Sensory Meltdowns

Overcoming sensory meltdowns

Overcoming sensory meltdowns can be a real challenge. For parents in a household where sensory challenges are common, having an understanding of what’s really going on with self-regulation and sensory processing is even better. Today, I have information on sensory overload meltdowns as well as a powerful tool for addressing this sensory need in families, so that the child struggling has resources and strategies available to them. Understanding meltdowns is one of the first steps in addressing sensory challenges.

And, I am so excited to announce that one reader will win access to a course on sensory meltdowns, and receive access to valuable information, strategies, and actionable tactics that you can implement right away to address those sensory break downs. This giveaway is part of our annual Therapy Tools and Toys Giveaways (Giveaway now closed) and I can’t wait to share more on this sensory course below.

Sensory meltdowns, information on self-regulation and sensory processing, as well as questions that parents have about meltdowns.

Sensory Meltdowns

I’ve shared before the difference between a sensory meltdown vs a tantrum…but that defining line can be hazy when it comes to sensory overload.

I’ve also shared many meltdown tips and tricks to address sensory meltdowns in children, as well as coping tools and sensory strategies that can help children.

There are also many sensory diet tools and resources here on this website, which can be valuable resources for the child with sensory processing challenges.

But all of these strategies, resources, and tools can be inconsequential if you are missing an important piece of the sensory puzzle.

Understanding what’s really going on behind a meltdown is the key component to helping children who struggle with sensory overload.

There’s more; Once you’ve got a handle on really understanding a meltdown and the specifics on what might cause them, it’s important to know how to help the child that does launch into meltdown mode.

Because, even with all of the understanding in your back pocket, there will still be those moments where a meltdown is inevitable. So, having the resources and tools available to help a child debrief after a meltdown is crucial.

Debriefing with your child after a meltdown is such an important step for both of you. Having the ability to compose oneself following a meltdown and really understand what might have caused that overload empowers your child so that they can discover their own self-regulation strategies. What an empowering concept, right?

Not only that, but getting an understanding along with your child of that sensory meltdown gives you both specific strategies and tactics to help overcome those sensory meltdowns the next time they might occur. You can define and discover their triggers. 

All of this makes sense, right? But if working as a pediatric occupational therapist has taught me anything, it’s that addressing feelings of overwhelm with sensory processing take some time.

Parents often have questions about sensory meltdowns. Understand sensory meltdowns and resources to help.

Sensory Questions

There are so many common questions that parents have about sensory processing and sensory meltdowns. Below are listed some common sensory questions that parents have. Sometimes just knowing you are not alone in your questions and concerns is helpful! So, those questions that oftentimes come up include:

Parents often times feel overwhelmed or stressed with how to respond to their child’s meltdowns. If this sounds familiar, you might be questioning if your child’s behavior is sensory or if it’s defiant behavior. 

Parents wonder if the behaviors their child has is a temper tantrum or if it is a response to sensory overload and having a meltdown.

Many times, parents see meltdowns that seem to come out of nowhere. You can’t seem to figure out what the triggers are. Where do you even start?

Or, maybe you know your child’s meltdowns are sensory related, but nothing you’ve tried seems to work. You wonder if maybe you’re Googling the wrong things or if there is something you’ve missed.

Parents often feel like their child is just trying to get attention, and that it’s behavioral rather than sensory related.

Another question that parents often have is regarding the aggressive behaviors they see from their child. What can cause a child to act out so physically with hitting, spitting, head banging, biting, scratching, and yelling? These actions are physically and emotionally exhausting for both you and your child.

Still other questions that parents have regarding meltdowns is how to better understand their child and help them feel accepted?

Parents often wonder how they can better recognize the signs of sensory overload so they can prevent it from happening in the first place.

A big question parents have is how they can stay calm in the moment when their child is in the midst of a meltdown. How can they help their child without “losing it” themselves.

Sometimes, just knowing that others have the same questions is so helpful.

Overcoming Sensory Meltdowns

If any of these questions sound familiar, I’ve got a resource for you. The thing is that sensory overload is one of the leading causes of sensory meltdowns, but it is far from the only cause. And, actually, there are sound principles that can help children in the midst of a meltdown. There are tools you can have in your back pocket so you can address meltdowns when they are happening, and can shorten the duration and intensity of a meltdown. You can even help your child to recognize what’s going on when a sensory meltdown occurs.

