Creating A Sensory Smart Classroom

What is sensory Processing:

Sensory processing difficulties are highly prevalent in children with ASD and ADHD and occur in 5 to 16 % of all school aged children (this is as many as 1 in 6!). Sensory processing is how our brain registers and interprets information from our sensory systems:

  • Tactile- what we touch
  • Auditory- what we hear
  • Visual- what we see
  • Gustatory- what we taste
  • Olfactory- what we smell
  • Vestibular- how we are moving
  • Proprioceptive- how our body is positioned

Sensory Thresholds:

Each of us have a sensory threshold, this is a limit of the amount of sensory input that we can tolerate.  Sensory sensitivity occurs when normal sensory input levels exceed a child’s threshold.   Conversely, under-registration occurs when a person needs greater than normal levels of input to register.  If there is a mismatch between our sensory preferences and our environment our performance is inhibited.

What is happening at a brain level?:

We are constantly being bombarded by sensory input both from our environment and from within our bodies. Our brain filters the information and decide whether to:

  • Screen out- input is deemed as unimportant e.g. dust particles in the air- always there but we tend not to notice them.
  • Habituate- if input doesn’t change much over time it is ignored e.g. wearing a ring.
  • Notice and assign the relevant level of importance e.g. a car honking at us as we cross the road and needing to respond immediately.

If the sensory input is beyond what we can tolerate then the situation releases cortisol in our brain and elicits as fight/fright/flight stress response which causes:

  • Breathing gets faster
  • Heart rate increases
  • More oxygen is pumped to muscles
  • Appetite suppressed
  • Prefrontal cortex shuts down (responsible for attention, planning, decision making, judgement, impulse control, retrieval of memories, learning)

Overall state of arousal:

Overall state of arousal is impacted upon by many factors:

  • Sensory preferences
  • Sleep
  • Hunger
  • Sickness
  • Anxiety
  • Prior events of the day

This means that a sensitive child might be able to cope with something one day but the next day they might completely fall apart.  An under-responsive child might be calm and in control one day but the next they might be completely unpredictable.  Bear in mind that these changes are not a behavioural choice but purely the result of a nervous system that can’t cope that particular day.

What does it look like:

  1. Signs of sensory sensitivity:
  • Cover ears
  • Become upset in response to loud noise.
  • Easily distracted/overwhelmed in busy environments.
  • Avoid messy play.
  • Hesitant to try new foods
  • Bothered by clothing fabrics, seams in socks, wearing long sleeves.
  • Dislike grooming tasks such as having hair brushed, washed or cut.
  • Cautious on playground equipment
  • Highly emotional
  • Increased anxiety
  • Tantrums/ meltdowns
  • Avoidant behaviour
  • Aggressive behaviour
  1. Signs of under-responsivity- Sensory Seekers:
  • Runs into things
  • Fidgets
  • Constantly moving/ can’t sit still
  • Impulsive
  • Over excited
  • Too rough in play
  • Invade personal space
  • Chew on clothes/objects
  • Poor attention
  • Disorganised
  1. Signs of under-responsivity-Low registration
  • Passive
  • Lethargic
  • Tires easily
  • Off with the fairies/ day dreamer
  • Misses instructions
  • Hard to engage

What can we do?

I have found the most success with taking a 3- pronged approach to managing sensory challenges.

  1. Provide sensory calming/organising activities to ensure the nervous system is in an optimal state.
  2. Utilise cognitive strategies to build self-regulation and coping skills.
  3. Set up the classroom environment to maximise predictability and reduce sensory demands.

Sensory calming/organising activities:

Types of input that can help to prevent/counteract a stress response and also provide input that under-responsive kids benefit from:

