occasion – not when they’re due to have a haircut
  • try letting your child hold a vibrating toy or electric toothbrush to their hairline, temples and near their ears to desensitise. You could also let them wear earplugs, listen to music or watch something on a device to soothe and distract them.

Oral motor strategies

What are they?

These are strategies that offer enhanced proprioception (our sense of body position in space) and tactile feedback. They also support a child’s motor planning by improving their tongue, lip and jaw and muscle control.

Why are they used?

You can use these strategies if your child frequently mouths or eats non-food items. This suggests they may have low oral motor control.

When are they used?

You can help calm an extra sensitive mouth before meals by chewing on something strong, pliable and suitable to put into the mouth. This provides deep pressure to the mouth which is desensitising.

If you offer regular access to these strategies throughout the day this may reduce your child’s need to lick, bite, chew or eat non-food items. These strategies work by helping to regulate the senses. They improve body awareness and encourage increasing exploration of items with the hands.

Strategies and activities

Sucking

  • use water bottles with sports tops
  • drink through a long thin or curly straw
  • create ‘fish faces’ with the cheeks and mouth
  • suck thick liquids through a straw, such as milkshake, yoghurt, smoothies
  • drink fruit puree smoothies through a straw.

Biting, crunching and chewing

  • chewy sweets such as gummy bears
  • cereal bars
  • crunchy foods, fruit, crisps, dry cereal, crackers
  • spicy food, such as salsa and curries
  • tugging on pieces of liquorice
  • crunchy vegetables.

Using chews

Deep pressure

Deep pressure is calming. It causes the release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These are happy neurotransmitters and give a feeling of calm within our nervous system.

  • offer your child dots and squeezies hand massage
  • try a ball squash with a peanut ball or roll your child in a gym mat
  • activities involving walking prone over a peanut ball
  • offer your child an arm massage using a spiky ball or a shoulder or head massage using your hands.

Toys and games

These activities will help your child learn how to force air through their mouth and improve control of their lip muscles.

  • use blow pens
  • blow bubbles into the air or into a cup of water through a straw.
  • pull faces and copy each other.
  • play blow football
  • blow a whistle, harmonica or other musical wind instrument
  • blow up balloons
  • use party blowers to knock down Lego towers or hit targets on the wall.

Vibration activities

  • encourage your child to use an electric toothbrush or small vibration toy on the outside of their cheeks.

Licking activities

  • try licking lips game: Poke the tongue out and go round and round, side to side up and down; try to touch the end of the nose with the tip of the tongue
  • lick lollipops, or peanut butter or jam off a spoon
  • get child to count their teeth with their tongue
  • blow raspberries.

Tactile activities

  • encourage messy play activities to increase exploratory play with hands. Try exploring with shaving foam, sand, jelly or water beads
  • use play dough or putty. You can make your own play dough and encourage your child to get involved with their hands.

Suggested reading: Ernsperger and Stegen - Hanson. (2004). Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges.

Calming strategies before bedtime

Some children need help to regulate their arousal levels before bedtime to enable them to get to sleep. It becomes easier for us to go to sleep if our arousal levels have shifted from high to low before attempting sleep. We can use calming strategies to help to regulate arousal levels just before bedtime. Try incorporating some of the activities listed below into your child’s evening routine

Heavy muscle work

Theory

Heavy muscle work allows the brain to receive increased feedback regarding the position of our limbs. The more feedback we can offer our bodies through heavy muscle work the more likely we are to have a greater understanding of our body awareness in order to attend to both fine and gross motor activities. These kinds of activities can also offer a calming effect.

Strategy

Try out some push/pull activities from our sensory breaks page.

Encourage your child to join in activities, chores and games that involve pushing and pulling and using his muscles, such as using a climbing frame, helping to move furniture, digging, pushing a wheelbarrow or trolley.

Wheelbarrows over a gym or peanut ball

Theory

Using only the upper limbs to support body weight offers the muscles proprioceptive feedback which enhances body awareness. In addition, this position has the potential to improve core and shoulder stability. Heavy muscle work can also act as a calming activity.

Strategy

Encourage your child to lay with his belly on the peanut ball and to support his body weight through outstretched arms. Practice walking hands forward until his feet touch the ball, and then walk back (wheelbarrows). Repeat up to 10 times.

Linear vestibular movement

Theory

The vestibular system is the body’s sensory system responsible for processing movement. Spinning, jumping, running and fast movements are alerting, and slow, rhythmic, forwards and backwards movements such as gentle rocking and swinging have a calming effect on the sensory system.

Strategy

Encourage your child to lay over the top of a gym ball or on a rocker and rock gently forwards and backwards.

Encourage your child to use a swing, swing seat, hammock swing or similar, taking slow steady movements.

Deep pressure

Theory

Deep pressure acts as a calming agent. It causes the release of both serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These are happy neurotransmitters and produce a feeling of calm within our nervous system.

Strategy

Offer your child deep pressure by rolling a peanut or gym ball up and down his body with firm pressure, as long as needed.

Tuck the duvet tightly around your child at night to give him a feeling of containment.