If you are looking to get the answers to better understand exactly what’s going on behind meltdowns and how to get to the root of these challenges, so that your child can thrive, then you will want to check out Overcoming Sensory Meltdowns.

This solution is a course called Overcoming Sensory Meltdowns.

This course can help you feel confident and overcome meltdowns with proven sensory integration tips, tools, and strategies to help your student self-regulate and give you both a toolkit of ways to minimize sensory related issues and even catch them before they escalate.

Overcoming Sensory Meltdowns is a course created by a certified occupational therapy assistant and a mother of 7. Together, they’ve created real, actionable strategies to help prevent and diminish breakdowns. This course contains countless takeaways that you can apply to your life right now.

There are 21 video lessons, full written transcripts, over 40 pages of printable resources, and much more.

The course covers all of this:

  • What You Need to Know about Sensory Meltdowns
  • Is it Sensory or is it Behavior?
  • Sensory Meltdowns vs. Tantrums
  • What Does a Sensory Meltdown Look Like?
  • Causes of Sensory Meltdowns
  • Sensory Overload and Meltdowns
  • Comorbidities
  • Preventing Sensory Overload
  • Preventing Sensory Meltdowns
  • Preventing Sensory Triggers
  • Staying Calm Yourself
  • Strategies for Dealing with Sensory Meltdowns
  • Aggression, Defiance, and Violence
  • Safety of the Child, Others, and Property
  • Meltdowns in Public
  • Meltdowns in the Classroom
  • Working with Professionals
  • Talking to Family Members and School about Meltdowns
  • Debriefing with Your Child
  • Additional Resources

Click here to get your hands on the Overcoming Sensory Meltdowns Course so you can give your child the tools they need and prevent sensory meltdowns and have a calmer home or classroom.

Questions about Sensory Meltdowns?

Check out the blog comments below to discover common questions about about sensory meltdowns.

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

Fall Leaves Printable tic Tac Toe Game

Fall leaves printable tic tac toe activity for occupational therapy home programs

Getting this fall leaves bucket list has been on my to-do list for a few weeks now. Here in western Pennsylvania, fall leaves are just about at their peak colors. They are just starting to fall, and that means there are lots of colorful, crunchy leaves to explore and play in! As occupational therapists, we know the power of play. That means we know the power of using fall leaves as a tool to build strength, balance, sensory experiences, heavy work, and movement! Leaf activities are just part of Fall and all that the season brings in the way of fall fun! Use the free printable for occupational therapy home programs, or just a cheap fall bucket list of fall activities!

Fall Leaves Activities for a fall bucket list that builds skills! This fall leaves printable is a downloadable tic tac toe game that kids can use in occupational therapy activities.

Fall Leaves Printable

A lot of the leaf activities on this printable are activities that I’ve shared previously on this website. You can find the links to these ideas here, so you can read more about the “why” behind these activities and to understand the different ways to build development in kids.

This fall leaves printable is a tic tac toe printable page. Use it to encourage movement, sensory exploration, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills. The images are small and just outlines, so kids can color in the pictures as they complete each activity, making it a great way to build fine motor strength, coordination, and pencil control.

Each fall leaf activity uses just leaves from outside, but if fall leaves aren’t available in your area, colored paper leaves work just as well.

Fall leaf tic tac toe activities encourage movement, so use this as a great occupational therapy home program or even one to use in OT teletherapy.

Leaf activities for occupational therapy and to build skills in fine motor development, sensory play, gross motor skills. Use fall leaves in therapy activities!

Fall Leaf Activities

Here are the fall leaf activities described on on this leaf printable. If you need more descriptions or a better understanding of how these fall leaf activities help kids build skills, be sure to save this page so you can come back to it.

Leaves for Scissor Skills– Improves scissor accuracy, bilateral coordination, eye-hand coordintion, fine motor precision.

Leaf collage art– Use real leaves to make a craft that builds bilateral coordination, heavy work proprioceptive input, and scissor skills.

Fall Proprioception Activities– Jumping in piles of leaves, raking leaves, and carrying a load of leaves in a bucket, wheelbarrow, or arms adds calming heavy work for the proprioceptive sense!

Fall Vestibular Activities– Run, dive, jump, swoop! Catching fall leaves provides input to the vestibular sense. These activities can be organizing and help kids regulate behaviors, emotions, and their sensory system.