  • Heavy work- (which stimulates the proprioceptive system) impacts on serotonin levels in our brain. Serotonin helps to regulate our level of arousal/alertness. These chemicals can remain for 1.5- 2hours. Activity ideas include:
    • Yoga poses
    • Chair push ups & dips
    • Wall push ups & squats
    • Animal walks such as crab walks, bear walks, caterpillar creeps, bunny hops etc.
    • On-the-spot exercises or gym circuit activities such as scissor jumps, star jumps, sprinting on the spot, high knees, crunches, push ups, squats, marching, planks.
    • Whole body Theraband exercises
  • Deep pressure touch- releases dopamine in the brain which reduces cortisol. This relaxes the brain so that we can focus and attend. Activity ideas include:
    • “Milkshake Breathing”
    • Breathing prompt: Sniff a flower/blow out a candle
    • com:
      • On & Off
      • Bring It Down
      • Rainbow Breath
  • Deep breathing- essentially tricks our brain and body into thinking that we are calm. Activates our parasympathetic nervous system which helps us to relax.  Activity ideas include:
  • Body socks
  • Bear hugs
  • Bean bag chairs
  • “Sausage rolls”- rolling child up in a blanket
  • “Pizzas”- rolling over child with a therapy ball

Cognitive strategies:

  • Use body and brain diagrams to discuss how the sensory system works. It is amazing how teaching kids to understand what is happening in their body and brain can help them to develop their own self-regulation skills.
  • The Zones of Regulation Program & The Alert Program- How Does Your Engine Run? I like to draw on aspects of both these programs.
    • Make a whole class Speedo using the four zones colours.
    • Discuss when it is OK to be in each zone.
    • Brainstorm how we might look/behave in each zone and how this impacts upon others.
    • Generate strategies for what to do in each zone.
  • Books to support self-regulation:
    • We Thinkers! Volumes 1 & 2 by Michelle Garcia Winner – 10 part series including topics like:
      • Whole Body Listening
      • Expected and Unexpected Behaviour
      • Flexible and Stuck Thinking
      • The Size of the Problem
    • Superflex by Michelle Garcia Winner
    • Ant patrol Series by MASTER Institute
    • The Panicosaurus by Kay Al-Ghani
    • The Red Beast by Kay Al-Ghani

Classroom environment suggestions:

Provide as much structure and predictability as possible:

  • Visual schedules
  • Predictable daily routines
  • Timers
  • Social Stories (give warning about what to expect, how to act and what to do if they are overwhelmed). Homemade Books to Help kids Cope by Robert Ziegler is a helpful resource for writing these

Where possible reduce sensory stimulation:

  • Minimise visual clutter around the room.
  • Use page cut outs to display small chunks of visual input at a time.
  • Provide priority seating where possible.
  • Turn off the lights during quiet breaks.
  • Set up a quiet retreat in the classroom (tent or reading corner). Sometimes it can also be helpful to have another location in the school available for lunchtime incidents.
  • Have earplugs or noise cancelling headphones available to block out noise.
  • When lining up, allow sensitive kids to have a special place at the front or back of the line.
  • Use carpet squares for each child when sitting on the floor to keep them in their own space.

Allow opportunities to seek input in an acceptable way:

  • Munch and crunch
  • Chewelry/ Chewy tubes
  • Drink bottles to sip on
  • Fidget toys
  • Place Velcro dots under the lip of the desk
  • Provide options for seating:
    • Move n sit cushions
    • Weighted lap cushions
    • Low tables to sit on the floor
    • Standing desks
    • Bloom stool/Hokki stools
    • Hawdahug chairs
    • Beanbags
    • Ball chairs

Helpful links and resources:

Kate Kleinau- Occupational Therapistkate headshot

A Peek Inside Our Resource Cupboard: 5 of Our Favourite Games for Building Fine Motor Skills

Open our resource cupboard and you will find shelves of toys! We know that kids do their best learning when they are having fun.  Many of the kids that come to see us need support to develop their hand strength and fine motor skills so that they can master activities like handwriting, cutting with scissor, tying shoe laces, using cutlery and all the other everyday tasks that we have to do with our hands.

A few of our favourites…

  1. Playdoughplaydough

This is definitely and oldie but a goodie.  Manipulating the playdough in different ways builds strength and control of the finger muscles.  Obviously, the possibilities are endless, however we particularly like to use these great playdough activity mats from Mother’s Niche.

  1. Connect 4connect 4

Who would have thought such a simple household game could also be great for fine motor development.  When playing this game, we like to challenge the kids to only use one hand to pick up 3 coins at a time.  This means that they have to transfer the coins from the fingertips to the palm of their hand (and back again when posting them in the slots) which is fantastic for developing in hand manipulation.

