Help Your Child Get More Movement at School: Sensory Kids, Like All Kids, Need to Move!
Updated: Sep 5, 2021
Children and teens with sensory processing disorder need to have regular opportunities for movement breaks in order to stay regulated at school. The amount of time school children are allowed to spend outdoors moving, as their bodies are designed to do, is inadequate for most children. However, the problem is worse for sensory kids who really need to get out of their chairs and move in order to maintain a positive mood, good focus, and alertness. Roughhousing or running in the halls is unacceptable, of course. So what can the sensory child, or teen, do at school to get movement breaks?
There are several options that can work within a school environment.
1. Make the most of breaks in the school day. Ensure that your child with sensory issues makes use of that time before school, just before lunch, after lunch/before class begins, and after school to get plenty of movement. If at all possible, have your child walk or bike to and from school. If not, have him get to school a little early or leave a little late in order to get in movement on the playground or school grounds. Some calisthenics, a jog around the track, or a few trips up and down a flight of stairs, especially if done while wearing a backpack, can really help your student get much-needed sensory input. After a long day of mental work, movement allows a child to burn off excess energy, lower her levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the blood, and shake off any mental fatigue, improving mood. The child with sensory processing issues may simply want to curl up in a dark room and retreat, but she will still need heavy work at some point. Slow movements, whether they involve stretches, yoga poses, or the “heavy work” of lifting, pulling, pushing or carrying something, may be more tolerable if done in a quiet, dimly lit or naturally lit room with low stimulation. Remember, “heavy work” is a combination of proprioceptive input (pushing or pulling apart joints) with other types of input that draws a person’s attention back to his body and physicality. It calms the nervous system and can slow down an overactive, overstimulated mind. Your child will need it many times over the course of the day.
2. Find ways for your child with sensory issues to get movement in the classroom. Ask your child’s teacher or teachers to allow your child to get more movement while in various classrooms–not just homeroom or the main classroom but in the music room, art room, and so on. Simply getting up from one’s chair to do some stretches, calisthenics, yoga moves, or wall pushups provides some regular movement. Inflatable seat cushions, ball chairs or large exercise balls used as chairs, and therabands (stretchy plastic ribbons) or bungee cords tied around chair legs can provide movement while a student is seated. Movement in place, in a chair, is helpful, but may not be enough for the child with sensory issues unless it’s combined with some more intense movements. Moving books, chairs, or tables, wiping down blackboards or white boards, and other moderate exercise in a classroom can help, too. Don’t forget, too, that oral input from sour candy, chewing gum, or objects specifically designed for chewing, such as plastic pencil toppers, can help a child to stay focused and attend when movement opportunities are limited in a classroom. And tactile input from playing with a fidget (small objects a student can manipulate, such as stress balls or hair scrungies) or touching or rubbing a small item such as a piece of satin or carpeting kept in the child’s desk can help make up for the lack of movement while sitting in class, too. However, don’t underestimate the importance of getting that movement when the bell rings.
3. Make use of hall passes and transition times. Ask the teacher to give your child a hall pass to take an extra trip to the office or up and down the stairs. It might be easier for your child to settle into his seat and focus if he gets that little bit of extra movement in before entering the classroom. If class starts with students quietly beginning a worksheet, it may be worth the extra minute it takes to give the sensory child a movement break before he picks up a pencil. If you find your child is asking to go to the restroom too often, it could be because he needs a quiet break away from stimulation. By making sure your child gets more movement into his day, you make it easier for his nervous system to handle the sensory input in the classrooms.
4. Make the movement break a nature break and stimulation break, too. When combined with time away from excess noise (such as the ambient noise in a classroom), bright classroom lights, and the need to focus on mental activities, movement breaks can also serve as sensory breaks and mental breaks. If you can arrange it, have your child take these breaks outdoors, or in an area where there is natural light–for example, walking down the hall to a library or lobby with large windows streaming sunlight. Even a few minutes spent doing some stretches while under a tree outside the front door can maximize a movement break because time in nature quickly reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol that can build up as a result of anxiety.
5. Find a sport or physical activity your child will enjoy. Many kids with sensory issues avoid sports for social, emotional, or sensory reasons. However, don’t give up on looking for a sport or physical activity your child will enjoy and engage in! If your child likes music, dance classes, dancing at home to music or a dance video game, or listening to music while jogging or walking in a safe area may be options. If your child doesn’t like competing against others, maybe a sport in which she competes mostly with her own records or times will be best for her. Remember that there are many ways to get movement, and if you’re creative and offer different options, you may find your child finds just the right sport or activity for her.
So as the school year starts, talk to your child, your child’s teacher or teachers, about the options for movement breaks. If your child receives OT services through the school, even if just on a consultation basis, talk to the OT about what sort of movement breaks might work given the school environment. And be sure to talk to your child about why movement breaks are important, and ask her to try to describe how she feels before, during, and after movement break. By drawing her awareness to the effectiveness of these breaks, you make it more likely that your child will remember to take them when she needs them if she doesn’t have an adult cueing her. Work with the teacher, aides, and any other adult staff in ensuring your child gets her sensory input so that she is able to function well in school.
PLEASE NOTE: You can buy chewy pencil toppers and other chewable items, as well as inflatable seat cushions and other handy items for the sensory child at school, through our Sensory Smart Shop as well as other sources.
Purchase the award-winning book Raising Your Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske.
And don’t forget: