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How Sensory Processing Relates To Learning

Sensory processing skills are very important to us at SENSational Minds: Early Learning Academy LLC. How else do you think we came up with our name?! Today I'll be talking about what sensory processing is, why it is important, and how it relates to learning.

So, what is Sensory Processing?

Sensory Processing is how our bodies interpret all of the information coming in 24/7. Your nervous system receives all kinds of messages from your senses such as sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and even a few more systems. The nervous system is responsible for taking in these messages, sending them to the right places, and creating appropriate responses. For example, you put your hand on a hot burner, your nervous system receives the sense of heat, sends it to your brain, and your brain creates the response of removing your hand very quickly. Often times, it is so automatic that you barely remember it happening. You don't usually have to stare at your hand and think about taking it away- it is basically instantaneous. In this case, your sensory system is incredibly important for your safety. But your sensory system does a lot more than that. It tells you where your body is in space so that you can walk without bumping into things or people, it is the reason why you can still identify an object by touching it even when your eyes are closed, it is your ability to listen to music and type up a report at the same time, and much, much more. In simple terms, think of it like the mail. The sensation is the package that gets shipped to the post office, the nervous system is the carrier who has to then deliver it to the post office at the brain. The brain is the post office who has to organize the mail and make sure it gets on the right truck so that the postal worker can deliver it to the right home (thus creating the correct response to the stimulation). Think about how often the mail gets sent to the wrong house, never makes it out of the post office, or gets damaged on the way... that can happen in the sensory system too. It is efficient and fantastic when all the packages get delivered to the correct homes, but when one route gets confused it can mess up the whole day.

The sensory system is SENSITIVE- who would've thunk it? And there are a lot of products which claim they are "sensory toys," and there are a lot of people who claim they are doing "sensory activities" however, without proper education on why it is important, what sensory processing truly is, it often isn't used in an effective way. At Sensational Minds: Early Learning Academy LLC we have the proper education, training, and provide our staff with the opportunity to learn this information and apply it to curriculum activities so that the sensory information that we consider when setting up our classrooms, activities, and schedules only benefits the children of the center. There is a very fine line with sensory input that can quickly turn into overwhelm and it is important to not cross that line as it can be more hurtful than helpful when done too much.

****When considering childcare centers, I urge you to ask staff why they choose the activities they do. It can be telling of the thought and education behind it.****

Why is the Sensory System Important for Learning?

Well, there are a few reasons why the sensory system is important for learning.

1. Availability for learning: As an Occupational Therapist I often work with children who have difficulties with sensory processing. Normally, a problem is noticed by parents or educators when they notice significant behavior difficulties and/or their child isn't hitting academic milestones. Often times, through parent interview and my evaluation, I find that there is some sort of sensory component that the child is having difficulty with. If a child's sensory system is overwhelmed, their nervous system is on overdrive and their brain is flustered trying to regulate the constant input it is going. It is trying to wire signals and create responses and the responses aren't always accurate which creates consequences and unpredictable situations that cause more stress.

Imagine you are bagging groceries and the cashier just keeps passing the groceries to you faster than you can bag them. You're supposed to be sorting paper or plastic, vegetables and fruits, meats, etc. but the groceries keep coming. Your boss walks over to you and starts telling you what you're supposed to do one hour from now, and a customer is trying to ask you a question, then a child runs by and drops a carton of eggs right behind you.

In that moment, if someone tried to teach you a new skill, would you be able to learn? Seems silly to ask, but that is what it can be like for a person with sensory processing difficulties. Fortunately, not every single child has trouble with regulating sensory information coming in, but every individual person has their own unique characteristics. Some people have trouble focusing with lots of noise, some people don't like their hands to get dirty, other people may need music to be able to focus or to be completely hands on to learn a new skill. Those are all related to a persons sensory system. So, even if a child does not have an issue with sensory processing, it is extremely important to understand their sensory system so we can use that to our advantage, because just as if a child is overwhelmed, if a child is underwhelmed they aren't available for learning either.

Therefore, when speaking in terms of availability for learning we consider a few things:

Because of these strategies, we are ever-changing. There is not a one sized fits all environment for children and we recognize this. So as children may come and go, we are always adapting our environment to accommodate the needs of the children we have present time.

2.Sensory Stimulation can promote memory: Do you ever wonder why a certain scent or meal makes you reminisce about a specific childhood memory? You can thank your sensory system. Without getting to science-y, basically your brain can associate certain sensations with memories. Sometimes for us it may not be so pleasant. A certain smell or sound may remind you of something negative too-BUT the fact that we know this happens can be very useful for teaching, because the more we can attach favorable senses and activation of multiple systems, the more connections the brain is making.

For example, giving a child a paper and pencil and telling them to trace the letter A could be a useful way to teach them if they practice it enough. However, do it everyday, the same way, they may only learn to trace that letter in that ONE context, plus... its boring. It becomes monotonous. Instead, give a child a tray with some salt, or a tray with some chocolate pudding and let them use their finger to draw the letter A and now it's more exciting.

WHY are those activities more exciting?

Because more systems are involved. The more senses that are involved, the more alert and attentive a child may be, and it provides another way to teach the same letter A that they drew with just a paper and pencil the day before. Then, later that day they can sing and dance to a song featuring the letter A (more senses involved). So, not only do they have multiple exposures, they have multiple opportunities for their brains to make a connection. Some children may respond very well to memorizing a song. Some children may respond well to tracing with their finger- doing multiple types of sensory activities allows us to ensure that ALL children are getting input that they need.

AND for the children who may be sensitive to certain senses- a little bit of exposure and encouragement is always a learning opportunity too :).

3.It's a great way to break up our routine: Sensory group activities are a great way to give children a nice break while maintaining structure that facilitates their daily routine. When you are aware of which children may need specific types if sensory input you can carefully choose activities that facilitate their individual needs while also benefiting the entire group (again why it's important to have a solid base knowledge of sensory input and how it effects children's functioning and learning). For example, if we know we have 3 children who benefit from frequent movement breaks, 3 children who need to work on body awareness, and our entire classroom needs to work on following 2 and 3 step directions- we may play Simon Says and make sure we put specific movements within that game that benefit our individual children but also serve as a benefit for all. Everything that we do is planned and purposeful. Just as sensory activities should be.

So there you have it folks, a crash course on sensory processing and a little insight on why we believe it to be so important.

If you have any questions regarding your child's sensory processing, and any behaviors that may be related to Sensory processing. Feel free send me a message! Your child does not have to attend our center in order to receive OT services or for you to consult with me!

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