  1. Hammer and Nailshammer and nails

This game has so much going for it.  Orientating the pieces correctly to copy a picture develops visual perception, lining up the nails takes precise finger control and holding the pieces still while hammering works on coordination of the two hands (also referred to as bilateral integration). Even more motivating is getting out the real tools (with close supervision!), you’d be surprised at how motivating hammering nails into balsa wood can be.

  1. Pegspegs

The humble peg is wonderful for developing finger strength.  Set up a stable chair or table at home so that the kids can help peg the clothes on the line.  In the clinic, we often get kids to match pictures on the pegs to a corresponding template.  You can make your own based on your child’s interests or we often use this ready to print pack from Your Therapy Source.

  1. Build and Play Toysscrewdriver build and play toy

These are so motivating for kids, they can literally spend hours assembling and disassembling. Plus they don’t even realise that they are working on their visual perception, in hand manipulation and bilateral integration skills at the same time.

Kate Kleinau- Occupational Therapistkate headshot

Children & Anxiety: The Impacts of Trauma and Anxiety on a Child’s Mind and Body

The words anxiety and stress are used more frequently in our world today than ever before and even more so when considering the traumatic situations children are faced with. Trauma is considered “an out of control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.” (Brach, 2011).

When we consider trauma within this context, I imagine there are a few more events or situations that may come to your mind for yourself as a child or for the children you are currently caring for.

When children are in constant states of powerlessness or in unpredictable/unsafe environments there are implications for the mind and body because fear is the emotion felt in both scenarios. If children do not have access to a primary caregiver who can guide them through fearful emotions with patience, love and understanding, ultimately the child accesses the fight/flight/freeze mechanism in the brain. This mechanism, when overactive, will begin creating a neuro pathway in the brain advising the child they need to disconnect from feeling which ultimately means they disconnect from their body – leaving them feeling anxious in their world.

What is anxiety?

Before we continue, let’s clear up the term ‘anxiety’ and what it means. Anxiety is a state of being when we are concerned, fearful or worried about the future. Our mind focuses on an issue or situation and in its attempt to feel safe, will try to predict every possible outcome of that issue or situation – leaving us feeling uncomfortable sensations in our bodies. These sensations may include; shallow breathing, reduced energy, headaches, tense muscles, sleeplessness and diarrhea.

When anxiety is felt on a regular basis, especially during the core developmental years of 0-7, our fight/flight/freeze response becomes our default functioning system. This system has been designed to protect us when we detect a threat in our environment. For example, approaching a school bully, hearing parents argue, hearing a loud noise or being asked a question by a school teacher. When this system is constantly triggered and strengthened, children may experience:

  • learning difficulties;
  • control seeking behaviour’s such as bullying;
  • explosive behaviours;
  • difficulty regulating their emotions;
  • difficulty remaining engaged with their teacher and learning content;
  • extreme and challenging behaviours (anger, sadness, frustration);
  • a reduced desire to interact with people or their environment;
  • self-harming behaviours and
  • depression.

How can we help reduce anxiety in children?

Luckily for us, we now know enough about the brain and body to begin reducing a child’s experience of anxiety. The introduction of brain scans in the last 20 years helps us understand how the brain functions during certain situations such as a traumatic experience, anxiety, depression or a tantrum.

Tip 1:

The first tip to begin helping your child when they are anxious is to tend to the emotion. This sounds simple however it is often forgotten because we as parents/caregivers go straight to problem solving mode.  When a child is in meltdown mode, and adults for that matter, access to the logical part of our brain (Neocortex) is minimal and all behaviours and actions are being directed by the emotion centre (Limbic System). I am sure you have many stories of extreme outbursts from your children because of something you consider insignificant. It’s crucial to understand here however that the ‘insignificant’ reason is indeed significant to your child.

All meltdown behaviours you see from children are occurring to meet a need. If the emotion attached to that need is not explored or understood by a primary caregiver, then children are left feeling confused and deserted which only increases their anxiety the next time they feel big emotions as they don’t have a safe adult to help them.

Tip 2:

The second tip in helping children with anxiety is to offer them alternative methods in exploring big emotions. The language centre of our brain (Neocortex) is developing from 3 years into adolescents which make our requests of children to explain emotions with words often unsuccessful. Help your child allocate colours, animals, cartoon characters or songs to feelings. When your child is struggling to explain their emotions to you, pointing to a colour or cartoon character can be easier. Your child will then feel understood and you will know which emotion to tend to, thus, your child feels safe and supported.

