Sensory strategies to enhance a child’s concentration

Managing concentration challenges from a sensory perspective

The classroom and a busy home environment can be an overwhelming place for any child, but particularly those children with sensory processing challenges or attention difficulties. Every classroom has different levels of sensory stimuli: noise, lighting, cluttered walls. Filtering out and being able to ignore the sound of papers rustling, children talking or chairs moving in order to focus on completing a Maths worksheet or an instruction given by the teacher is a challenge and requires adequate sensory processing.

Sensory processing describes the brains ability to take in and process incoming sensory information from the environment. A child’s brain needs to be able to block out extraneous information, in order to focus on what it is essential for learning.

Sensory strategies are designed to help manage a child’s ability to process incoming  stimuli so that it does not impact on their concentration and learning. Carefully chosen sensory-motor strategies can have a significant, positive effect on a child’s success in the classroom and at home. 

Through the implementation of effective and individualised sensory strategies, children who experience difficulties with concentrating are provided with frequent and unique sensory input, giving them an opportunity to optimally engage in school and home activities. This will assist them to organise their behaviour, engage optimally in peer interactions and improve their overall attention for the task at hand.

How will you know which sensory strategies are appropriate for a child?

Observation of a child’s behaviour in various environments (home, school, on the playground) tells us how they are processing various sensory inputs. It also gives further insights into their sensory preferences, and how they can use different sensory strategies throughout their day to improve their overall regulation, attention and behaviour. You can then build in sensory-rich activities into a child’s daily routine.

When looking at a child’s behaviour, it’s important to first identify what they are currently doing to maintain their concentration, and then decide if this is an effective strategy or not. If it is not effective, then you need to help them choose a more appropriate sensory strategy. Instead of asking them to keep their hands still, give them something such as putty to keep their hands busy. Instead of asking them to be quiet, tell them their mouth needs a job and provide them with a crunchy snack.

For example, a child may rock on their chair while completing a task at the desk. The teacher may notice that he/she is trying to use vestibular (movement) input to maintain their alertness and attention. However, this is not an effective strategy as it is dangerous and disruptive in the classroom environment. The teacher may then suggest an alternative option, such as taking a movement break, sitting on a physio ball or disco-sit cushion, or moving to the floor to complete the task. Simply taking away a sensory strategy (by telling the child to stop rocking on his/her chair) without replacing it will not be useful.

Sensory strategies to try at home

Here are some ideas of sensory-rich strategies to use at home to help a child maintain adequate concentration. These strategies incorporate a range of sensory experiences including: vestibular (movement), tactile, proprioceptive, oral, auditory and visual input:

Pushing or pulling objects prior to a focused activity (such as toy shopping cart, laundry basket, kids wagon).
Helping around the house and garden with heavy work activities: mop/sweeping the floor, raking leaves and dirt, using a kid’s wheelbarrow.
Tug of war games with a rope or blankets.
Wheelbarrow walking and crabwalk while doing relay races.
Pushing/pulling self or others on a scooter or carpet square while seated or in kneeling.
Jumping and bouncing: trampoline, an old mattress, bean bag chairs, a pogo stick, or skipping rope.
Doing somersault, hand stands or cartwheels between homework tasks.
Simon Says Spelling – try practising spelling words with a movement such as star jumps, spinning around, hopping or skipping.
Playful pillow fighting.
Deep pressure bear hugs, joint compressions, and skin massage.
Play low frequency music in the background while doing homework.
Chewing on non-food items for proprioceptive and tactile input:
– chew necklaces
– pencil toppers
– plastic (livestrong) bracelets
Eating food and snacks to increase alertness:
– Crunchy food: cereal, pretzels, carrots, granola bars, apples, ice.
– Chewy food: chewing gum, chewy sweets, biltong.
– Sour food: jelly tots, sour worms, pickles.
– Flavoured water, using mint or lemon.

It is also essential to encourage outdoor play with large movements (nature offers the best opportunities) when a child comes home from school. Select extra murals that offer big movement and resistance such as swimming, karate, and gymnastics. Also ensure that the child is getting enough sleep and minimise screen time during the week.

