You may have heard of the term sensory diet. Typically, this is a list of sensory strategies to carry out with a child throughout the day. You may have used one before with varying degrees of success. Perhaps you started with good intentions but had forgotten about the diet by lunch time!

In this article occupational therapist Kim Griffin, from GriffinOT, gives four suggestions on how you can embed sensory strategies into everyday life.

Let’s start with some definitions

Arousal: Is the level of alertness in the body. This ranges from low, or asleep, to high, or highly stressed.

Optimal Arousal: Is the perfect level of arousal to match the environment and activity. Sometimes it is called ‘Just Right.’ At night-time, optimal arousal would be low enough to facilitate sleep. During lessons, optimal arousal is when a student can focus and attended. In the playground, it’s normal for optimal arousal to be a bit higher as there’s more movement and usually excitement.

Regulation: Is the ability to organise the level of arousal to match the environment and the activity. Essentially, it’s the ability to adjust to an optimal level of arousal. Throughout the day the brain is constantly doing things to increase and decrease arousal levels in an effort to regulate. Some children (and adults) have more difficulty regulating than others.

Sensory Strategy: Is a strategy which uses one of the seven senses to help with regulation. Examples of sensory strategies include, fidget toys, ear defenders, wobble cushions and movement breaks.

The goal of sensory strategies

The goal of sensory strategies is to support regulation and optimal arousal. This means that the strategy will be different at different times and for different individuals. Sometimes, the child might need a strategy to increase their arousal, and at others they will need one to decrease it.

Often sensory diets are recommended as a way to organise a child’s sensory strategies through their day. The diet will have activities to complete at specific times, e.g. movement break at 10am. The problem with prescriptive sensory diets is that they don’t facilitate real world flexibility. If a child is settled, organised and attending at 10am, they may not need their movement break. However, if assembly ran over and they have been stuck sitting for half an hour by 11am, they might need to move, even if it’s not on their schedule.

In addition, when sensory strategies are an extra thing to do, often they are forgotten. There are so many things to fit into the school day, that remembering movement breaks for individual children can become a challenge in a mainstream classroom. Also, early stages of overload may be missed, and the child might not be noticed until their behaviour is being disruptive. And for those that internalise their behaviours, they are at risk of being overlooked.

Embedding Sensory Strategies

There are four way to increase success with your use of sensory strategies:

Firstly, you can consider how to set up the environment to best support the child’s needs.

It is so much easier to access sensory strategies when the environment is set up correctly. If your ear defenders are at the other end of the school locked in a cupboard, it’s unlikely they will be used regularly. If the hall designated for movement breaks, this could cause restrictions when it is in use. Think about the strategies your children need and how you can set these up to make them accessible. It might be a box at the front of the classroom. It might be a movement circuit in the area directly outside the classroom. Figure out how you can make the environment work with you.

Secondly, you can embed sensory strategies into the daily routine.

Look at the timetable and figure out at what point children need additional support to regulate. Then, if you can, schedule a sensory support space into the timetable at that time. Some children might need a calming activity straight after lunch to reorganise. Or, they may need a movement break between lesson input and independent work. If the movement break or yoga session is scheduled into the timetable, it will be much easier to remember! For some children, The Daily Mile can be a great way to start off their day.

Thirdly, have a few strategies you know can help at times of immediate need.

Life is unpredictable! It is useful to have specific strategies you can use in the moment when a child is unable to regulate. For moving about school, create a small box or bag that can travel with the child containing items that help them, for example, a fidget toy and ear defenders. For some children, deep touch pressure, or firm pressure on their arms can help them to calm down in the moment. For a child who is seeking movement or falling asleep you could ask them to do 10-star jumps. Make sure you have a couple of ideas you can use in the moment.

Finally, it is important to start to teach children self-regulation.

Initially, all children need adult support to regulate. As they get older, they learn to self-regulate. For children with additional needs, including language delays, this process can take longer. As outlined at the start of the article, timetabled activities are not going to meet a child’s needs at all times.

There are programmes like the Zones of Regulation and The Incredible 5 Point Scale which create a framework for teaching self-regulation. They work best if they are embedded across the school, rather than just being used with a handful of students.

Bonus tip

It doesn’t always have to be a sensory strategy! There are many other things that can help with regulation. It might be colouring in, reading or completing a puzzle. It could be getting a drink. For some it’s a change of adult or scenery. Remember to use all of the strategies in your arsenal not just the sensory ones.

Additional Resources

More information on sensory supports and sensory processing:

Griffen Occupational Therapy

Children’s Yoga

The Daily Mile

Zones of Regulation

Incredible Five Point Scale

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