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Our Life is Full of Sensory Experiences

Sensory process (or sensory integration) is the way in which the central nervous system of the body receives messages from the senses of the body and uses that information to act in appropriate motor or behavioural responses.

Our life is full of sensory experience. We all respond to sensory information. We touch, move, see, hear, taste and smell.

We are aware of, or are subconsciously aware of, where we are and how we interact with the environment. When we manage to interpret sensory information with ease, it impacts on our behaviour at a subconscious level.

Sometimes we seek sensory input to make us feel better (e.g. a cuddle). Sometimes we retreat from sensory information if it makes us feel overwhelmed (e.g. very loud noises).

By thinking and planning positive sensory experiences we can help understand how to best manage situations some children find over/underwhelming. Avoiding a disliked or upsetting sensory experience may help the child with the sensory issue calm down and be able to take part in daily tasks.

It is important to recognize that difficulties interpreting sensory information can have an impact on how we feel, how we think and how we behave or respond. We constantly have to make responses to sensory input from within our bodies (internal) and from the environment (external).

Children differ in their ability to process and respond to information from the environment while engaging in activities. For example, one child may have difficulty sitting still during group time; another may move little during free play outside. They react in different ways because they integrate the information obtained through their senses from the environment differently. Most children process their daily experiences and regulate their responses with ease. But when a child is consistently having difficulty maintaining a level emotional state or engaging appropriately in activities, the child may be over stimulated (environment provides more stimulation than the child can handle through sensory integration) or under stimulated (environment does not provide enough stimulation for the child). Staff can use an understanding of sensory processing to meet the child’s unique needs. 

For children with sensory issues, the world may not be a place that always makes sense. Their difficulties processing sensory information may even make the world a frightening place. They often respond by trying to control what’s happening. They would much prefer an environment that’s very predictable and consistent from day to day.

Sensory issues may disrupt the child’s ability to adequately interpret the meaning of sensations and make accurate sense of, and respond appropriately to, the environment. As a result, they often feel confused, disorganized, frustrated, unsure, and helpless to get their needs met. This may cause them to become withdrawn, aggressive, volatile, or difficult. Such behaviour commonly gets misinterpreted as deliberate misbehaviour, naughtiness, manipulation, or not trying hard enough.

To identify possible sensory impacts on behaviour we need to:

  • Observe the behaviour 
  • Look at the possible effects of the child's various senses 
  • Look at possible build up of different sensory information over time e.g. full day of school 
  • Have a picture of individual’s sensory preferences and sensitivities 
  • Introduce sensory items or approaches that calm to help the situation 
  • Modify the approach with new understanding

Try these sensory accommodations to support more successful behaviour:

  • Empower and encourage the child, avoid rescuing when the child is struggling (i.e., "hang in there", "you can do this", "you're ok" and "way to go") 
  • Use positive praise and rewards when the child tries his best, attempts something new, does something independently, initiates a project, asks for help, follows the rules, or accomplishes something even if the outcome is not exactly what it should be 
  • Be specific with constructive criticism; make positive statements about what the child DID accomplish then make suggestions or ways to improve 
  • Be clear, concise and/or elicit suggestions from the child on what is missing or how to improve next time 
  • Validate them, their efforts, choices and feelings no matter what! 
  • Establish firm, clear rules with appropriate consequences if the child breaks them ~ follow through! 
  • Talk through a task/problem with the child if they are struggling
  • Be aware of the signs that a child is starting to lose control; be proactive in dealing with the issues BEFORE the child has a meltdown 
  • Teach children about personal space and enforce staying within those boundaries and keeping their hands to themselves 
  • Help the child generate ideas, problem solve, make choices or think creatively 
  • Use alternative approaches (through the senses) to alert, calm, and stabilize the nervous system

With help, these children can learn . . .

  • what their own bodies need 
  • to appropriately seek out or avoid certain sensory stimuli 
  • to begin to feel more in control  to improve their self-esteem 
  • to disrupt the class less 
  • to be able to focus and learn better, and 
  • to begin to master their environment.

All children need this to develop properly!

Contributed by Lisa Iozzo, Resource Educator ~ South District Special Services Unit Children’s Services