You may have heard of the term sensory diet. Typically, this is a list of sensory strategies to carry out with your child throughout the day. Perhaps you have used one before with varying degrees of success. It can be easy to start with good intentions but forget about the diet by lunch time!
In this blog, occupational therapist Kim Griffin, from GriffinOT, gives suggestions on how you can embed sensory strategies into everyday life.
At the moment, as most children are at home, their parents and carers are taking the lead role in managing their sensory diet. This is a very different environment than school. Some children find it much easier to regulate, and some parents are reporting that their children are generally calmer without the pressure of the morning school run. Others are reporting that it is much more challenging.
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 the day optimal arousal is when a child can focus and attend. When they are playing outside, 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.
A 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.
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 an activity runs for longer than planned 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.
Some general tips for regulation at home
- You know your child, so if you're home schooling organise an amount that you think they will manage, and you will be able to support.
- Routine can really help. When children are at school there are set break and lunch times. The school day typically follows a set lesson routine as well. Most schools do core lessons like literacy and maths in the morning and then lessons like science, geography and art in the afternoon. Children are used to this pattern of work, so find a pattern that works for your family.
- If you need extra ideas for setting up a routine, you may find Kim's post on homeschooling useful. https://www.griffinot.com/homeschooling-during-coronavirus-19-tips-for-parents/
- For children that need more alerting in the morning, you could consider ‘PE with Joe’. Joe Wicks is doing daily sessions Monday - Friday on his YouTube channel. https://www.youtube.com/user/thebodycoach1/videos?app=desktop
- The team at Go Noodle have a fantastic catalogue of short burst movement activities, these usually include a funny song. https://www.youtube.com/user/GoNoodleGames
- You can also create fun indoor obstacle courses. This video gives a great example. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTpkS5Ot87M&
- And whilst the playgrounds are closed, the parks are not, so walking, bike riding and taking the scooter out are great options
- For children that need to calm down, yoga is a great option. Many schools use Jessie at Cosmic Yoga. Her videos are easy to follow and also include a story which can help children to stay engaged. https://www.youtube.com/user/CosmicKidsYoga
- Heavy work is also a helpful strategy for calming. Kim explores this further in a blog on her website - The Mystery of Heavy Work https://www.griffinot.com/the-mystery-of-heavy-work/
- A small den - type space which cuts out sensory inputs can sometimes help. This might be a space behind the sofa, it could be a pop-up tent, some children like the airing cupboard. The space is different for every child and every house.
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.