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Classroom support: Sensory strategies!

Each of us learn best when we’re in a calm, ready state. Have you ever tried to master a new skill while half asleep? Perhaps the kids are yelling in the background or you’re preoccupied with a saucepan that’s about to overflow in the kitchen? When we’re distracted, juggling several tasks at once, or attending to everything else going on in the room, it just doesn’t work properly. There’s no guarantee we’re going to keep our sanity in moments like those, let alone learn anything new.

The classroom can be quite the same for some children, especially those who are more sensitive to subtle changes in their body and have an increased awareness of what’s going on around them. In order to retain new information and learn more effectively, children benefit from being in a “just right” level of alertness.

Here are just a few tips on how to support our children to maintain a level of “just right” alertness for learning:

Sleep – It’s certainly not new information that a proper night’s sleep is important for our children, right? We’ve heard it time and time again. We all know (often by experience!) that a lack of sleep does affect mood, concentration, memory, and general quality of life. It may be worth considering restructuring your child’s bedtime routine and the cues used to signal that it’s time for bed. For some children, individualised weighted blankets have been beneficial in promoting sleep. It’s best to tailor a specific routine to your child and their needs. If sleep is an area of concern for you and your child, perhaps it’s worth having a chat with your occupational therapist for more information.

Heavy work activities – Firstly, what exactly are “heavy work” activities? Great question! Heavy work activities (or deep pressure activities) are any type of action that pushes or pulls against the body, i.e. swimming (where the water pushes against the body), or hanging on monkey bars (creating resistance by using the body’s own weight). Heavy work activities provide proprioceptive input to the muscles and joints which can be calming, organising and regulating for our child’s central nervous system. As a paediatric occupational therapist, I’m a big fan of these types of activities. (The seemingly endless benefits from heavy work activities are enough to fill an entire new blog! So watch this space.)

In the busy-ness of before- and after-school routines, the likelihood of our children accessing heavy work and deep pressure/physical activities often goes by the wayside. As a parent myself, I’m the first one to admit this often gets dropped off the list of priorities if I’m pressed for time. But let’s change that. As parents, let’s band together and make heavy work activities a priority. Morning and afternoon. Put down the iPads, give the ABC Kids channel a break, and get those little bodies moving. Encourage your children to: army crawl, carry the grocery bags inside from the car, walk like a crab, or go on the swings outside.

Keep in mind, heavy work activities are all about finding the right amount of input for each child. This is where occupational therapy intervention would assist you and your child to gauge what’s needed and how to structure a “parent-friendly” daily schedule (also known as a sensory diet) to target those activities.

P.S. Bonus points awarded to those of us whose children bike ride to school each day! It’s such great heavy work for them. For those of us who are limited by distance (and fried by the Townsville heat simply walking to and from the classroom and the car!) don’t fret. Perhaps consider arriving at school a smidge earlier and accessing the playground before the bell goes. Let’s make this achievable!

Big Body Breaks – Big Body Breaks are essentially like the heavy work activities listed above. When teachers engage their students in “big body break” movements (like animal walks, star jumps, cross-crawls, or body based isometrics, i.e. chair push ups) they are helping the students to increase their focus and attention to task. With the right sensory input, our children are able to sit still longer because they feel grounded and have an increased sense of body awareness.

Fidgets – Look, fidgets are great tools for some children and can help to keep their mind focussed on the task at hand. For others, fidgets are more of a distraction and detract from the learning experience. Be prepared for a bit of trial and error. Fidgets must be chosen carefully and adapted to suit the individual child’s need. Watch your child, observe their behaviour. Has their focus improved with the fidget in hand? Or, are they more preoccupied bouncing it around the room and distracting everybody else? My recommendation is to be careful with fidgets. Work alongside your occupational therapist to explore which one, if any, works best for your child. Be mindful that there may also be other sensory tools that may be more effective for your child.

Calming Corner or quiet space – Calming tools are grrrreat! Ultimately, in the classroom, it’s up to the teacher as to how they allow calming tools to be accessed within the classroom. Ideally, calming tools kept in a designated corner of the room have the potential to be really beneficial to children who need to “escape” and recharge; those who are easily overwhelmed and need time to calm their mind and body at times during the day. A quiet space, or calm corner, aims to limit sensory input, i.e. reduce noise and limit visual distractions. This type of space may include (but is not limited to):

- Noise cancelling headphones

- Weighted blanket, or lap bag

- Bean bag or pillows (for extra deep pressure input)

- Subdued lighting (if achievable)

- Playdough or Theraputty

- Stress balls or squishy toys

It is important to make rules and set clear boundaries for the use of fidgets and calming tools within the classroom. Children must be aware of its purpose and how it is to be accessed. For some children, it may be necessary to provide them with a small visual cue card that helps them to signal to the teacher they need a break before a meltdown occurs. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference in helping our children achieve a “just right” level of alertness.

We’re all in this together!

This parenting gig is certainly not easy, but sooo worth it! Remember, if your child experiences difficulty with self-regulation, has low frustration tolerance, and is not keeping up with same-aged peers within the classroom, it is recommended that your child accesses occupational therapy for assessment and an individualised treatment plan. And, if that’s not for you, enquire about a shorter screening process that can help you in identifying areas of need.

Let’s do this! *fist pump*

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