There is a strong correlation between sensory processing, attention, learning and self-regulation.
What is Sensory Regulation?
We often assume that the way we sense the world around us is the same for everyone.
There are many sources of sensory input around us:
- Touch (including texture) and pressure
- Light and outside movements,
- Smell and taste
- Temperature and pain,
- Proprioception (awareness of how our body is positioned without looking) and balance
Our brain systems collect ALL these sensory information to assemble a complete picture of what is going on to allow us to react appropriately. This process is called ‘sensory integration’.
However, each of our brains is wired in a slightly different way, where we may respond quickly or much more slowly to different stimulus (e.g. noticing and become affected by bright lights more than others). Therefore, it is important for us to maintain a balance, by organising the incoming sensory information so we notice just enough things to be aware and attentive, but not so much so that we become overloaded with information and feel distracted. This is what we call Sensory Modulation. This will allow us to function at a higher level and engage in tasks such as paying attention in the classroom, coping with changes, problem-solving, control behaviour/emotions and learn.
Sensory Preferences & Self-Regulation
In order for optimal Sensory Modulation to occur, for us to stay calm and alert, we all have our own ‘sensory quirks’ (or preferences). For example, swinging on a chair, jiggling our leg, having hot/cold drinks, listening to specific types of music, fidgeting with objects… etc.
Self-regulation of sensory information occurs on a continuum. At one end, children may react actively by humming, whistle, or rub hands on the wall to increase sensory input to their experience. On the contrary, children with passive responses have a tendency to let things happen and complain about unpleasant sensory input rather than withdrawing/retreating.
It is, therefore, crucial to ensure that a child’s self-regulatory behaviours are not distracting, maladaptive or have the potential to affect their everyday performance (e.g. absconding due to overloaded sensory input during class). Similarly, we must teach the child appropriate strategies for them to regulate their sensory input to prevent the build-up of overwhelming senses and eventual meltdowns.