Sensory issues in children: How to help your child calm down
I first heard about sensory issues in children about 7 or 8 years ago now. I was working with a young girl with anxiety, and she was experiencing some symptoms that didn’t quite fit with her anxiety diagnosis. We knew they were related to her anxiety but it was also clear that anxiety was not the complete picture. Something else was going on for her.
So to work out exactly what that was, her parents enlisted the help of a paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT). And I heard about sensory issues in children and was introduced to the terms ‘sensory processing’ and ‘sensory processing disorder’ for the very first time.
Now, since that time, I’ve learned a lot about sensory issues in children. And what I’ve learned has been immensely helpful, both professionally, and with my own kids! I know that sensory processing is incredibly important when it comes to self regulation. I know that understanding your child’s unique sensory profile can help you understand how to help them regulate their emotions, help them learn more effectively, improve their social skills and relationships and help them better control their body and behaviour.
But sensory issues in children is still a topic that is far from my area of expertise. So for this blog, I’ve enlisted the help of one of my very knowledgable Mindful Little Minds sellers: OT extraordinaire, mama of 2, and owner of Kids Develop Store, Ellena Batsakis.
What is sensory processing?
We experience the world through our senses, and then our brain has to interpret and make sense of the information it receives. This is how we are able to interact with our environment in a meaningful way.
Sensory processing is the act of interpreting, organising, and responding to the information that we receive via our senses. Ellena says, “We are not referring to problems with the actual organ’s nerves in our eyes or ears for example, but the way light sensation is interpreted or sound is organised.”
How do we receive sensory information?
Most of us know about the five senses of sight, touch, taste, sound and smell. But the body actually has seven different systems for receiving and processing sensory information from our environment. And they all need to work together!
Two sensory systems that many people are unaware of, are the vestibular system, and the proprioceptive System. The vestibular system is the system responsible for interpreting and integrating information related to our balance and motion.
Ellena says, “Receptors in our inner ears give us information about how fast we are moving and the direction we are going which helps our balance. Our vision as well as our hands and feet work with the inner ears to feel stable and safe.”
And the proprioceptive system is responsible for organising information about the position of our body in space. Ellena says, “When it works effectively, we don’t need to always rely on our vision. We can put on clothes without a mirror. It allows us to use the right amount of force so we can carry a glass without dropping it or crushing it.”
Ellena points out that all nervous systems are different and we each have different sensory thresholds. This means we all process sensory information differently, and we all have different sensory preferences.
“One child may benefit from lots of jumping and movement to feel calm and focused. The child sitting next to them may have trouble integrating vestibular input and finds trampolines scary. She is hesitant when climbing and car rides make her nauseous. This child may prefer to fidget with her hands to feel calm and focused. “
Ellena says that our sensory preferences also change over time and across circumstances. “Our ability to tolerate certain sensations like loud noise, itchy fabrics or our need for movement changes all the time. Factors such as hunger, lack of sleep and stress levels alter our ability to cope with sensory information.”
“Our kids or students may manage in the music hall in the morning but by the end of the day, they are feeling highly overwhelmed and tired and the smallest amount of noise sends them into a meltdown. The fact that our nervous systems are ever-changing also means that nourishing our bodies with calming tools can make a huge difference in the way kids manage these daily sensory events.”
Sensory Processing Disorder
For the most part, our sensory differences and preferences don’t have a huge impact on the way we function from day to day. “Typical nervous systems are able to manage ‘sensory events’ like brushing knots out of our hair, heavy traffic or the noise from the neighbour’s lawn mower. We can often tolerate irritants and recover from these”, says Ellena.
But for some kids, sensory processing problems make life much more difficult. You see, our brains are constantly receiving sensory information as we interact with our environment. And it constantly has to decide what information it needs and what information is unnecessary, depending on the task we’re currently engaged in. A lot of the information around us gets filtered out so that we can focus our attention on what we are doing (and get the job done!).
However, some people have nervous systems that are a little too sensitive, or not sensitive enough. An over responsive system has trouble filtering out unnecessary sensory information. This child responds too frequently and attempts to process too much irrelevant information.
An under responsive system filters out too much information that it may actually need. This child doesn’t respond enough to sensory information, or needs extremely strong stimulation before they respond. “For these kids, their nervous system might not register small amounts of movement, pain or sound”, says Ellena. But both of these children will find it difficult to interact with their environment in order to complete tasks, learn, and even play effectively!