Tip 3:

Thirdly, it’s crucial for children to have a strategy to calm their mind and body. When we are anxious or fearful, we need to activate the relaxation response (Parasympathetic System) which can only be accessed by our breath. Balloon Breath is a good option for children. Guide your child to breathe in through their nose for 4 seconds, filling up their belly like a balloon of their favourite colour and exhale through their mouth for 4 seconds. If your child needs a point of focus, you can have your child lay on their back with a toy on their belly to watch as it does up and down.

Anxiety can be a very scary experience for children if they do not have a safe and understanding parent/caregiver to turn to. Providing children with a predictable and safe environment and teaching them tools to help with big emotions will begin creating a sense of resilience and confidence that will reduce anxiety.kids yoga therapy

Jessica McIveen- Social Worker and Children’s Yoga & Meditation teacher at Kids Yoga Therapy.

Find out more about Jess at:

http://www.kidsyogatherapy.com.au

info@kidsyogatherapy.com.au

ph: 0403 270 367

*NDIS Registered Service Provider

The Importance of Pretend Play- From the Founder of ‘My OT University’

“When children pretend, they’re using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality. A stick can be a magic wand. A sock can be a puppet. A small child can be a superhero” – Fred Rogers

social skills 2

I love watching children engage in pretend play where a doormat can be a space-ship, a toy car can blow-up and a child can be a superhero. Kids engage in pretend play in lots of different ways from teddy tea-parties to role-plays with figurines to mud kitchens in the garden. When children work together and role-play with characters, they have the opportunity to create problems and develop coping skills. As these scripts become more complex; the problem-solving and compromising in play also becomes more complex and they learn skills they will use as a teenager without the actual emotions attached to the real-life situation.

Boredom often fuels creativity in play so the more structured activities you implement with kids at home, the less pretend play a child needs to engage in. Being bored is a part of life and it is in this space that we are left with our own thoughts, ideas and creativity. There is great creativity in a child’s ability to create a game with a story line of their own and characters to go along with it. So what happens when we replace this type of play with single use toys and technology- does this skill disappear? Technology is always going to be a part of their life so how do we get the right balance so different types of play are all part of the routine.

So how can you create opportunities for pretend play at home?

  • Don’t throw out cardboard boxes and allow children to play with them. If they need help, you can give some suggestions or model ideas for them i.e. driving in a car, rocket, spaceship, boat etc.
  • Use puppets especially with younger children. Give them funny voices and express lots of different emotions.
  • Have a dress-up box- don’t get rid of any fancy dress costumes!
  • Props can be very helpful for kids to help develop story-lines especially if they are finding pretend play challenging. Props like a kitchen, vet kits, doctors kit, washing machine etc.
  • Have lots of new experiences which can be incorporated into play e.g. going to a wildlife park, museum, park, bush, beach etc.

It is vital that parents and educators can access information on positive child development so that change can happen in the home and school environment. The My OT University is an online learning platform which was developed to provide information and practical tips and strategies around Occupational Therapy and Child Development. The platform offers an online video series including guest speakers from the fields of Child Psychology, Physiotherapy, Education and Speech and Language Therapy. In addition, members will have access to monthly webinars on topics chosen by subscribers and ‘Let’s Get Moving’ gross motor classes for kids to encourage them to engage in exercise. Join the rest of the My OT & Me Community on www.myotandme.com

Jessica Kennedy- Occupational Therapist

Core Strength: How can I develop my child’s postural control at home?

What is core strength?

Core strength, or postural control, is the base and launching pad for everything that we do.

The body’s core, referring to the muscles in the abdomen, back and pelvis, is the foundation for children being able to maintain an upright sitting posture, control fine motor movements, such as handwriting, and participate in gross motor activities like school sport.

child girl doing gymnastics

Signs of poor postural control include:

  • Sitting on a chair in a slouched position
  • Leaning over the table and propping the body up with hands when completing work
  • Preferring to lie down during floor work
  • Finding it challenging to control a pencil when writing
  • Having difficulty balancing and playing on playground equipment

How can I develop my child’s core strength?

