Sensory Strategies for Home

By Melissa Kahn, MS, OTR/L


With school closures, many kids with Sensory Processing Disorder have been unable to continue with regular therapy • Parents can partially fill the gap with a few simple activities

With much of the country still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are missing their in-clinic treatments. In some states, this is likely to continue into fall with school reopenings delayed or disrupted. Thankfully, parents can pick up the slack and help their kids with at-home sensory activities. Below are three useful strategies that you don’t have to be a professional to implement.

Organizing Sequence Breaks

Known as the “Organizing Sequence,” the order of activities below reinforces and creates healthy brain pathways. Sensory breaks that follow this sequence help to calm the nervous system–setting up the brain for success.

The three-step sequence includes:

1.    Movement with Vision

Movement activates our vestibular system, the part of the sensory system that informs the brain that we’re in motion. Even a small tilt of the head is enough to activate this system. Difficulties with the vestibular system can impact balance, postural control, spatial awareness, and cause dizziness or disorientation. Linking movement with visual activities helps to integrate these systems, making them work more effectively together. This is why, when we experience motion sickness, it is important to keep your eyes open rather than close them.

Examples: Upside-down games like bowling: have your child try to roll a ball between his legs upside down to knock down bottles; or play side- to-side ball: Stand back-to-back with your child and pass a ball to each other, making sure that he follows the ball with his head.

2.    Heavy Work/Deep Touch

Heavy work and deep touch input stimulates the proprioceptive system. The proprioceptive system, located in muscles and joints, releases calming and organizing chemical compounds. This is the reason, for example, you may crave a firm hug or need heavy blankets to fall asleep. Heavy work and deep touch input are integral to the organizing sequence, and can help your child feel more regulated and at ease throughout the day.

Examples: Crawling over cushions/pillows/mattresses, or playing tug of war using a sheet, large bungee or rope.

3.    Respiration with Vision

Respiration ignites our primitive suck/swallow/breath pattern which is inherently calming. As with the movement activities, when performing respiration activities, include visual stimulation. That will help the two systems to be more in sync.

Examples: watching bubbles form as your child blows through a straw; focusing on the rise and fall of his belly as he breaths

Calm Up to Calm Down

If your child is spending a lot of time indoors or on screens, you may be aware of his inability to sit still. Try to reframe your thinking from “My child won’t sit still!” to “My child needs to move.” A child’s inability to stay still is often simply their nervous system telling them exactly what they need.

There is a part of the brain (the reticular activating system) that tells us we need to move to be able to continue paying attention. For a well-developed nervous system, this can look like a brief stretch or adjusting our position in our seats, followed by returning to the task at hand. For kids with SPD, a subtle wiggle isn’t enough to signal that it’s time to take a movement break. Your child may need to move more in order to refocus, sit still, and learn effectively. Although it can feel a bit counter-intuitive, kids with sensory difficulties often need to “calm up” in order to “calm down.”

Quiet Spaces, Cozy Corners

If you observe your child having a meltdown, it is natural to want to “fix” it. These are the times your child may be running from you, raising his voice at you, or telling you to get away.

The best strategy in these situations is giving your child some safe space. These spaces provide sensory reduction, and can be just as important as sensory stimulation. For these moments, creating a quiet space or a “cozy corner” may be just what your child needs. By creating these spaces, filled with sensory-regulating tools (e.g., squishy balls, noise-reducing headphones, weighted blankets, whistles, and books) you can empower him to self-regulate. Once he calms down, your child can circle back to use the “thinking” part of his brain (the frontal cortex) and hear what you have to say.

For many kids with sensory processing issues, it’s a trial-and-error process to figure out what feels good for them and their bodies. Seek out their feedback or ask them for ideas to adapt an activity. You’ll be surprised at how well these strategies work. When something feels good to a child, they’ll engage in it readily!

Melissa Kahn is the Founder and Executive Director of Sensory Kids and Co-Executive Director of the Sasco River Center. She is a skilled and experienced practitioner of sensory-processing therapies and auditory programs. 

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