A child’s arousal level is linked with their ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is the ability to adapt your state of arousal to the appropriate level to be able to attend to a task and therefore is directly linked to academic performance. A child may have a high arousal level and not be able to sit still, have difficulty remaining on a task or concentrating/paying attention. Alternatively, a child may appear tired, bored and/or disinterested. This is due to the central nervous systems ability to adapt to respond to the sensory stimuli in the environment and the task demand placed on it. Children with sensory processing difficulties will find it challenging to change their behaviour without activities being put in place to change their responses.
One of the more challenging elements to tackle is sleep. It is recommended that children aged three to five have between ten and fourteen hours sleep, six to thirteen is nine to eleven hours and fourteen to seventeen between eight and ten hours. Sleep is important, as during this down time the child and their central nervous system can relax and restore the hormonal balance within the body. Children are the same as adults, in that if they do not have enough sleep they will be more likely to respond negatively to a task demand.
For high arousal children routine is important so that there are no additional demands placed on an already heightened central nervous system. These children may need additional input throughout the day after unstructured time, as they have increased their arousal level but do not have the ability to restore it to being able to sit and engage in a classroom. In school, activities can be put in place when a trained therapist has showed teachers/teaching assistants. As part of the morning routine a breakfast of something like warm porridge or Weetabix can increase feelings of calm and reduce arousal level. A slow walk to school with a heavy backpack that has lunch and school books in can assist with regulation by providing the child with proprioceptive input.
For low arousal children a different approach is required. Low arousal children tend to have a under responsive vestibular system that is responsible for arousal level, muscle tone and balance. It is important to remember that although these children may need increased vestibular input to reach an appropriate arousal level they can also be overresponsive to it. Because of this they may present as low arousal however, when given vestibular input (movement) may very quickly become excitable and giggly or overwhelmed, lose tone and fall. To help a child reach an appropriate arousal level you can add variation in your morning routine to keep the child guessing and not go into “auto pilot” however, this may not work with some children as for them structure and routine is key. Cold crunchy textures can be alerting, so ice cold milk on something like cornflakes or crunchy nut. Try not to overload their school bags with a lot of weight and a brisk walk to school to alert them with movement.
As mentioned previously, a child with sensory processing difficulties will be unable to change their behaviour without activities being put in place to change their responses. Finding what works for your child may be challenging however, through allowing your child to explore a variety of different sensory experiences they will develop a sense of how these make them feel. When a child finds what works for them they will want / seek more because of the way it will make them feel good. Providing a child with the tools they need to assist them to self-regulate will improve their ability to functionally engage at home, in school, make and sustain appropriate friendships and in turn the best chance to succeed in life.
Article Written by James Ffitch