Simple and fun activities can be incorporated into your child’s day to build their core muscles and create a good base for fine motor and gross motor activities. Here are some simple ideas:

  • Animal walks – your child can pretend to be a variety of animals whilst strengthening their core e.g. crab walks, bear crawls, frog jumps.
  • Wheelbarrow walks– your child ‘walks’ on their hand and an adult holds their knees (easier) or ankles. Your child can see how far they can go, complete 10 steps forward then 10 steps backward, balance a toy on their back whilst walking or even complete a puzzle by wheelbarrow walking to retrieve pieces.
  • Create an obstacle course which includes unstable surfaces (pillows), crawling under objects and climbing. To give the game purpose you could: time how fast they can go, set up unmatched socks or memory cards at the start and end so your child needs to find the pair.
  • A simple way to develop postural control is to change your child’s position when completing activities e.g. lying on their stomach and propping their bodies up with their arms.
  • Superman – your child lies on their tummy and lifts up their legs and arms at the same time so the thighs and chest leave the floor. Can they hold a ball or toy between their feet or hands?
  • Plank positions – start lying on stomach and push up onto hands and feet. It is important to maintain a straight body position whilst holding this for as long as possible. If holding a full plank is too tricky your child can try dropping the knees to the floor or drop to their elbows with arms at 90 degrees.
  • Climbing up a slide instead of sliding down.
  • Participation in sporting activities such as swimming, gymnastics and martial arts can assist with developing postural control.Lucy Taylor 3

Lucy Taylor- Occupational Therapist

The Importance of Physical Play: Simple Ways to Develop Motor Skills at Home

Some of you may have heard me speak at your child’s Kindy about the importance of physical play and the role it plays in making sure that children have the necessary skills to start school.  Below are some simple ways to develop your child’s gross and fine motor skills at home:

smiling excited kids having fun together on playground

Gross Motor Skills:

If you think back to your own childhood I’m sure you can recall hours spent playing outside on the playground at the local park, on bikes and playing sport with neighbourhood kids.  These tasks allow development of the centres of your brain that are responsible for interpreting movement and body position (vestibular and proprioceptive systems).  They also assist to build sound core strength which is vital for success at school.  Core strength allows children to maintain sitting posture at the desk and for mat-time.  It also gives them a supportive base to carry out gross motor tasks with control.  Without these underlying skills children appear clumsy, fatigue quickly, can’t sit still and produce lower quality written work.

Encouraging Gross Motor Skill Development: 

  • Backyard obstacle courses- jumping, hopping, balancing, climbing, crawling, throwing, catching etc.
  • Playground- slides, swings, monkey bars, flying foxes, fireman’s poles, balance beams, climbing walls
  • Equipment- trampolines, junior stilts, scooters, bikes
  • Weight bearing walks- wheelbarrow walks, commando walks, animal walks (crab, bear, frog, caterpillar)
  • Change the position you complete tasks in- reading whilst lying on stomach, propped up on elbows or writing up against a vertical surface.

Fine Motor Skills:

Again, if you think back to your childhood you may recall things like digging in the sand pit, using hacksaws (My parents used to let my brothers and I saw into an old tree stump,, with adequate supervision of course!) and hammers in the backyard, building Lego, completing jigsaws, creating craft (cutting, gluing, threading and drawing).  These activities ensure that kids develop essential foundation skills such as hand strength, in hand manipulation, hand dominance and bilateral integration.  These allow us to develop efficiency and control for tasks such as writing, cutting with scissors, doing up buttons and tying shoe laces.