Leaf Balance Beam- Do you know the power of a balance beam? The best news is that you don’t need fancy expensive equipment to replicate those benefits! Use leaves to make a homemade balance beam with all of the skill-building!

Leaf Hole Punch Activity– Grab a hole puncher and a handful of leaves. Those fine motor skills are about to grow! This activity builds eye-hand coordination, hand strength, arch development, separation of the sides of the hand, visual motor skills, and more.

Leaf Matching Activity– There are a lot of ways to develop visual processing skills like matching leaves during the Fall season.

Leaf Activities For therapy

Pre-Writing Lines: Pre-writing activity with real leaves– Use real leaves to work on eye-hand coordination, visual motor skills, and pre-writing lines with hands on fine motor work.

Bilateral Coordination: Leaf Craft- Use real leaves to make a craft that builds bilateral coordination, heavy work proprioceptive input, and scissor skills.

Craft for Older Kids:  Sewing Skills Craft– Use a needle and thread, wire, lacing cord to thread around leaf shapes. We used plastic canvas, but you could use cardboard, cereal boxes, or even laminated paper.

Hand Strength- Leaf Ten Frames– Use a hole puncher with leaves to work on hand strength and hands-on math.

Sensory Play- Nature Water Table– Use a bin, water table, or bowl to explore Fall’s colors and textures and challenge the senses.

Tactile Sensory Activity- Sensory Painting– Use leaves, corn husks, and grasses for sensory painting. Then, practice handwashing!

Heavy Work Activity- Play Dough Press– Use natural materials and play dough to add heavy work for the hands. This is a great visual perception activity, too.

Eye-Hand Coordination and Problem SolvingFall Tree Crafts– build eye-hand coordination and problem solving with a sensory experience to make these fall trees.

Scissor Skills Activity- Fall leaves scissor activity– Use leaves to work on line awareness, bilateral coordination, and visual motor skills.

MORE Sensory Processing Activities for Fall

Leaf Auditory Processing Activity– Use leaves to work on listening skills, auditory discrimination, and auditory challenges.

Fall Fine Motor Activities

Fall Visual processing Activities

Fall Tactile Sensory Activities

Fall Vestibular Activities

Fall Proprioception Activities

Fall Leaf Printable

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    For more fall leaf activities, try some of these:

    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

    Mask Social Story Slide Deck

    wear a mask social story for sensory issues

    Here, you can get a mask social story for kids with sensory needs. Trying to help kids with the task of wearing a mask? In our area, schools are moving from full virtual to hybrid learning, so that means kids that have been out of the classroom since March are now going to be back in the physical school location. And, getting kids to wear masks…and keep those masks on…can be a real concern, especially for kids with sensory needs! Today, I’ve got a free teletherapy slide deck to help kids learn the importance of wearing a mask and it covers the sensory concerns that might come up with mask wearing. This slide deck is a social story for mask wearing with sensory issues, so it adds a story component while allowing kids to understand why they need to wear a mask when it feels itchy or scratchy. This slide deck is free to download, so grab it below.

    Get this free mask social story to help kids with sensory needs tolerate and accommodate for mask wearing.

    Wearing a mask with sensory needs

    For kids with sensory needs, wearing a mask can be a big problem. But some schools, businesses, and situations require a mask for entry. So how does the child with sensory needs deal with this situation? For some, the softest of face masks can feel scratchy or itchy. It can make others feel like they are contained. Still others are frustrated wtih the feel of mask straps behind their ears.

    Kids with sensory needs and masks don’t mix!

    That’s why I wanted to put this social story together and get it into your hands. Because some kids are truly struggling with wearing a mask and don’t understand why they need to have this itchy, scratchy fabric attached to their face!

    Help kids wear a mask when they have sensory preferences due to sensory processing disorder.

    Wearing a Mask Social Story

    Some kids respond really well to social stories, so this slide deck should be a good way to teach this concept. I’ve made the slide deck interactive, so kids can read through the slide, and move the checkmark to the “finished” square once they understand the concept on each slide.

    Kids with sensory needs can struggle with wearing a mask. This mask social story can help if the mask feels too tight.

    The slides cover various aspects of masks for kids with sensory needs, including how masks feel on the skin, or how they may make a person feel hot.

