It’s so important that as early childhood educators and parents, we are aware of possible sensory processing challenges and how this can impact a child’s behaviour and interactions as they play, grow and socialise.
I’m certainly not an expert in sensory processing disorder (SPD) and obviously, I can’t cover everything I feel is important for you to know in one blog post but I hope that some of the tips, strategies and activity ideas I’m sharing in this post (from my own experience and learning as both a parent and educator), will help you to also learn more about sensory processing, the challenges some children face and how this can impact on a child’s behaviour and interactions.
The good news is that we (as educators and/or parents), don’t need to be occupational therapists to help support children and their families facing sensory challenges in the early learning environment.
Your role is not to be an expert in sensory processing and therapy (leave that to the professionals who have already spent years training in this area!), but to become aware of what you CAN do as you collaborate with other professionals to achieve better outcomes and quality of care for those children.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
Put very simply, this is when sensory information coming into our nervous system is processed in an unusual or inefficient way so everything coming in via the senses becomes difficult and confusing for the brain to process simultaneously...leading to misinterpretation and inappropriate responses.
It may not always be immediately obvious, but when sensory processing is jumbled in this way, it can lead to a child feeling their sensory input more or less intensely than other children around them.
This can obviously have a huge impact on their behaviour and interactions as they become frustrated trying to simply achieve what they want or need to do.
What can educators do if they observe a child experiencing possible Sensory Processing Challenges?
Seek out information that helps you to become aware of some of the common red flags that may indicate a sensory processing issue.
- 2Gain more information about how a child is behaving at home in similar circumstances to further inform your observations and assessments. How a child behaves in a busy care environment packed with other children can be very different to how they behave at home when in their ultimate comfort zone.
- 3Regularly reflect on the information we gain from our observations through the lens of possible sensory challenges.
- 4Be willing to learn more about how we can plan and incorporate the activities and supports these children need to help them calm and organise their sensory system.
- 5Reach out to professionals to come and speak to families and carers at your service about common ‘red flags’ or indicators to be aware of.
Speak with parents, community supports and service leaders about what you are noticing or want to learn more about so you can ensure better outcomes for families and children in your care. Ensure you have information about paediatric occupational therapists available in your area.
It can be easy to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves as educators by forgetting that we aren’t trying (or expected) to ‘fix’ the sensory challenges we might observe a child experiencing….we actually want to SUPPORT children by doing things that will give them a larger ‘just right’ zone so they don’t need to spend as much time in either a ‘sensory seeking’ or ‘sensory avoiding’ zone before they can play and learn.
So this can mean introducing different actions, toys, activities and finding the right intensities, frequency and duration to enable a shift in a child’s behaviour and regulation.
And as early childhood professionals and/or parents we're already pretty confident with that part right?
So yes, it can become a bit of a ‘fine line’ and sometimes you’ll feel like one of the 5 Grey Elephants trying to balance on that line as you try to help the child find their “Just Right” Zone when they seem to so easily swing away from this zone.
But it’s worth making the effort and introducing new strategies into your program and environment so children can think, interact and play in the way they need to.
The JUST RIGHT zone looks different for every child
To help you further visualise how this ‘just right’ zone of regulation can work, I want to share a moment with you from my own family experience.
By the time one of my twins was around 18 months we had already visited quite a few medical and early intervention specialists as we tried to overcome what I finally understood were oral aversion issues causing her to often gag when she ate certain textures. This wasn’t limited to food - walking on some surfaces like sand would cause terrifying screaming bouts and often vomiting. It was difficult to get my head around as a tired Mum of twins who thought she was pretty good at all things child development!
But we worked closely with a wonderful occupational therapist who helped me to see we weren’t helpless and could actually help our daughter just by introducing certain actions and movements before eating and experimenting with a whole lot of these different strategies.
And just look at her go on sand now!
The experience I’m sharing with you today isn’t about Ruby’s avoidance of certain textures, it’s about how difficult she would find it to sit still at meal and activity times - whether in a high chair or chair at the table.
On this day we were playing with tools in the playdough at a therapy playgroup and Ruby grew very frustrated, began yelling and banging her fists down on the table. I didn’t know what to do- I knew it wasn’t just a tantrum but how could I make this experience more enjoyable for her (and those around her)?
At this point, the OT came in and asked Ruby to do some bouncing on the mini trampoline while trying to throw a ball up into the basket. They did this together for around 10 minutes and Ruby was all smiles and laughs.
I was amazed when she then came back and sat down at the table - now calm and focused and happily rolling playdough balls.
The OT explained that to get back into her just right zone she needed to calm and organise her sensory system in the proprioceptive area.
The firm touch and pressure on her body everytime she bounced up and down on the trampoline enabled her body to send strong messages to her brain. The ‘heavy work’ of lifting up the weighted ball and throwing it each time also helped to calm her system and ready her body to sit and play calmly with the dough.
Since then we’ve also learnt that to this day (Ruby is now 11 at the time of writing) she absolutely LOVES any type of swinging back and forth or spinning actions and she still calms herself with materials that allow her to engage in oral motor heavy work.
There are so many other actions and movements we have found that work over the years - I’ve also since worked with many children who were previously labelled ‘difficult’ (tantrums and behaviour issues), ‘fussy eaters’ (because they wouldn’t eat what was put in front of them or constantly gagged when touching some foods) or ‘clean freaks’ (because they didn’t like certain things on their hands).
This is where educators and the relationships we form with children in our care are so important because you know how to observe, dig a little deeper, identify if this behaviour is out of the ordinary for that child and most importantly….support them through any sensory processing challenges they might be experiencing….but haven’t been able to explain or articulate to others yet.
What to do if you notice extreme sensory processing challenges or reactions
Keep in mind that sometimes we also need to challenge ourselves in order to challenge the children in our care.
Think about what activities and resources you might also be avoiding because of your own sensory aversions or challenges.
I encourage educators to approach identified sensory processing challenges in the early learning environment not with a sense of frustration or dismissal but with a sense of wonder, possibility and the opportunity to support a child who just needs to find their ‘zone’ so they can enjoy the world and experiences around them fully.
There are so many possibilities and easy ways for educators to incorporate different types of sensory activities, opportunities and experiences into everyday play...not only for children with sensory challenges but to support ALL children to feel calm, balanced, focused and ready for play.
If you need a little inspiration to include more experiences that promote sensory exploration and regulation into your program and environment try some of the following activity and DIY project ideas - you’ll find something below suitable for babies through to school-age children.
Sensory Play With Sand Trays and Tubs
Easy Play and Learning Ideas for Home
Easy Sensory Play Resources to Make
Fizzing Fine Motor Trays
5 Easy & Safe Slime Recipes
Sensory Exploration with Playdough
Make your own Sensory Small World
12 Easy DIY Sensory Table Projects
Foamy Sensory Fun
We’re going on a Goopy Bear Hunt…..Fine Motor Sensory Fun!
Join the Empowered Ed Facebook Group HERE for even more play and program ideas as you connect with other early childhood professionals from around the world.
Sensory Play & Processing Blog Series
A Little About Me
Jodie Clarke is an early childhood professional supporting educators who want and need to stay passionate about the work they do! She has 30 years hands-on experience in the early childhood and human services sectors across many different roles.
Jodie is mum to 3 in Australia and has already helped thousands of educators with their work through her popular blog posts, activity ideas, online training and e-books.