School is back in full swing, and that means homework time is here. Children with sensory processing difficulties often struggle with homework for many different reasons.
The Sensory Seeker
A child who is a sensory seeker is under-responsive to sensory input. He requires more intense input than his peers, therefore, sitting in at the kitchen table to write spelling words with a plain number 2 pencil feels quite bland. He likely spends a majority of homework time changing position, fidgeting, playing with his pencil, or creating a variety of reasons to get up from the table. Sensory seekers may benefit from increasing the intensity of the sensory input around them. Keep in mind that a child who is seeking out one type of input, such as movement, may be overly sensitive to a different type of input, such as smell. Ask your occupational therapist for help choosing sensory adaptations for your child.
The Passive Under-responder
This child looks very different than the sensory seeker described above. The passive under-responder also needs more intense input than peers, but he does not take action to gain this input. He may sit in a slumped position, have his thoughts wander off into space and complain of being fatigued. By “turning up the volume” of the sensory properties of the environment and task, he may be able to better demonstrate his knowledge and understanding of the homework concepts. Again, it is common for a child to be under-responsive in one area and over-responsive, or sensitive in another area, so speak with your child’s occupational therapist for appropriate ideas for your child.
An important rule of thumb is that any sensory adaptation should help your child better engage with the homework task, not distract from it. If a fidget toy becomes something to throw at a sibling or if a yoga ball to sit on becomes a way to try out new gymnastics moves, try a different sensory tool for that day. Do not take it away as a punishment, but tell your child, “I don’t think this tool is helping you get your homework done. Let’s try something else.”
Homework Adaptations for the Sensory Seeker and the Passive Under-responder
- scented crayons, markers or erasers
- “scent inhalers” or a few drops of an essential oil such as lemon, mint, rosemary or orange
- strong flavored hard candy or gum
- chewable fidget toys, pencil toppers or jewelry
- a “silly straw” to drink from
- wiggle pen (this may not be appropriate for school assignments to be handed into the teacher, but it may be useful when practicing spelling words)
- exercise band tied around the front legs of the chair for your child to push with his feet
- a small yoga ball to sit on – your child’s feet should to be able to reach the floor with bent knees
- a partially inflated beach ball to sit on as a wiggle cushion
- complete homework assignments standing up at a counter or table
- adhesive Velcro to attach to the underside of the desk or table
- koosh ball or other fidget
- use a timer set for 10-15 minutes of working time and allow your child to take a movement break for 2-3 minutes
- white noise such as a fan or quiet classical music to block out neighborhood sounds
Fall is here and there are precious few warm days left before winter rolls around again. Why not take advantage of the season and check out a Boundless Playground?
Boundless Playgrounds’ mission is to “build truly inclusive playgrounds where children and adults of all abilities can play and learn together in a fun and welcoming environment.” That means there are swings with supportive backs and accessible ramps to allow wheelchair users to climb up to raised structures. The overall environment and set up of the playground invites children and families to play together regardless of disability. Boundless Playgrounds are often easier for children with motor planning difficulties or decreased strength to explore and enjoy the space, even if your child does not have a physical disability which requires the use of a wheelchair or other mobility device.
We are lucky in the state of Connecticut to have quite a few Boundless Playgrounds. The Places for Kids CT blog lists 20 playgrounds around the state which include at least some aspects of the Boundless Playground mission.
Find out more at www.boundlessplaygrounds.org Have fun!
If your child is learning to shampoo her own hair but has difficulty grading the force needed to squeeze an appropriate amount of shampoo out of the bottle, try cleaning out an old pump bottle of lotion and refilling it with shampoo. Teach her to use 1-2 pumps of shampoo.
“My child is bouncing off the walls and you want me to do what?”
Sometimes we as occupational therapists have to start our conversations with the families of our clients with “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’ve seen it work for your child.” The natural instinct when we see a child running and quite literally bouncing off the walls (and the couch, and the bed, and his brother), is to try and calm him down by getting him to stop moving. Sit still! Stop jumping! Stop watching TV upside down! There are times when children do in fact need assistance to slow down their “engines”, take a break and relax. However, as Gwen Wild, the creator of Sensational Brain puts it: “there are times when children need guidance in how to burn off the extra fuel in their tanks.”
Children who are under-responsive to sensory input, particularly movement and body awareness, may constantly fidget and change position. This is not just a subtle pencil tap or foot wiggle that most children will display from time to time. This is more like spontaneous somersaults across the living room and gravity-defying chair tilting on a constant basis. The vestibular system is the sensory system which helps monitor changes in head position and movement against gravity. Children who are under-responsive to this input need more intense and frequent stimulation than same-age peers. Everyday movement activities such as walking, playing or swinging are simply not enough to be satisfying and regulating. These lower intensity movements feel bland and leave under-responsive kids craving more (and higher! and faster!).