Why is sensory processing important?
If your child has problems with sensory processing, then their responses to stimuli – both around and within them – may be inappropriate or unhelpful. This is because they are having trouble with self regulation.
The nervous system is constantly working to regulate itself. If it feels under-stimulated, it will seek out more stimulation. If it feels overwhelmed, it will try to avoid stimulation. Most of us manage this balance during the day with minimal disruption to our functioning.
What do sensory issues in children look like?
But for children with sensory issues, achieving self regulation is much harder. Their nervous system has to expend more energy to return to an optimal level of arousal. This means they will have more trouble managing their physical activity, thoughts and emotional responses. They will also have problems adjusting those responses to meet the demands of a task or particular social situation. You may notice problems in the following areas:
Behaviour: If your child is unable to effectively process sensory information, you may see what some might consider ‘misbehaviour’ from them. Ellena says, “Some children who feel overwhelmed with sensory information do whatever they can to avoid it and often develop rigid routines, may be argumentative and have trouble transitioning between activities or even withdraw to feel safe.”
Learning: Children who have trouble processing sensory information in a classroom may be more easily distracted, have trouble focusing and paying attention, following instructions, or completing tasks, which makes learning and mastering new skills much more difficult for them.
Relationships: Children who are not effectively processing sensory information may have trouble forming relationships and playing alongside their peers. They may miss social cues due to under-responsiveness, or accidentally hurt their peers due to a lack of body awareness.
Emotion regulation: Feeling overwhelmed by sensory information can lead to emotional outbursts and meltdowns in your child as their nervous system comes under stress more easily than others. They may enter fight or flight mode more quickly than other children and then struggle to get those big emotions under control.
Supporting your child’s sensory needs
In order for your child’s nervous system to be operating at its best, it needs to find an optimal level of arousal. And what your child needs to achieve and maintain an optimal level of arousal will depend on their unique sensory profile and preferences. So exactly how do you manage sensory issues in children and provide them with the strategies and resources they need to self regulate?
If you want to support your child’s sensory needs and help them with self regulation, Ellena recommends you “Identify exactly what your child or student needs according to the demands of their routine. For example, this may involve lots of stretching and resistance work on Monday morning before assembly when sitting is required. After running around during sport, the same child may benefit from some down time in a darkened room, listening to music.”
Calming down using the senses
One of the things I recommend to parents and teachers who want to help children regulate their behaviours and emotions, is to set up a calm down space. These are safe, soothing, spaces that children can retreat to when they are feeling overwhelmed or distressed and need a break. And what I always suggest is these spaces include items that provide sensory input to help calm overwhelmed nervous systems.
So when Ellena approached me about her new sensory boxes, that aim to do just that, I was so excited, and knew I had to bring these boxes to you! These boxes include a range of fun resources for kids that provide sensory input that will help them calm down and learn to self regulate.
Here’s what Ellena had to say about the boxes: “I have just launched two sensory boxes and am so excited! Cool Cucumber and Mellow Yellow both contain 10 items that provide tactile, visual, deep pressure and oral/breathing input. You will find items like mouldable aromatherapy dough, coloured kinetic sand or a liquid ooze timer.”
How can these boxes help your child?
Says Ellena, “As every child’s nervous system is different, items will appeal differently to kids. But what I think we have achieved with these boxes is that there are exercises that will suit most sensory systems. Our resistance balls and Lycra bands encourage deep pressure. There is growing research that supports that most people respond positively to deep pressure input as it helps calm the nervous system.”
Ellena also asked me if I would contribute to these boxes, and of course, I was super excited to be part of this amazing resource. Mindful breathing is a very effective way to calm the nervous system, and something I recommend is part of all calm down spaces. So of course, I created a fun mindful breathing resource to make it easy for your child to practice mindful breathing anywhere!
Ellena says, “I am delighted to stock the Mindful Little Breathing Cards in each box. There are 18 breathing exercises with a visual cue to help young people practice slow, deep breathing. Deep, slow breathing activates part of the nervous system responsible for switching off the fear fuelled fight or flight response. These cards are a fantastic addition to these kits and can be used along with the sensory toys at home, out and about or in groups in the classroom.”
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.