My most recent post about self-regulation touched on some calming strategies to help children who are over-aroused, upset, anxious, sleepless, and frustrated. Let me tell you a bit more about sensory processing- what it is, why it’s important, and what you can do to help your child.
Sensory processing refers to the information that our nervous system takes in from our senses- touch, sight, smell, sound, taste, proprioception- the awareness in our body of our position in space provided by feedback from our muscles. The vestibular sense is our awareness of movement, balance, and coordination from information received by the receptors in our inner ears. And a lesser known sense is interoception, or our ability to understand the feelings inside our body like being too hot or cold, hungry, or tired.
We all respond differently to the sensory information coming at us. If you take a look around you right now, take a moment to be still. Listen. Pay attention to the lighting. Feel your muscles as you sit or stand-whatever your body position is. Smell. Shift your balance- what happens? What do you feel?
As children are developing, their nervous system responds in different ways to this various incoming stimuli. This is part of getting to know your child as an infant or, if you are a clinician, getting a detailed history from parents about infancy, childbirth, and developmental milestones to try and understand how the child experienced and interacted with their sensory-rich environment. As teachers, this is also critical. This helps you understand how to set up your classroom, scaffold a lesson, adjust volume and lighting, provide movement, and even provide accommodations for test taking or homework.
You may notice things about your child that they have strong reactions to or avoid. Here are some examples you may come across from infancy to school-age:
Crying when placed on their back for diaper changes
Crying when water is poured over the head or face during the bath
Calming when swaddled
Calming when sucking on a pacifier
Falling asleep on a walk
Calming when rocked
Turning away when presented with new faces or people right in their space
Crying when placed on sand or grass
Stuffing their mouth
Refusing different textures to eat
Difficulty falling asleep
Difficulty crawling or skipping crawling
Frequent night wakings around 3-5 + years
Bumping into peers frequently
Clingy at birthday parties or other stimulating environments/ situations
Breaking crayons when coloring
Picking up or placing a cup down and spilling the liquid
Not noticing excessive food on the mouth or chin
Difficulty sitting with their bottom on the chair
Moving around constantly, without any ability to sit (phones, tablets, or TV excluded)
Difficulty interacting with peers during unstructured games (recess, lunch, or group work)
Difficulty focusing during unstructured activities
Does not demonstrate pain when very apparently got hurt
Lucy Jane Miller has provided research and insight to sensory processing and her work at the Star Institute provides us with this great checklist that dives a bit deeper into sensory processing. If your child exhibits quite a few of these responses, you may consider having an occupational therapy consult or evaluation.