This is the reason your child’s occupational therapist may recommend sensory diet activities that provide intense vestibular input for a child who is constantly on the move. Tools such as sit-n-spins, trampolines (with appropriate supervision and safety precautions), scooter boards, animal walks or structured exercises that include inverting the head may be useful in helping your child meet that high threshold that he needs to feel regulated. Our goal in suggesting these types of activities is to provide your child with safe, structured activities to take the place of body slamming the couch at Grandma’s house. If you have questions about sensory diet activities that may be beneficial to your child, talk about it with your occupational therapist.
Geocaching is a great way to get the whole family working together for a common goal, get active and have fun at the same time. Think of it as a hiking scavenger hunt. First, you log on to www.geocaching.com and choose a geocache to search for. Next, use your GPS (or GPS enabled phone) to navigate to the location. A geocache (or cache) is a container that holds a log book to track the people who have found it in the past as well as small treasures or trinkets that you may take as a memento of your find. Then you leave a treasure for the next person and replace the cache just as you found it. Congratulations, you’re a geocacher!
So, why geocaching? While some children with decreased endurance and muscle tone may hesitate to go on a hike for the sake of hiking, they may be more engaged in a treasure hunt. Because the website gives valuable information regarding difficulty of the terrain, length of the hike, and size of the cache, you can tailor your family’s outing to the time you have available and the endurance levels of your family members. The website also provides a hint as to where the item is hidden (e.g. look near the fence). Beyond the physical benefits of exercise, research has shown that children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, as well as typically developing children benefit from exercise with regard to increasing attention and on-task behaviors and decreasing maladaptive behaviors. An activity like geocaching can provide the physical outlet and sensory input that your child needs, while giving the whole family an opportunity to participate in a fun bonding activity together.
Check out a short video about geocaching here, or jump right into searching for your first cache! Have fun!
We often use “animal walks” in the clinic. These silly walks provide the children with proprioceptive input, which tends to be calming and organizing in nature. Using animal walks during transitions can give a child a sense of control (i.e. “It’s time to leave, are you going to walk like a bear or a hop like a bunny?”). Here are some of the walks we use, but feel free to make up your own:
- Bear walk – have your child put his hands and feet on ground with his bottom in the air and walk.
- Crab walk – have you child sit on the floor and place his hands behind him, then lift his bottom off the floor and walk forward or backward.
- Mule kicking – have your child lean down and put his hands on the floor, then try to kick his legs up in the air behind him.
- Bunny hopping – have your child hop with his two feet together
- Elephant walk – have your child bend over at his hips and put both arms together, walking while swinging his arms back and forth like a trunk.
- Frog hops – have your child squat down on the floor and place both hands on the floor, then push off and jump with hands and legs.
- Inchworm – have your child place his hands and feet on ground with his bottom in the air and move his arms forward keeping his feet still, then move his feet forward while keeping his arms still.
How do I know if my child is ready for potty training?
- He shows an interest in the process of potty training.
- He is able to recognize the feeling of having a dry or wet diaper.
- He is staying dry for longer periods of time during the day.
- He is developing the motor skills to pull pants down and up.
- He is able to follow simple directions.
What are some ways to help my child with potty training?
- Make sure your child’s feet are flat on the floor or a step stool. Having a solid base of support is often necessary to relax the muscles involved in voiding. Some children may benefit from the additional support of arm rests if trunk control is an area of difficulty.
- If your child has a history of gravitational insecurity or seems anxious about sitting on the toilet, start by having him sit on the toilet with the lid down, fully clothed. Slowly move toward having him sit on the toilet with their clothing or diaper on, then finally transition to sitting with a bare bottom. Another modification is to allow your child to sit astride the toilet, facing the tank and holding onto the raised toilet lid for stability.
- Children who are over responsive to auditory input may react negatively to the bathroom in general because of the tendency of sounds to amplify and echo off tile and other hard surfaces. Speak in a quiet voice when in the bathroom. Try hanging extra towels in the room to help absorb sound. If your child is bothered by the sound of the toilet flushing, let him use the toilet, wash his hands and leave the bathroom before you flush. When in a public restroom, place a sticky note or hold a piece of paper towel over the automatic flush sensor to avoid an unexpected flush.
- Children who are under responsive to proprioceptive input may be constantly “on the go”, seeking intense movement and crashing experiences or seem unaware of their own bodies, bumping into people and objects, unintentionally breaking toys or seem to be more clumsy than peers. These children may not notice the subtle signs that they need to use the bathroom until it is too late. Watch for those wiggles, squirms or holding onto the genital area that are telltale signs your child needs to use the bathroom. Point them out to your child and help him transition to the bathroom.
- Some children find it very difficult to transition from a desired activity to the bathroom. Use terms such as taking a “break” or a “pause” from an activity rather than telling your child he needs to “stop” what he is doing to use the bathroom. Giving 5-minute and 1-minute warnings prior to a bathroom break may be helpful. Visual timers can be useful for transitions as well. Be sure to praise your child for transitioning to the bathroom and make it a point to discuss the fact that the desired activity they left is still available to return to after he is finished.
