Tuning Up: Sensory Awareness to Help Kids Learn

Last week, I got to attend a workshop at Parents Place in Palo Alto called Getting Ready to Learn: a Sensorimotor Approach, led by Lisa Kaplan Shaanan.  The class was intended primarily for preschool teachers and parents, but several children’s librarians from our library system also attended in the hopes of learning how to make our storytimes and children’s events more inclusive for kids with special needs.

I’m still thinking through the different ways I might incorporate what I learned from the class into my library programs, but as a parent, I found it fascinating.  The instructor began by talking about Sensory Processing Disorders, which are estimated to affect anywhere from 5 to 16 percent of school-aged children.  The disorders affect each child in different ways, but all of them can inhibit their ability to concentrate and learn.

Some kids are overly sensitive to touch, and can be distracted by tags in clothing, dislike being touched, or frequently walk on their tiptoes.  Others can be bothered by bright lights or strong smells, have trouble processing sounds, be picky eaters, or seem clumsy or careless.  The sensory processing disorder can affect any of eight basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, proprioceptive input (your internal map of your body), interoception (the sense of what’s happening inside your body: hunger, thirst, etc.), and vestibular input (the sense of balance).  And any of these senses can be overly responsive, or not responsive enough (leading to kids who are unaware of being dirty, or touching other children too roughly).

Although I know kids who have been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, it was good to realize that it can take a lot of different forms.  For example, the boy who is holding his ears during circle time is not doing it to be rude, and the girl who is sprawled across the floor instead of sitting “criss-cross applesauce” may not have the muscle tone she needs to sit up straight (kids with sensory processing disorders often have low muscle tone and underdeveloped motor skills).

But the part of the workshop I found most interesting was about how to help kids recognize when they are feeling too alert (in fight or flight mode) or not alert enough to learn.  This is useful for adults too.  The instructor passed out a checklist of sensory activities, like chewing gum, chewing on a pencil, stretching, rocking, twisting your hair, listening to classical music, etc., and asked us to mark whether each one made us calmer or more alert.  The list even included my favorite alertness regulator, coffee, although not my favorite calmness one: red wine.  She talked about how there is an ideal state of alertness, and how we all instinctively do things throughout the day to regulate our nervous system.  After the class, I found myself more aware of small triggers that made me temporarily stressed, like when both my kids were talking to me at once, or when my husband turned on the fan over the kitchen stove (a sound that for some reason makes me feel like I have bees in my brain).

For kids, Shaanan offered an analogy of an engine to help them understand the idea of finding the right level of alertness (this is based on The Alert Program by Therapy Works).  She asked what happens when an engine runs too fast: it gets out of control, it crashes, you get a speeding ticket.  But if the engine is running too slow, other people around you can get frustrated, and you might still get a ticket.  The idea is to help kids get their engines running just right.  They may need to move around to wake themselves up, or do some activities to calm down.  One easy technique Shaanan demonstrated was having us all stand up and hum together, while bouncing lightly on our feet.  She also had us pair up and try matching our breath with our partner.  This was a calming exercise that reminded me of a game I sometimes play with my kids, where we try to sing the same note.  The kids love to change the pitch up and down, but something magical happens when we all find the same pitch again.

A lot of the class focused on visual cues, and Shaanan had us make this cute speedometer to help kids indicate how calm or alert they were feeling:

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Another useful visual cue tool she provided was this handy noise indicator, which I can imagine using at storytime (mostly for the chatty adults in the audience!).  The arrow is attached to a clothespin to make it easy to move:

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I’ve gone to a lot of trainings over the course of my career, but this was one of the best, partly because the instructor and the Parents Place staff had taken pains to equip us each with everything we needed to keep ourselves at the right level of alertness.  There was a range of snacks at both a main table in the back, and on each of the tables where we were sitting.  There were “fidgets” (small toys like wind-ups and things that were fun to touch or move) in baskets at each table too.  She also made of point of telling us to feel free to stand up, move around, or go to the bathroom whenever we needed to.