Wrap your child up in a duvet, blanket or yoga mat to give him deep pressure and a feeling of containment.

Offer your child deep pressure by pushing pillows or cushions on his body while lying somewhere soft. Let your child guide the level pressure.

Massage

Theory

Massage and deep pressure offer our bodies increased muscle feedback to our brain, which allows us to understand where our bodies are in space and help us to feel calm and relaxed. For some children deep touch can be comforting, unlike light touch which can sometimes have a negative impact on the senses.

Strategy

Offer your child the dots and squeezies hand massage or encourage them to do this themselves.

Offer your child a deep pressure massage to upper and lower limbs, shoulders and/or head. Be guided by your child as to amount of pressure and location on the body.

Fidget toys

Theory

Some children respond positively to tactile feedback. They enjoy the feeling of certain textures and gain comfort from them. Your child can get this tactile feedback through fidget toys. These are anything small and with a favourable texture, such as Blu-tack, a paper clip, a small piece of theraputty, stress ball, spiral bracelet, spiky ball or feathers.

Strategy

Encourage your child to explore a favoured fidget toy when winding down to go to sleep.

Take a warm bath

Theory

Taking a warm bath before bed can help to relax the muscles in the body and help prepare for sleep. The body receives deep pressure from the weight of the water which increases feedback to the muscles and joints, and the warmth of the water temperature can be calming for many people.

Strategy

Offer your child a warm bath before bedtime.

Lighting

Theory

Visual input has an effect on our arousal states.  Bright colours and bright lights are generally alerting, while soft colours and lighting are generally calming.

Strategy

Encourage your child to settle in bed with dim lighting or the lights off with low level sensory lights.

Strategies to support attention

These sensory regulating activities enable children to regulate their alertness to a ‘just right’ level which, in turn maintains attention and concentration to classroom activities. Those working with the child need to be responsive to how the child is, and use these strategies when they needs them.

Movement breaks

Offer regular movement breaks during the day. Heavy muscle work allows the brain to receive increased feedback on the position of our limbs. The more feedback we can get through heavy muscle work, the more likely we are to have a greater awareness of our body. These activities have a calming effect and help increase attention and concentration.

Movement seeking

If a child becomes fidgety, offer them a move 'n' sit cushion to regulate their alertness and maintain concentration. This will offer the movement they are seeking.

Oral feedback

Offer crunchy snacks, a water bottle or drink through a straw. The oral movement of crunching on a snack or sucking through a straw or bottle helps to regulate alertness to a ‘just right’ level. This improves attention to task. For example, when doing table top activities, let the child have access to a water bottle.

Theraputty

Theraputty exercises help to develop increased hand and shoulder strength, whilst also improving finger dexterity and pincer grasp. This will positively impact on handwriting, fastening buttons and zips, and pencil grasp. Theraputty also offers increased proprioceptive feedback which acts as a calming activity to support regulation and alertness.

Regulating strategies

If a child communicates that they are either ‘too high’ or ‘too low’, support them to use their strategies keyring to select an activity which will support them to reach a ‘just right’ level of alertness again. Consider a  range of activities which target various senses to support them to regulate alertness, for example, oral, tactile, sound and proprioceptive feedback.

Fiddle toys

Some children respond positively to tactile feedback. Using a ‘fiddle object’ helps them to maintain prolonged concentration to a task. This can be anything small such as Blu-tack, a paper clip, small piece of theraputty, stress ball or a sensory fiddle toy.

Alertness speedmeter

Encourage the child to use their speedometer which prompts them to think about their alertness levels. Learning how to independently recognise their alertness will allow them to think about what they need in order to reach a ‘just right’ level of alertness again. Prompt the child to communicate there alertness at various times of the day and ask them what they needs to reach a ‘just right’ level of alertness again.

Brain breaks

These are five quick and simple techniques that can be used in any environment to help the child to focus on tasks and act as calming.

  • hold each wrist with the opposite hand and try to pull apart. This gives resistance to the muscles and joints in the arms
  • place palms together in prayer position with elbows out to the side. Push palms together and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat up to five times
  • sit with hands on side of the seat of the chair and push up so feet lift off the floor and bottom of the chair.
  • star jumps 10-15 repeats
  • place both hands against a wall and do ‘wall push ups’ (see if their nose can touch the wall). Do this 10-15 times.

Dots and squeezies

Check for painful areas or damaged or sore skin first of all. If found do not continue.

Dots and squeezies is calming and focusing. It is ideal as a warm up and attention getting activity before settling down to do a task. It also helps prepare the hands for writing or other fine finger activity.

  • squeeze firmly but not painfully, the top of the left thumb with the fingers and thumb of the right hand. Alternatively you can squeeze your whole hand around the thumb
  • continue with the top, middle and bottom pads of all the other fingers and thumb of the left hand
  • squeeze the middle section of the left hand, especially the soft areas
  • repeat with the right hand
  • cross wrists over and squeeze firmly with both hands just below the opposite wrists
  • continue to squeeze, moving hands slowly up each arm until you reach the shoulders
  • slowly squeeze back down to your starting point.

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