- Use a rewards system. Some families use sticker charts, others use edible treats. Pick something that will be a strong motivator for your child. Start by giving the chosen reward for each successful attempt at using the potty, then move to extending the reward for staying dry for a morning or afternoon period and finally to staying dry all day.
- Give boys something to aim at when urinating such as Cheerios or Fruit Loops. Award points for “hitting the targets”.
- Keep in mind that it is not uncommon for children to wet the bed up to 6 or 7 years old. It may be necessary to use nighttime pull-ups or training pants for quite a while after daytime training is complete.
The Autism Society has created a document with tips to help students on the autism spectrum transition to middle school. Read it HERE.
Many children with vestibular and proprioceptive processing difficulties find it very challenging to sit and attend to fine motor tasks such as coloring, cutting and writing. A child who is under responsive to sensory input and constantly seeks movement may expend so much energy and attention keeping their body relatively still that he is not focused on the task at hand. Another child who is a passive under responder may slump in her chair, have a hard time using the correct amount of force on her tools and seem like she is not paying attention. So what can you do to make homework time more effective and enjoyable for everyone involved? Pair table top activities with movement. This will provide your child with the sensory input they need while also giving natural breaks and rewards for tackling a challenging task. Studies have shown a positive link between movement and learning, retrieval abilities and arousal level. Here are some ways to put this into practice this week.
- Practice spelling words while tossing a ball back and forth.
- Complete jumps or jumping jacks next to his chair after completing a number of problems or after a given amount of time.
- Log roll or do an animal walk across the living room to collect crayons one at a time for a coloring project.
- Print or purchase pictures of simple yoga positions to imitate between worksheets.
- Hold a vibrating massager or sit on a vibrating pillow when reading. (*Note that vibration should not be used with children who have a history of seizures*)
- Do wall push-ups or chair push ups after writing a sentence or a paragraph.
- Sit on a small yoga ball – knees should be at 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor.
Cooking with your child is a great way to teach about food and nutrition, math skills and science. Mixing, chopping, pouring and decorating are all opportunities for children to work on arm and hand strength as well as fine motor dexterity. Visual perceptual skills are used when searching for ingredients on a spice rack or in the refrigerator. Emerging readers can look for sight words on recipes or product labels. Cognitive skills such as sequencing a multi-step task, prioritizing tasks and managing materials are inherent in cooking activities. And perhaps most importantly, cooking together provides you the opportunity for quality time as a family.
Is your child reluctant to try new foods? Don’t worry; part of typical child development for children ages 2-6 is to avoid trying new foods. Talk with your pediatrician if you are concerned that your child’s picky eating is impacting their growth. Your OT may be able to help you assess your child’s food preferences and identify trends in texture, color, temperature or flavor, and suggest new foods to introduce. With that said, picky eaters should still be invited into the kitchen. Just being near a food provides visual input, introduces the child to the smell, how a food breaks up: Does it crunch? Does it mush? and more. Participating in any part of meal preparation is a step towards accepting new foods.
Wondering where to start?
Here are some kitchen activities for different age groups. Keep in mind these are general activities; some children may be ready for “older” skills and others may need to master “younger” skills before moving on.
- 2 year olds are developing control over arm movements and using two hands together. Invite them to participate in scrubbing fruit, wiping tables or counters, tearing bread or lettuce, dipping vegetables and pouring pre-measured dry ingredients into a bowl.
- 3 year olds are developing improved hand control and can start pouring small amounts of liquids, mixing soft batter, kneading dough, shaking pancake mix, learning to spread (it will be messy!), placing raisins or other toppings and sorting ingredients by color.
- 4 year olds are gaining hand and finger strength. Your child can help by peeling an orange after it is started, squeezing fruit, mashing soft fruits or vegetables, unwrapping packages, pressing cookie cutters into dough or bread, helping to count and measure, helping to gather ingredients and pressing number buttons to set a timer.
- 5 year olds are developing more mature finger dexterity and cognitive skills. Have your child assist with measuring ingredients, grating long carrots or large pieces of cheese (with close supervision), using an egg beater, cutting soft ingredients with a dull knife and decorating with icing or other ingredients.
- Older children can practice math skills by doubling a recipe, figuring out how many servings a recipe will yield, and cutting a tray of brownies or bars into a given number of portions, etc. They can take ownership of a meal by planning and choosing recipes.
Things to remember:
- Children always need supervision in the kitchen.
- Teach your child to wash his hands before cooking or eating and after touching raw eggs or meat.
- Expect spills and messes.
- Expect the task to take longer than usual.
- Repeat directions as needed.
- Don’t forget to have your child help with clean up.
If your child is on a special diet, snack recipes can be a challenge. Here are some recipes put together by a speech pathologist, including some which are gluten or dairy free
For more articles like this, visit Penn State’s Better Kid Care website.