I realized midway through the class that I was actually very hungry, something I would ordinarily just have lived with, but it really did make it easier to concentrate when I dove into the snacks.  Shaanan also cited the statistic that 26% of California children live in food-insecure households, pointing out that hunger and thirst are fundamental needs that have to be met before kids have any hope of learning.

As a librarian, the class was mostly validating. As a parent whose own two kids often preferred to roam the library like wildebeests during storytime, I tend to give other people’s kids a lot of flexibility to move around, as long as they don’t interfere with the other kids’ ability to hear the story or see the pictures.  I like to incorporate a range of activities, including movement activities and songs in between stories, instrument play with a variety of shakers and maracas after all the stories, and a craft at the very end that gives them a chance to work with a range of art tools, and make something in their own way.

What I could definitely use more of are visual cues: flannel boards, puppets, and props.  I may also explore the possibility of getting small cushions or mats (the instructor showed us several types of “wiggle” cushions designed to give kids the sense of moving, even when they were sitting still.  These are pretty pricey, but she said you could improvise with an inflatable beach ball that is only very slightly inflated).  And I definitely plan to raid my friend Ashley Waring’s wonderful blog, Libraries Serving Children with Autism, for other ideas to make my story times better for kids with a range of special needs.

My biggest takeaway from the class was that I’d like to be more aware in general, both as a librarian and a parent, of how every one has their own unique stressors and challenges, and maybe the next time my daughter and I are having a huge argument about something mundane like homework, we may just need to stop and have a snack, play some ’80s music on Pandora, or just take a moment to breathe.

*      *      *     *      *

Some other fun activities, tools, and ideas Lisa Shaanen presented were:

1.Controlled Wrestling: two people sit on the floor (or stand, if they are older and more coordinated) facing each other.  Each person asks the other, “Are you ready?” They both agree to stop as soon as the other person says “STOP!”  Then they try to push each others’ hands to knock them over.  I’ve tried this with both of my kids, and they loved it.

2. This fun “fidget” for kids who struggle with waiting.  You hand it to them, and say, “We’re waiting,” and they can play with the little koosh ball until it’s their turn:20160208_171752 (1).jpg

3. A bubble blower made out of a cup with a straw stuck through a hole punched in the side.  You put a small amount of dish detergent and water in the cup, and blow into the straw to make a mountain of bubbles.  Shaanen said for younger kids you can poke a small hole in the straw to keep them from accidentally drinking the soap.  Activities that involve blowing air can be calming and help built breath control.

4. Another simple game with a straw and a pompom, where you make a croquet wicket (hoop) out of masking tape that you attach to the table.  Then you try to blow the pompom through the hoop.

5. A collection of small pictures showing different ways kids might use to calm down when they are feeling angry out of control: going to the bathroom, reading, sitting in a comfy chair, having a drink of water, etc.  Shaanen suggested that for kids who struggle with self control, you can ask them to identify three ideas they might try during the day if they need to calm down.  The pictures have Velcro on the back, allowing the child to move them onto a chart which shows a picture of an angry child at the top and a happy one at the bottom: a visual cue you can use to remind them of their choices later.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Lisa Shaanen gave us an extensive list of recommended resources.  Here are a few that she highlighted:

No Longer a Secret: Unique Common Sense Strategies for Children with Sensory or Motor Challenges by Doreit Bialer and Lucy Jane Miller.

Sensory Parenting: From Newborns to Toddlers by Britt Collins and Jackie Linder Olson.

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz.

Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals by Angie Voss.

Take Five: Staying Alert at Home and School by Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger.

FOR KIDS:

Ellie Bean the Drama Queen: A Children’s Book about Sensory Processing Disorder by Jennie Harding; illustrated by Dave Padgett.

You are My I Love You by Maryann Cusimano Love; illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa.

Calm Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick; illustrated by Marieka Heinlen.

For parents and teachers in the Bay Area who are interested in learning more about working with kids with sensory processing disorders, or just about any other child-related topic, I highly recommend the workshops and programs offered by Parents Place.

Also, if anyone has any suggestions of ideas and strategies for working with special needs kids in a library setting, please write them in the comments.  I would love to learn more!

 

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