Elementary school students are constantly bombarded with sensory stimuli throughout the day, during school hours, and at home. Sensory processing plays a critical role in self-regulation and in how children function, interact, and learn at school, so it can be difficult to separate emotional regulation issues from sensory processing concerns, as they often connect.
Children who have functional sensory processing skills are able to take in sensory information, filter out what’s irrelevant, and stay relatively calm and self-regulated. They may occasionally engage in compensatory behaviors, such as biting their nails, playing with objects, getting a drink of water or going to the bathroom (when they don’t need to, for a brief respite), tapping their legs, fidgeting with their hands, and so on.
When children have difficulty processing sensory information, they can have trouble completing school- and home-based tasks that require them to sit still, attend to instruction, engage socially with peers, and play or work cooperatively with others. They have a lot of difficulty interacting with their environment and peers functionally, because they’re not receiving appropriate sensory feedback. They may engage in maladaptive behaviors—for example, they may be unable to sit in their seat and may collide with objects or peers while navigating the school setting, put objects in their mouth, and have difficulty following multistep directions (among other difficulties).
Providing young students with increased awareness of their sensory system at regular intervals throughout the day may help improve their behavior and overall self-regulation.
Simple Sensory Strategies to Improve Participation
Hug your knees: Ask your students to sit on the floor, knees up, feet firmly planted on the floor. Have them bring their knees under their chin, hugging them tightly. They can rest their chin briefly on their knees, as if they were using them as a table. This strategy integrates proprioceptive input (the ability to perceive the position and movement of the body) through joint compression (applying deep pressure).
Backwards hug: Sitting on the floor as tall as they can, students should reach both arms backwards, crossing their hands to squeeze their wrists. This strategy also integrates proprioceptive input through joint compression.
My own learning space: This is a good strategy for students who may be sensitive to auditory and/or visual inputs. When a child is having strong emotional feelings, it can often be helpful to “take space,” or move away from the challenging situation at hand (e.g., when they’re frustrated during a lesson that’s difficult to understand). This strategy allows students to take space while learning. Have an agreed-on location for this exercise. Consider creating a visual boundary to the space, such as painter’s tape, so that the student has a guide for where to go.
You may want to add sensory-blocking tools, such as noise-reducing headphones and something that blocks the student’s visual field, such as a folder standing up vertically, to further decrease sensory stimulation.
Velcro on rug spot: Consider placing Velcro around the student’s learning space, such as under the desk, on the floor, and even on their learning materials (on the back of their notebook, on their pencils, etc.). I like to alternate soft and rough textures for the added sensory stimulation. Feeling Velcro on the floor at the student’s rug spot can help them keep their eyes on you and will definitely be less distracting than having a stress ball in their hand.
Chair: Sitting on a chair with a back while listening to you can help the student focus when they’re feeling low-energy. The back support gives them the information of where their body is in a space, while their body doesn’t have to focus on trying to sit against gravity. This strategy provides tactile and proprioceptive feedback.
Floor desk: This is a small desk that provides a physical and visual boundary around the student. It can be helpful when they’re feeling high-energy. It also provides the student with a writing surface while you’re teaching. This strategy can be useful for those who benefit from increased proprioceptive and visual feedback.
Tangle/string fidget tools: These types of fidget tools are somewhat circular, so that the student can fidget with them in a repetitive and functional way, getting rid of excess energy. This tool also provides tactile feedback.
Big body breaks: Having the class stop at regular times to check in and do big body breaks so that everyone can feel just right can be very productive. Remind students that sometimes, our bodies may need to check in more often, and that’s OK. Ask your students to do downward dog/upward dog yoga poses and head-below-knee poses, and to bend down and squeeze each joint of their body, beginning at their ankles and working their way up to their shoulders.
These strategies provide a reminder to allow for increased proprioceptive (body awareness through joint compression) and/or vestibular (head below knee and rotational) inputs to ensure that students perform consistent large-movement exercises that have those components.
Cardboard box/laundry basket stuffed with pillows: This is a large, firm, and shallow cardboard box filled with a few pillows. Students should be able to sit in there, slightly squished, bringing their notebook/worksheet and a clipboard. Using this seat the right way, on the rug with their classmates, means that they are sitting up and participating. This strategy provides increased proprioceptive, visual, and tactile feedback.
The above strategies can help alleviate the sensory overload that young students experience from the continuous wave of sensory stimuli and keep them in the frame of mind for learning.