The following post was writting by Marcia Washington OTR/L, who has been practicing pediatric occupational therapy for 20 years.
Parents often ask me –
What is sensory integration and how can I help my child with it?
Here’s my explanation:
Picture yourself in the middle of a lake sitting in a row boat. You stand up to see something off in the distance. When you stand up, you feel the unsteady movement underneath your feet. Are you able to steady yourself as the boat moves under you? You decide the view is breathtaking and pull your camera up to your face from around your neck. You are now looking through a lens and focusing on a distant picture all while maintaining control of your body on an unsteady surface.
How well are you able to do this, would this be a high challenge for you or not even take a second thought? Are your senses fully integrated during that challenge, can you meet the demands of the task? This is sensory integration.
We all have sensory “preferences” and things that cause us to feel an imbalance to our nervous system. However, if you are able to maintain a steady control from the outside in: body in space, senses in check and emotions not exploding continuously then you are experiencing typical sensory integration. Your coping skills allow you to stay “in check.”
Sensory integration means our senses are complementing each other rather than out of balance. Our senses are more than the 5 outward senses we learn as a young child in the classroom. Yes, they include hearing, tasting, smelling, seeing and touch. However, they also include the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense, which give us information from inside our bodies and helps us balance and coordinate our movements.
What are the Vestibular Senses?
The vestibular system is very important to a child’s early development. The vestibular sense perceives balance, spacial orientation, and equilibrium. This system relays information to the brain that tells us where we are in space in relation to gravity.
If our vestibular system is not functioning well, we would not be able to stand in that row boat.
What is the Proprioceptive Sense?
Proprioreception is your inner experience of where your body is and what it’s doing. It’s what allows us to pick up the camera and plant our feet to stabilize our bodies in the row boat. Proprioceptors are found in our muscles and tell us where our bodies are and what our bodies are doing.
1. Physical coordination precedes and lays the foundation for cognitive coordination.
In other words, if you want to develop the mind, you must develop the body. That means multiple sessions daily of movement, play, and exercise. Per Marcia’s testimonial as a parent and a pediatric OT, it was doing the yoga story DVDs twice daily that enabled her son to build the motor skills, focus, and self-control needed for kindergarten. My point here is that regardless of your child’s challenges or strengths, if s/he is difficult, stressed, crabby, withdrawn, anxious, etc., s/he probably needs more physical play. Fun movement is the biologically built-in developer of body-mind-feelings awareness and management. At school, make sure students enjoy 90 to 120 minutes of supervised, instructional gross motor activity as well as outside time. At home, my recommendation is 20-30 minutes minimum every day – just you and your child, one-on-one, whatever s/he wants to do.
2. Mindfulness is a sensory-motor skill.
Impulse control, emotional intelligence, self-regulation and executive function develop as children become aware of and understand what happens inside their own bodies. It is through interactive activity such as exercise instruction and pretend play that they build the inner sensory-emotional awareness necessary for self-control. Per the work of Catherine Rosasco Mitchell and others in embodied, sensory-motor education, we know that children can only access and understand their own perception, character, and relationships by using the feelings/sensations of the body. Play and intentional movement help them grow mindful as well as socially – emotionally competent.
3. To get the benefits, you have to do the practice.
Exercise is a natural mind-body regulator and integrator. Active play causes kids to be less impulsive and more primed to learn by literally building brain cells, turning on the attention system, and firing up the executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention. To realize these effects means you’ve got to actually prioritize and spend more time playing and exercising and less time sitting and on screens. Why? Because intentional movement and playful instructional exercise promote and improve:
Marcia Washington, OTR/L, has been practicing pediatric occupational therapy for 20 years. In 2009, in her hometown of Pontotoc, MS, she launched KidSense, a clinic that specializes in pediatric therapy, includes a sensory motor gym, and serves clients from over a 70 mile radius.
Marcia and her husband, David, have 2 biological daughters, Mattie – 14 and Ella – 10. In 2014, they adopted a 2 year old boy from Poland. Marcia helped Gehrig improve his language and overall motor skills using Rhythmic Movement, Integrated Listening, NeuroNet Learning program and the Alert Program “How Does Your Engine Run.” Yet core strength, posture control and unintegrated reflexes persisted to the point of causing inattentive/impulsive behavior in preschool.
That’s when she started to use Move With Me Yoga Adventure DVDs and flash cards daily. She was so impressed with the results that she wrote us a thank you note. We were so touched that we invited her to speak about her experience so we could share it with all of you.
A recent article in Developmental Psychology and Committee for Children reports that children with higher levels of self-regulation achieve higher scores in reading, vocabulary and math. As any therapist, teacher or parent, who has knowledge of sensory integration issues, knows – deficits in self- regulation affect everything else – behaviors, social skills and motor responses. With pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum changing its focus to reading, writing and math skills, young children who need time to play, explore and practice self-regulation during these early formative years are falling behind with “behavior problems”. This study provides significant evidence that they are actually a symptom of a developmentally inappropriate focus on academics.