    I’ve also included slides in this social story that tell the reader they can ask for help if they need it when wearing a mask.

    Some children may chew on their face mask to meet oral sensory needs as calming input when they attempt to self-regulate. However, another sensory tool could be used in place of the mask. This sensory social story helps kids to understand that by reading the words of the story and by matching those words to the image.

    Kids with sensory needs can feel a mask as too tight or scratchy. This mask social story can help.

    Kids with sensory needs or those with sensory processing disorder may feel the temperature difference between having a mask on or off. This mask sensory story covers those issues.

    You’ll find slides for kids that feel that mask move in and out with their breath, as well. All of these sensory sensitivities can be very apparent with the use of a face mask!

    use this free mask social story in teletherapy or to help kids with sensory needs adjust to wearing a mask by offering other alternatives that meet their sensory needs.

    Free slide deck for wearing a mask with sensory needs

    To get this slide deck, enter your email address below. By doing this, I am able to deliver the slides to your email inbox.

    Be sure to log into your Google drive first. You will get a pdf that you can save and use over and over again. Click the document to make a copy of the slide onto your drive.

    Use the slide deck in “edit” mode to allow students to move the check marks on each slide as the individual slide is read. You can also use this slide deck in “present” mode, but the movable piece won’t work.

    Get this Free “Wearing a Mask” Social Story slide deck

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      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

      Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist

      sensory processing disorder checklist

      Sensory processing disorder is a condition where the brain misinterprets sensory information so that the body responds in atypical ways. Sensory processing disorder can be broken down into different categories, but one thing is clear: interpretation of sensory input is “off”. Here, you will find a list of common sensory responses that might be seen with sensory processing disorder. Use this sensory processing disorder checklist to better understand responses to sensory input.

      Sensory Processing Disorder checklists for each sensory system

      With sensory processing disorder, input from each of the sensory systems can be interpreted by the brain in different ways. Kids can hyper-respond or overreact to sensory input. Or, they can hypo-respond, or under-react to sensory information.

      Sensory processing disorder can be seen in children or on adults.

      These sensory processing disorder checklists are broken down by sensory system

      Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist

      Putting it all together – Let’s look at all of the sensory systems in a list:

      • Visual System (Sight)
      • Auditory System (Sound)
      • Tactile System (Touch)
      • Gustatory System (Taste)
      • Olfactory System (Smell)
      • Proprioceptive System (Position in space)
      • Vestibular System (Movement)
      • Interoceptive System (Inner body)

      Typically, dysfunction within these three systems present in many different ways.  A child with sensory difficulties may be over- or under-responsive to sensory input.  They may operate on an unusually high or unusually low level of activity.  They may fatigue easily during activity or may constantly be in motion.  Children may fluctuate between responsiveness, activity levels, and energy levels.

      Additionally, children with sensory processing dysfunctions typically present with other delays.  Development of motor coordination, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social-emotional skills, behaviors, executive functioning skills, language, and learning are all at risk as a result of impaired sensory processing.

      Sensory processing disorder checklists for responses seen to sensory input.

      Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist- Tactile System

      Hyper-responsiveness of the tactile sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to tactile sensation. This looks like:

      • Overly sensitivity to temperature including air, food, water, or objects
      • Withdrawing when touched
      • Refusing certain food textures
      • Dislike of having face or hair washed
      • Dislikes of hair cuts
      • Dislikes of having fingernails cut
      • Excessively ticklish
      • Avoidance to messy play or getting one’s hands dirty
      • Avoidance of finger painting, dirt, sand, bare feet on grass, etc.
      • Clothing preferences and avoidances such as resisting shoes or socks
      • Annoyance to clothing seams or clothing textures
      • Resistance to hair brushing
      • Overreactions to accidental or surprising light touches from others
      • Avoids affectionate touch such as hugs

      Hypo-responsiveness of the tactile sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or under-reaction to tactile sensation. This may look like:

