top of page

"What is going on?!?": Intro to Sensory Processing and Self-Regulation in Children

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Over the past few days my son has been literally climbing the walls----hanging from our decorative pillars in the living room, climbing/jumping over the couch with increased frequency, constantly touching or pushing into my body along with a shorter than normal attention span. Also just for fun, his behavior has been chock-full of extra-extra boundary testing with pretty much everything, every day.

It peaked last night in the grocery store. I had to run in to get just a handful of things for dinner and allowed him to tag along. He was all over the place--wandering away from me, touching everything, and jumping/skipping everywhere instead of walking. As he came within inches of knocking over a lovely display of Rosé.....I totally felt my frustration building and about to scream "What is going on with you?!?!?"

Then I had a moment of clarity--if he was a client of mine I would have probably seen it more clearly and a little sooner:

  • School ended last week and we have a 2 week gap before summer camp begins, resulting in an inconsistent daily routine along with a big decrease in structured activity for him.

  • As a result of school/day care ending, our work schedules have been different to accommodate for this change in childcare, again impacting the daily routine, every day.

  • Due the above changes as well as an increase in rainy weather, we had not been able to give my son as many outside and movement-based activity.

  • The multi-sensory environment of the grocery store, also likely contributed to him having a harder time maintaining his own self-regulation in that particular environment.

So, back to the grocery store. I took a break from my shopping and told my son to hold my hands and give them a super tight squeeze. I asked him to hold my hand while we walked through the store, but also told him to give my whole arm and body a squeeze whenever he felt like wiggling his body---which he did immediately and repeatedly while we finished our shopping trip. Once at the check out, I had him help me place all the items from our basket onto the checkout counter. I gave him a grocery bag full of items to carry with both hands back to the car.

The combination of significant changes in daily routine, less opportunity for body movement/motor activity and less predictable daily structure were likely to blame for the changes in activity and behavior I had noticed over the past couple weeks. He was essentially trying to adapt and cope with the changes that had occurred. His apparent need for bouncing, jumping and pushing, were his attempts at making up for the lack of movement activity he had been getting. The changes in routine were likely contributing to him having less predictability and ultimately feeling more "disorganized". His boundary testing, was a way of looking for clear expectations and seeking stability in a more unstable/unpredictable time.

These were his attempts for self-regulation. What does this mean exactly? To better understand this I need to back up and explain Sensory Processing--which is the process of our nervous system taking in thousands of pieces of information each second from our various sensory systems and then organizing it all together to allow us to execute motor actions, navigate our environment, sustain attention, achieve or sustain our arousal level (which is how alert or sleepy we are), and do pretty much everything else we do in a day. There are 8 senses, not just the basic 5 we learned about in elementary school. These "sensory systems" are:

1) Vestibular: our Movement sense. This is how we sense and interpret how our body is moving, where it is moving (or not moving), and what position our head is in.

2) Proprioceptive: our Body Awareness sense. This is how we know where we are in space--it is how you know your legs are below your body and your arms are above your legs, etc.

3) Tactile: our Touch sense. This is how we experience anything that touches our skin and body.

4) Visual: our Sight sense. This is how we experience the visual word around us--it is more than just acuity or how well we see, but also how our brain is processing that information.

5) Gustatory: our Taste sense.

6) Olfactory: our Smell sense.

7) Auditory: our Hearing sense.

8) Interoception: Our Internal Body Awareness sense: This is how we feel sensations from inside our body and internal organs--such as heart beat, respirations, and feelings of hunger/thirst.

We are all a little different with the amount and type of input we need from the systems above, but each of us require a certain amount and level of sensory input each day.

In the grocery store example above, I already knew that my son had a higher need for proprioceptive, tactile, and vestibular inputs (the apple did not fall far from the tree). I utilized both sensory and behavioral strategies to support him in this situation:

  • Squeezing my hands and arms provided him with additional tactile/proprioceptive input while we moved (vestibular system) through the store.

  • The physical "boundary" provided by holding my hand also supported him from both a sensory and emotional/behavioral aspect.

  • Giving him items to look for and a "job" with scanning/placing the groceries on the checkout counter, helped to provide more structure in an unstructured situation as well as helping him to focus on a motivating task.

  • Carrying the heavy bag to the car provided him again with proprioceptive input as we made the transition from store to car. Proprioceptive, tactile and vestibular inputs are huge factors when we think about the underlying foundation of our sensory processing and nervous system.

The sensory and behavioral strategies or supports I use or recommend, varies from situation to situation and ultimately child to child. What worked today, may not be quite what is needed in another situation. It is a ongoing process of observing, responding, and often trial and error to find the right supports that are needed to support our children.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page