In early childhood, the primary developmental task is to fully inhabit one’s body and senses. It is through movement and playful sensory exploration that children grow their brains and healthy sense of self. Movement builds brain cells and grows the optimal functioning of every system in the body. As a child’s muscles and coordination grow, so does the density of the brain and its executive function, which is the source of higher level thinking and self-awareness.
As a teacher and parent who has spent years teaching children self-regulation, I can tell you that it happens in the body. Intentional movement, such as yoga, has such profound effects on children’s ability to focus, calm themselves, and filter sensory information. Yoga has become increasingly popular because it is a perfect playground for active fun that develops motor skills and fitness along with social-emotional awareness and self-regulation tools. As educators, we know from experience, that when children feel in control of their own bodies and can navigate their own stress and frustration from the inside out in a healthy way, they are learning able because they can sustain their own emotional stability through self-regulation.
Researchers in ECE, Megan McClelland, Ph.D., Associate Professor Human Development and Family Sciences, and her student, ShaunaTominey, have designed games to help children practice paying attention, following directions, remembering rules, and demonstrating self-control. Games and movement practices, combined with appropriate mirroring, are what children need to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence and self-control.
The lack of playful SEL curriculum activities is what inspired me to produce the Move with Me ™ resources that teach health and self-regulation skills to pre-K & K. Our video classes are designed to involve the whole child in social-emotional learning through stories and pretend play. In the process of acting out a narrative through movement, children have the fun of “being” everything in the story – the lion, the rocket, the tree. So, while they are having fun building fitness, focus, stamina and coordination, they are also improving early literacy and learning social-emotional skills, which are embedded into the action and called Adventure Skills. These simple exercises, with cool names such as Monkey Wisdom and Ocean Breath, empower kids to calm, center and redirect themselves when upset, angry, frustrated, sad, scared or over-whelmed. They give both care-giver and child a common vocabulary and a set of tools for SEL that can transform meltdowns into mindfulness and acting out to self-control.
Parent Alert! The growth of your child’s brain is inseparably linked to their physical development. For children to babble, talk, think and comprehend the world, they must first have motor control. Recent research is showing that children’s motor skill development is increasingly delayed and most parents don’t even realize it. Many children today are not learning to roll, creep, crawl and walk until months later than children from previous generations. Nature has a plan and it seems we are getting in the way. I didn’t get it with my first child. I didn’t want her to cry and she hated tummy time, there were other issues at hand as well but which comes first? Chicken or egg? Hayley is now a classic example of the correlation between delayed motor skills and academic development. By the time I had my second child, also a daughter, I had a much better education in movement and Devon therefore had all the tummy time and unrestricted movement a child could want. She’s tracked (and is still tracking) at or ahead of her developmental timeline both physically and cognitively. Here’s what I learned:
Movement, specific intentional movement, drives myelination of the nerve tracks to the brain. When we don’t get the proper amount and type of movement, the electrical signals we require to succeed emotionally, socially and academically don’t travel efficiently and sometimes get lost in transit. Is lack of movement one of the causes of our increasingly labeled ADHD, ADD, SI, PDD child population?
Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology states, Academic learning depends upon the automization of basic skills at a physical level. If a child fails to develop this automatic motor control, a teacher might observe such symptoms as reversals in reading and writing, misarticulations, poor impulse control, difficulty reading body language, or unsatisfactory peer relationships, despite good intelligence.
In our society, children’s lack of movement starts in early childhood. First it is such conveniences as car seats, Jolly Jumpers, Bumbo seats and ExerSaucers that keep them off their tummy and unable to roll, creep or crawl freely. Then electronic distracters (TV, DS, Leapfrog, Iphone, Ipad, etc) and restricted movement during long school days dominates their life. Each move away from free unrestricted movement and active play, particularly outdoor play, contributes to slower development in both motor skills and higher levels of thinking. Yes, there’s a direct connection between physical and cognitive development. Children who lack coordination and balance are not learning ready and often feel anxious and insecure. Parents, take note: the active play and exercise that your child should get daily is vital to his/her social-emotional and academic achievement.
Move with Me advocates outdoor play and regular movement instruction whenever possible, but we are also realistic about the obstacles to this ideal for many families and schools. Our imaginative yoga story DVDs are designed to bridge the play/exercise gap at home and at school so kids can enjoy a movement enrichment class anywhere with a computer or TV. Move with Me DVDs invite kids to follow-along being everything in the story, getting a balanced combination of aerobic and intentional exercise. Parents and Teachers, we invite you to support your children’s optimal development by using our program as a fun and engaging resource to keep your kids moving, even if they need to be indoors, even when in large groups.
Writer – Wendy Piret is a USNA graduate who served for 8 years as an Active Duty Naval Officer before pursuing a career working in the children’s health and fitness field. Wendy is currently a licensed Movement Education Specialist with 8 years of experience in private practice, 5 years guiding children in creative movement education classes, and the last 3 years teaching Brain Gym® workshops and seminars both privately and regionally for public and private school systems and other organizations. She is a licensed Brain Gym® Instructor, a certified Yoga Ed. Instructor and a craniosacral practitioner specializing in pediatrics.
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