Encouraging Fine Motor Skill Development:

  • Make drawing and writing fun by using novelty pens- scented pens, stampers, window pens, wiggle writers, crayons, changer pens, invisible markers
  • Pencil control activities- mazes, dot to dots, tracing, step by step drawings, stencils, colour by numbers
  • Finger and hand strength- pegs, playdough, tennis ball monsters, pop beads, nuts and bolts, finger soccer, spray bottles, water pistols
  • Tool use- hammers, screwdrivers, tongs, tweezers
  • Paper craft- origami, paper plans, paper toys (there are heaps of templates freely available online)
  • Construction toys- Lego, Mobilo, block designs, marble towers

Kate Kleinau- Occupational Therapistkate headshot

CoordiKids: Childhood Development Programs

There are many vital underlying skills that underpin higher level learning and cognitive abilities.  The Pyramid of Learning pictured below demonstrates the building blocks that are required for behavioural control and academic success.

central nervous system hierarchy

Recently we were lucky enough to meet with Marga Grey, the founder of CoordiKids, an online development program for children that targets the building blocks of sensory motor development. Marga has over 40 years of experience working with children and their families to address learning difficulties.  This is what she had to say about the program:

CoordiKids offers four components that each target a specific need:

  1. CoordiChild – a home based program for families on-the-go and in need of intervention for a child with issues, such as concentration, sitting still, being clumsy, learning challenges.
  2. CoordiClass – a classroom-based program for teachers to provide a quick 5-minute break towards optimal concentration for the whole class.
  3. CoordiKindy – a classroom-based program for educators of 3 – 6 year old children in Kindergarten or Prep to encourage optimal development in the foundational skills necessary for academic learning.
  4. CoordiConsult – online consultations to support our members.

We have compiled, prepared and video recorded activities and exercises for parents and children to do at home in a fun way.  At CoordiKids we are absolutely passionate about giving ALL children the very best chance for success, whether or not they have regular access to a paediatric occupational therapist.  We hope you enjoy the program with your child as much as we have enjoyed seeing the positive results our programs create!

This unique childhood development program has been refined over many years of clinical experiences with children who suffer from developmental delays and learning problems.

All exercises are video recorded and available online on all devices – always ready, wherever you are.  Parents and teachers do not need to prepare, the children follow the video and their hands are free to observe and to support.

CoordiKids is the perfect program to support and compliment therapy sessions.  It will enhance performance in all children, not only those with challenges.  CoordiKids takes pride and care in the accurate grading of the programs to ensure that developmental levels are targeted and reached to enable the child towards optimal functioning and performance.

If you think this program would be helpful for your child, Marga has generously offered for Synchrony OT newsletter recipients to receive a discounted rate of 20% off. Click here to find out more about the CoordiKids program and claim your discount.

coordikids.jpg

 

 

A Peek Inside the Resource Cupboard: 5 of Our Favourite Books for Self-Regulation

Open our resource cupboard and you will find shelves full of books! Story books are one of the best ways to teach and reinforce concepts to kids.  You’ll be amazed at what they can understand when information is delivered in a clear, simple and fun way.

A few of our favourites…

1. Have You Filled A Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids 

Author: Carol McCloudHave you filled a bucket today

This heartfelt book teaches kids the importance of kindness.  We love using this book when we are teaching empathy.  It is wonderful for reinforcing how our actions and words can impact the emotions of those around us.

2. Fear Factor (from the Ant Patrol Series)

Authors: Dr Deberea Sherlock and Aisling MulvihillFear factor

If you have a child who battles with anxiety or negative self-talk this is a great book to have in your collection.  We use this book to assist kids to reinforce how to develop resilience and use a positive mindset to overcome challenges.

3. Size of the Problem: Dinosaur Birthday Party (from the We Thinkers Series, Volume 2)

Authors: Ryan Hendrix, Kari Zweber Palmer, Nancy Tarshis and Michelle Garcia Winnersize of the problem

This book is helpful for working with kids who tend to overreact when they encounter tiny problems.  This book clearly outlines what expected reactions would be to different sized problems. It helps kids learn to identify when they might be able to solve issues themselves and when they might need to ask for help from adults.

4. The Red Beast

Author: Kay Al-Ghanired beast

If you have a strong-willed child, this one is for you.  Lots of kids find it challenging to keep their emotions in check when things don’t work out their way.  The Red Beast is an excellent story for discussing anger and developing strategies to calm down.

5. Homemade Books to Help Kids Cope: An Easy to Lean Technique for Parents and Professionals

Author: Robert ZieglerHomemade books to help kids cope

Of course, there will never be a book that fits every child perfectly. This book gives step by step examples and templates to make it easy to learn how to write your own simple stories to help kids problem solve how to cope with whatever situation they might currently be struggling with.

Happy reading!

Kate Kleinau- Occupational Therapistkate headshot