Kids with sensory needs often times have organization difficulties. Sensory inattention is a real thing! They are distracted by their body’s need for sensory integration and are challenged to focus on tasks at hand due difficulties with inattention.
While sensory kids might have attention problems, typically developing kids are also learning to work with the distractions of multi-sensory input to focus on tasks. You might see visual inattention that causes a child to skip words when copying from a book. You might see them forget to put their homework folder in their backpack at the end of the school day. It’s kind of like a jumble of beads in where all of the colors are so distracting that it’s hard to pull out the ones that are most important. Then the beads spill and you’ve got a disorganized mess to deal with on top of everything else that needs to happen in your day.
There are normal everyday distractions that all of us are managing. I for one am currently distracted by kids, schedules, deadlines, and the need to pull frozen chicken out of the fridge so that we can eat dinner later. A child with sensory processing disorder or general sensory challenges may be distracted by the input their body craves and the overwhelming input that they are constantly bombarded with. This sensory inattention may be a result of underlying issues going on that distracts from the task at hand.
When sensory-related inattention is a primary difficulty relating to disorganization in kids, there are ways to work around and help. Check out some of the sensory strategies listed further down in this post.
Other reasons for being inattentive:
- Overwhelming and confusing sensory input makes navigating sensory information
- Trouble staying on a task
- Trouble identifying priorities
- Focus on anxiety limits ability to stay on task
- Rigidity causing difficulty transitioning into new tasks
- Motor insecurity (fine motor or gross motor, visual motor, sensori-motor) causes trouble getting started on a task.
- Low frustration tolerance to difficult tasks. These kids might not try a task to avoid a frustrated meltdown as a compensatory strategy
Sensory inattention Strategies
So, how can a worried parent or involved teacher help kids who are struggling with attention problems and resulting disorganization? We’ve recently shared tips to help with attention at home and at school. But what if all of the modifications and adaptations to your child’s day are just not working?
What if, as a Mom or a Dad, you are at your wit’s end with your child’s poor attention…the behaviors…your child’s seemingly intentional disregard to directions and others around them. Sometimes, there is a reason for these actions. They aren’t always intentional. They aren’t always ADHD related. They aren’t always the actions of a “bad kid”.
Sometimes, there is an underlying reason for disorganization issues. There is a sensory component. It is sensory inattention that we are talking about.
A child with sensory processing difficulties might have trouble blocking out lights, noises, and movements of others. They might drop their pencil and not even realize it. They might have difficulty with handwriting. They might bump into others in lines at school or bounce off the walls at home. Do these sound familiar?
There are many indications of children who are overly sensitive to typical daily activities. Children with sensory hypersensitivity over-respond to sensory input. They may have an acute or overly sensitive response to input.
- Overreact to bright lights and loud noises.
- Demonstrate meltdowns when overwhelmed
- Complain about itchy tags or clothing seams, including the seam along the toes in socks. Refuse to wear certain textures, and complain that they are too rough or scratchy.
- Difficulty with sensing how much force they need to apply in tasks; they might press too hard when writing, rip the paper when erasing, or slam down objects.
- Trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other objects or people.
- Overly distracted by noises in the classroom.
- Appears clumsy.
- Avoid hugs and cuddling even with family members.
- Overly fearful of movement including swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds.
- Bump into other students in school lines, or crashes into objects.
- Tendency to bolt or run away when they’re overwhelmed to get away from stressors or fears of unfamiliar situations.
There are also indications of children who are under-responsive to sensory stimulation and seek out more sensory input. Indications of hyposensitivity occur in children who do not seem to notice sensory input. They may seek out sensory input in order to gain sensory input that they need in order to organize or regulate. Children that flap their hands, bite, pinch, bolt, or seem to have a very high tolerance for pain, spinning, or other movement may have sensory hyposensitivities.
- Constantly touch people or textures.
- Loves active play.
- Crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement.
- Enjoys heavy deep pressure like tight bear hugs.
- Cannot tolerate smells. Or, smells everything.
- Disregard or no understanding of personal space.
- Swing, spin, jump, run, crash
- Chew everything…clothing, pencils, toys, grass, non-edible materials
- Very high tolerance for pain.
- Very fidgety and unable to sit still, especially when the child is expected to sit still.
- Seeks out jumping, bumping and crashing activities.
- Loves jumping on furniture and trampolines.
- Self-stimulation behaviors (flapping, bolting, chewing, pressing on eyelids, rocking, humming, lining things up, tapping on things, etc.)
- Loves playground equipment like swings, merry-go-rounds and slides.
It’s easy to understand how a child with either a low or a high tolerance to sensory stimulation can show inattention to focused tasks. There is so much information coming at them at once and they are unable to filter out what is unnecessary while attending to a directions like “Get your homework out of your back pack” or “Brush your teeth, your hair, and put on your shoes.” How can they possibly keep themselves organized in tasks?
While no two children are alike, there are many sensory processing treatments that can help with attention and organization. Movement activities, core strengthening, and sensory integration therapy can help with attention in kids. In fact, sensory integration treatment interventions “may result in positive outcomes in sensory-motor skills and motor planning; socialization, attention, and behavioral regulation; reading-related skills; participation in active play; and achievement of individualized goals.” (From here.)
Sensory Processing Disorder Treatment
Some of our favorite ways to engage the sensory systems in sensory integration activities are:
- Brain Breaks (get easy-to-use activity cards here)
- Visual cues with bold colored paper, index cards, or table surfaces
- Visual organization sticker chart
- Highlight important information
- Attention Movement Exercises
- Movement-based learning activities
- Weighted Beanbag Toss
- Wobble Ice Disc
- Sensory Diet
- Chewable Jewelry or Oral Motor Tools
- Balance Activities
- DIY Fidget Toys
- Working on an inclined surface
- Sensory Processing Considerations and Ideas for Handwriting
- Dinosaur themed Heavy Work Activities
Try using these techniques to help your child sort out all of the information, and just like those beads that are all over the floor? Create beautiful moments in your day!
Be sure to stop by and see recommendations for Attention difficulties at home and at school, part of a recent Organization series that we’ve shared:
More tools for addressing attention needs in kids
There are so many strategies to address attention in kids and activities that can help address attention needs. One tactic that can be a big help is analyzing precursors to behaviors related to attention and addressing underlying needs.
The Attention and Sensory Workbook can be a way to do just that.
The Attention and Sensory Workbook is a free printable resource for parents, teachers, and therapists. It is a printable workbook and includes so much information on the connection between attention and sensory needs.
Here’s what you can find in the Attention and Sensory Workbook:
- Includes information on boosting attention through the senses
- Discusses how sensory and learning are connected
- Provides movement and sensory motor activity ideas
- Includes workbook pages for creating movement and sensory strategies to improve attention
A little more about the Attention and Sensory Workbook:
Sensory processing is the ability to register, screen, organize, and interpret information from our senses and the environment. This process allows us to filter out some unnecessary information so that we can attend to what is important. Kids with sensory challenges often time have difficulty with attention as a result.
It’s been found that there is a co-morbidity of 40-60% of ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder. This workbook is an actionable guide to help teachers, therapists, and parents to help kids boost attention and focus in the classroom by mastering sensory processing needs.
You will find information on the sensory system and how it impacts attention and learning. There are step-by-step strategies for improving focus, and sensory-based tips and tricks that will benefit the whole classroom.
The workbook provides tactics to address attention and sensory processing as a combined strategy and overall function. There are charts for activities, forms for assessment of impact, workbook pages for accommodations, and sensory strategy forms.
Grab the Attention and Sensory Workbook by clicking HERE or on the image below.
Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.