Sensory strategies to try at school

Consider various seating options:

Allow the child to stand or sit on a ball instead of sitting on a chair at the desk.
Offer them the choice of completing their work lying on the floor instead of at the desk.
Be aware of where the child is seated in the classroom (e.g. near a window is distracting). The movement of other children may also distract the child so position them near you in the front of the class, with their back to all the other students.
Ensure that the child doesn’t sit next to a noisy child.

During break time:

Allow lots of climbing, swinging, running and playing on the monkey bars during break time.
Never take break time away – these children need their movement.
Practise games with an impulse control component such as red light, green light or musical chairs, in order to practise the stop and start component of movement.

Give the child ‘jobs’ in the classroom that offer heavy work and movement such as:

Stacking chairs.
Carrying objects to different parts of the school.
Sweeping the floor.
Erasing the whiteboard.
Carrying teacher’s books from the car to the classroom.

Offer short ‘brain breaks’ between lessons:

‘Hold up the wall’: pretend to hold up the wall using hands, shoulders and other body parts.
Chair push-ups and all push-ups (providing proprioceptive heavy work through the upper body).
Animal walks around the classroom.

Offer movement breaks and deep pressure/proprioceptive input when a child is struggling to focus at the desk:

Have a mini-trampoline and skipping rope available for the child to use.
Bean bag chair to run/crash into.
Encourage the child to sharpen pencils using manual pencil sharpeners.
Give the child a tight bear hug.
Sipping water through a long straw or bottle. 

Additional tools to try:

Weighted shoulder vests.
Theraband, bungee cord, pool noodle round chair legs.
Disco-sit cushions.

For those children who seek tactile input to fiddle/fidget with:

Allow the child to fidget and hold objects such as: stress balls, paper clips, flexible straws, elastic bands, pipe cleaners, putty when working on the mat or listening to instructions.
Add a couple of beads to the child’s shoe laces for a fidget toy that can be used discretely while sitting on the floor during morning ring or story time.
Use tactile input when teaching new concepts – sand, paint, chalk, sandpaper, finger paint, shaving cream, hair gel in zip-lock bag.

Other strategies and adaptions to consider for the classroom:

Change visual input/stimulation regularly e.g. flash cards, pictures. Get the child to change their visual focus from their book to the whiteboard, to the wall etc. Use different coloured pencils or chalk/whiteboard markers when teaching new concepts.
It may be useful to play soft classical music in the background during independent work time, which helps to soften the auditory environment and minimise background ‘chatter’.
Natural lighting rather than artificial lights.
Reduce clutter on bulletin boards in the classroom and on the child’s desk.
A visual schedule to indicate different activities and lessons during the school day.
Use your voice to alert or calm. Varying tone and volume of voice aids alertness.

Environmental adaptions to help a child’s concentration

  • Consistent routine helps many children with structure and knowing what is expected of them.
  • Create a ‘homework space’ for a child, even if it is just a small space in the house that they associate with ‘work’.
  • Remove visual distractions around their work space. There are partitions that can be bought or made to minimise distractions.
  • Be aware of noises from appliances such as the hair dryer, vacuum cleaner and use them when the child is not home.
  • Noise cancelling headphones may be helpful by blocking out background noise.
  • Movement breaks are essential (jumping on the trampoline, riding a bike, going for a walk, having a toilet or snack break).
  • Break tasks into smaller steps, with short movement breaks in between.
  • Use a timer to help give a child a visual cue to keep them on task.
  • Use a ruler, finger or cardboard template while reading to keep their place and prevent a child from being distracted.

When should you get professional guidance?

Attention difficulties are a real challenge, and is not merely a result of bad behaviour. It is very normal for all children to be hyperactive or inattentive at times. However, it is important to seek professional guidance if:

  • the child’s behaviour is negatively affecting their everyday life.
  • if they are unable to meet the expectations and demands set for them at school.
  • their self-esteem is low as a result of feeling inadequate and frustrated by school or homework.

It is essential to ensure a comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation if a child is experiencing challenges that are impairing their ability to function optimally in the school and home environment. Occupational therapists are equipped to analyse the child’s behaviour in various settings and interpret their sensory preferences and needs. If, after providing an enriched sensory environment with opportunities for the child to access and engage in enhanced sensory experiences throughout the day, the child is still unable to focus and is easily distractible, further evaluation by an occupational therapist may be necessary.

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