      • Seeks out tactile sensory input
      • Bumps into others
      • High pain tolerance
      • Stuffs food in mouth
      • Licks items or own skin
      • Not aware of being touched
      • Seems unaware of light touch
      • Startles easily when touched
      • When getting dressed, doesn’t notice clothing that is twisted
      • Tendency for self-abusiveness: biting self, rubbing self with heavy pressure, head-banging, pinching self, etc.
      • Doesn’t notice a runny nose, messy face, or messy hands
      • Puts items in the mouth
      • Lack of personal space
      • Runs into other children without noticing
      • Has difficulty maintaining space in line; bumps into others without noticing
      • Falls out of chair
      • NEEDS to touch everything
      • Uses a tight pencil grip on the pencil
      • Writes with heavy pencil pressure
      • Tears paper when cutting with scissors
      • Unintentionally rough on siblings, other children, or pets
      • Always touching others or things
      • Seeks out messy play experiences
      • Prefers to rub or feel certain textures
      • Difficulty with fine motor tasks
      • Craves touch


      The Proprioception Sensory System is the recognition and response to the body’s position in space with an internal feedback system using the position in space of the joints, tendons, and muscles.  This sensory system allows the body to automatically react to changes in force and pressure given body movements and object manipulation.  The body receives more feedback from active muscles rather than passive muscle use.  Related to the proprioception system is praxis or motor planning.  Individuals are able to plan and execute motor tasks given feedback from the proprioceptive system. Praxis allows us to utilize sensory input from the senses and to coordinate hat information to move appropriately.

      Hyper-responsiveness of the proprioception sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to proprioceptive sensation. This may include postural insecurity. This may look like:

      • Uses too little pressure when writing or coloring
      • Prefers soft or pureed foods
      • Appears lethargic
      • Bumps into people or objects
      • Poor posture, slumps in their seat
      • Poor handwriting
      • Inability to sit upright when writing or completing desk work; Rests with head down on arms while working
      • Poor awareness of position-in-space
      • Frequent falling
      • Clumsiness
      • Poor balance
      • Poor body awareness
      • Poor attention
      • Poor motor planning

      Hypo-responsiveness of the proprioceptive sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to proprioceptive sensation. This looks like:

      • Uses excessive pressure when writing or coloring
      • “Jumper and crasher”- seeks out sensory input
      • Can’t sleep without being hugged or held
      • Bumps into people or objects
      • Seems aggressive
      • Grinds teeth
      • Walks on toes
      • Chews on pencils, shirt, sleeve, toys, etc.
      • Prefers crunchy or chewy foods
      • Cracks knuckles
      • Breaks pencils or crayons when writing or coloring
      • Pinches, bites, kicks, or headbutts others
      • Difficulty with fine motor skills
      • Poor handwriting
      • Poor awareness of position-in-space
      • Stomps their feet on the ground when walking
      • Kicks their chair or their neighbors chair in the classroom
      • Frequent falling
      • Clumsiness
      • Poor balance
      • Constantly moving and fidgeting
      • Poor attention


      The Vestibular Sensory System is the sense of movement and balance, and uses the receptors in the inner ear and allows the body to orient to position in space.  The vestibular system is closely related to eye movements and coordination.  Vestibular sensory input is a powerful tool in helping children with sensory needs.  Adding a few vestibular activities to the day allows for long-lasting effects.  Every individual requires vestibular sensory input in natural development.  In fact, as infants we are exposed to vestibular input that promotes a natural and healthy development and integration of all systems. 

      Problems with the Vestibular Processing System can present as different ways:

      • Poor visual processing
      • Poor spatial awareness
      • Poor balance
      • Difficulty with bilateral integration
      • Sequencing deficits
      • Poor visual-motor skills
      • Poor constructional abilities
      • Poor discrimination of body position
      • Poor discrimination of movement
      • Poor equilibrium
      • Subtle difficulties discerning the orientation of head
      • Trouble negotiating action sequences

      Hyper-responsiveness of the vestibular sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to vestibular sensation. This look may look like:

      • Experiences gravitational insecurity
      • Overly dizzy with motions
      • Resistant to moving activities such as swings, slides, elevators, or escalators
      • Fear of unstable surfaces
      • Unable to tolerate backward motions
      • Unable to tolerate side to side motions
      • Illness in moving vehicles
      • Avoids swings or slides
      • Gets motion sick easily
      • Appears “clingy”
      • Refuses to move from the ground (i.e. jumping or hopping activities)
      • Difficulty/fear of balance activities
      • Refusal to participate in gym class
      • Fearful on bleachers or on risers
      • Fear or dislike of riding in elevators or escalators
      • Fearful of movement
      • Dislike of spinning motions
      • Avoids chasing games
      • Overly fearful of heights
      • Nauseous when watching spinning objects
      • Poor posture
      • Easily fatigued
      • Poor coordination
      • Low muscle tone
      • Poor motor planning
      • Fearful when a teacher approaches or pushes in the child’s chair
      • Clumsiness
      • Poor attention

