Making Sense of Sensory Processing – Part 1 What is Sensory Processing

You look up from your lesson to see… someone pulling their shirt tightly over their knees and then rocking slowly from side to side… someone chewing on the collar of their new shirt, the third for this year and it’s only term 2… someone slumped forward with their head propped up in their hands… someone pulling their socks apart thread by thread… someone looking out the window at the children from the next door class walking by…someone wriggling around while poking the person next to them…someone returning from the toilet slamming the door on their way in and then bumping against several desks before they return to the floor and sitting very close to one of their classmates… someone with a booming voice, whispering to the person next to them.

Perhaps this is happening all at once, perhaps not, but these are all behaviours that teachers report occurring with increasing frequency in classrooms in both primary and high schools. Each of the above examples are signs of sensory dysregulation. These are signs that the child is not effectively interpreting and using the sensory information provided to them to form a functional response. Either they are reacting to the sensory information being presented in an atypical way or they are seeking additional sensory information to help them meet the demands of the task at hand. Sometimes these strategies work for the child, sometimes they don’t and often they are distracting and disruptive to the learning of those around them.

Today’s blog will consider what we mean by sensory processing and self-regulation, how they impact on a child’s readiness to learn. In part 2 we will apply this knowledge of sensory processing and self regulation to more effectively prepare children for learning and to assist them to adopt positive behaviours.

Sensory processing is the ability of the nervous system to register input from our senses, interpret the information and form a response.  The senses of the body include the five senses we are all familiar with including sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell. In addition there are two ‘hidden senses’ that are central to our ability to understand the world around us and interact with it. These hidden senses are body awareness (proprioception) and balance (vestibular).  Proprioception is the awareness of ourselves gained through muscles and joints and through the receptors within our own bodies. The vestibular sense relies on receptors in our ears that respond to changes in head position to help us keep our balance. The vestibular system constantly checks in with our eyes, muscles, and joints to keep us oriented to gravity and is how we balance and move our bodies.

The ability to process the information that our bodies receive from the world around us is important for both our physical and cognitive development.  Children who do not interpret sensory information accurately, can experience difficulties in a wide range of activities including, academic skills, motor skills, behaviour, organisational skills, attention span and more, making it difficult to function at school and/or home.  The brain locates, sorts and orders sensations similar to a traffic lights and street signs that allow different vehicles across an intersection at different times. When sensations flow in a well organised and integrated manner, the brain can use those sensations in a way that allows the person to be ready and able to learn. When the flow of sensations is disorganised, life can be very chaotic and difficult to organise, like an accident in peak hour on the highway.

Written by Madeline Avci. Mum of 3 active boys. Occupational Therapist. Owner of Jump Up for Kids (including Jump Up Outdoors). Madeline is passionate about making the outdoors part of everyone’s day and supporting families to navigate the challenges of our modern world.

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