As parents, one of our biggest roles is to teach our children how to regulate their bodies and manage their big emotions. When children are able to successfully self-regulate, they are better able to focus, maintain friendships, control impulses, and behave in socially acceptable ways. It is not expected for preschool or kindergarten-aged children to know how to do this independently, but by grade two, children can start to recognize early signs of dysregulation in themselves and choose tools to support their needs (Shanker, 2013).
All children have a unique sensory system specific to their brains and bodies. Sensory strategies that work for some children will not always work for others. Because sensory activities can either be calming or alert to the nervous system, it is important to first recognize what our child’s preferences and responses are when engaging in sensory activities. One child can jump on a trampoline for ten minutes and then walk calmly inside to eat supper at the dinner table. Another child, after jumping on the trampoline for ten minutes, can be so dysregulated that it leaves us wondering if we should get rid of the trampoline altogether.
Practical Sensory Strategies
When using sensory strategies, our goal is to help our children regulate. Initially, parents will be required to support the use of sensory tools alongside their children but as children become more independent in recognizing their own needs, the amount of parent support will decrease. Success is achieved when a child is able to choose and utilize their own preferred sensory tools prior to having a meltdown. Below are some great examples of sensory tools that can be incorporated into our child’s daily routine:
Sensory tools to help alert the nervous system:
- Opportunities for dancing, playground play, cycling, and running
- Use of an indoor obstacle course created from items such as couch cushions, hula hoops, skipping ropes, and blankets. A space like this allows children to jump, bounce, roll, and crawl
- Snacks that are crunchy or cold snacks such as carrots, popcorn, or frozen fruit
- Therapy or yoga balls that allow children to bounce up and down on while seated
Sensory tools to help calm the nervous system:
- Play that encourages walking and acting like their favorite animal (bear walk, crab walk, slither like a snake, etc.). This can be used strategically, for example when helping to transition a child to and from the dining table
- Slowly rocking back and forth in a rocking chair. A great way to use this strategy is to incorporate it into a bedtime routine
- Deep pressure squeezes. Count ten squeezes before a transition ex: before putting on winter gear!
- Carry, push, or pull heavy objects. (ex: carry in groceries from the vehicle, push a laundry basket full of books
- along the hallway)
- Yoga and deep breathing exercises after school as a way to decompress
- Creation of a calm space (not necessarily in their room) that is free from distractions. Bean bag chairs, pillows, or blankets can be used to create a cozy and comfortable space for our children to read books, color, or listen to calming music. These spaces are most effective when also free from stimulating technology devices.
Remember: Sensory strategies are not a one size fits all approach. If you require additional support and ideas on how
to best support your child’s regulation needs, reach out to a pediatric occupational therapist.
From Alberta Health Services – What Can Parents Do As Co-regulators?
- Recognize signs of dysregulation in your child
- Identify the stressors or environmental cues that trigger dysregulation in your child
- Teach your child how to recognize and communicate his or her feelings, and to become more aware of their response to stress
- Help your child find a way to become more alert (if idling on low) or more calm (if revved up too high)