Updated: Feb 18, 2019
Sensory processing. I’m sure you have heard of the term before, right? Either from your pediatrician, your child’s teacher, or from an article in the latest Lifetime magazine. So, what is sensory processing exactly? Why do you as a parent or teacher need to understand it? Those are some great questions, let’s start at the beginning.
In order to understand SP we need to know what kind of impact it has on our children first. Sensory processing plays a huge role in your child’s life. It affects their
That’s a lot of impact! Sensory processing can contribute to your child’s ability to make friends at school, to pay attention during class, to do their homework or play independently, to develop the muscle coordination to play sports...without the ability to process sensory information our children will struggle to be successful in their daily lives. This is why you as a parent or teacher need to understand sensory processing. Once you have a grasp on SP you will be able to understand your
-advocate for them
-know when & how to help
-maximize their learning
-protect them from certain situations
-set them up for success, and
-understand what behavior means what
So when your child starts having trouble focusing in class, you can talk with the teacher and strategize new ways to keep them engaged. From a teachers perspective you can carve out certain times for movement breaks or muscle work to maximize your students learning. Or when your child keeps having meltdowns you will be able to understand what is potentially triggering the meltdowns. When you understand SP you will be able to unlock success for your child or student in ways you can’t even imagine. Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
What is Sensory Processing?
The way I explain SP to my parents at Children In Motion is by equating the process to managing an email account. Envision your email account. You have an inbox where you receive new messages and you have folders where you organize your emails. When you get a new email you decide whether or not to delete it, respond to it, or save it for later based on who the email came from or what the email is about. Right? This is very similar to sensory processing. Your child processes on a much faster neurological level, but it follows that same three step process.
1. Receive sensory information in their “inbox”.
2. Interpret, file, and organize that information.
3. Create an action plan depending on how the information was filed in step two.
Let’s explore each step a little further...
Step 1- Receive sensory information in their “Inbox”
During this step, your child’s brain will take in all of the senses- sight, touch, taste, sound, smell, movement and muscle awareness. These could look like the busy bulletin boards in their classroom, the feeling of the tag on their shirt, or the hint of spice on their chip at lunch. They are taking all of these senses in all of the time.
Step 2- Interpret, file, and organize the sensory information in their inbox.
During this step, your child’s brain will interpret all of the information it took in during step one. Their brain will ask, is it dangerous? important? painful? Should I ignore it? Should I pay attention to it? They also will interpret body language and facial expressions during this step. Are they mad? Are they happy? Am I in trouble?
Step 3- Create an action plan depending on how the information was filed in step 2.
Now it’s time for them to act on their interpretations. Results from step two can impact behavior, emotions, learning, independence, social engagement, and self regulation. It’s easy to think that this step is a choice, that your child or student has the option to choose what to do. Let me remind you that sensory processing is a neurological process. It’s happening on a chemical level at an incredibly fast rate. Your child or student cannot change the chemical connections their brain makes, whether they are right or wrong.
And that right there is the way sensory processing works in your child's brain! In part 2 we will go over examples of when sensory processing is working well (and when it's not!) and identify when you need to intervene. I'll include a list of resources for ya too! In the mean time, make sure you take the time to understand the three steps of SP and continue to observe your child and see if there are any patterns in their behavior.