      Hypo-responsiveness of the vestibular sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to vestibular sensation. This may look like:

      • Constant movement including jumping, spinning, rocking, climbing
      • Craves movement at fast intervals
      • Craves spinning, rocking, or rotary motions
      • Poor balance on uneven surfaces
      • Constantly fidgeting
      • Increased visual attention to spinning objects or overhead fans
      • Bolts or runs away in community or group settings, or when outdoors or in large open areas such as shopping malls
      • Difficulty maintaining sustained attention
      • Impulsive movement
      • Constantly getting up and down from desk in the classroom
      • Walks around when not supposed to (in the classroom, during meals, etc.)
      • Loves to be upside down
      • Head banging
      • Leans chair back when seated at a desk
      • Loves spinning
      • Rocks self-back and forth when seated
      • Poor posture
      • Poor coordination
      • Poor motor planning
      • A deep need to keep moving in order to function
      • Frequent falling
      • Clumsiness
      • Poor balance
      • Poor attention


      Eighty percent of the information we receive from our environment is visual.  When perception of this information is not processed correctly, it can create an altered state that influences many areas:  eye-hand coordination, postural reflexes, and vestibular processing are all influenced and reliant upon the visual system. 

      The visual system is the sensory system that most individuals rely upon most heavily for daily tasks.  Visual information is perceived by cells in the back of the eye.  These cells (rods and cones) relay and transfer light information into information that is transferred to the central nervous system.  These photoreceptors are able to perceive day time vision and night time vision, with adjustments to sensitivity of light intensity.  They are able to respond to different spectrum of color and differentiate color information.  The rod and cone cells, along with the retina, process a great deal of visual information in the neural structure of the eye before transmitting information to the central nervous system. 

      The relay of information from the eyes to the central nervous system are made up of three pathways.  Pathways project to different areas of the brain and allow for a) processing and recognition of faces/shapes/motion (the “what” and “where” of objects), b) integration of information in order to coordinate posture and eye movements, and c) oculomotor adaptation.

      Hyper-responsiveness of the visual sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to visual sensation. This may look like:

      • Complains of lights being too bright
      • Unable to tolerate certain lighting such as fluorescent overhead lights
      • Struggles with sudden changes in lighting
      • Challenged by bright or flashing lights
      • Colorful lights “hurt” the eyes
      • Complains of headaches in bright light
      • Complains of the “glow” of unnatural lighting
      • Distressed by light sources
      • Sensitive to light
      • Sensitive to certain colors
      • Distracted by cluttered spaces
      • Avoids eye contact

      Hypo-responsiveness of the visual sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to visual sensation. This looks like:

      • Attracted to spinning objects
      • Difficulty with visual perception
      • Difficulty with eye-hand coordination
      • Difficulty with reading and writing
      • Holds or presses hands on eyelids in order to see flashing lights
      • Squints or presses eyelids shut
      • Flaps hands or objects in front of eyes


      Receptors for the auditory system are located in the inner ear and are responsible for receiving vibration from sound waves and changing them to fluid movement energy.  Information is projected to the central nervous system and transmits sound frequency as well as timing and intensity of sound input.  The auditory system is integrated with somatosensory input in order to play a role in controlling orientation of the eyes, head, and body to sound. 

      Hyper-responsiveness of the auditory sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to auditory sensation. This may look like:

      • Startles easily to unexpected sounds
      • Dislikes noisy places
      • Overly sensitive to speakers on radios
      • Fearful of smoke detectors, overhead speakers
      • Shushes others or asks others to stop talking
      • Holds hands over ears
      • Sensitive to certain sounds such as lawnmowers or the hum of the refrigerator
      • Easily distracted by sounds and background noise
      • Hums to block out background noise

      Hypo-responsiveness of the auditory sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to auditory sensation. This looks like:

      • Seems to be unaware of sounds
      • Holds radio speakers up against ears
      • Doesn’t respond to alarms
      • Makes silly sounds at inappropriate times or frequently
      • Mimics sounds of others
      • Talks to self
      • Difficulty locating sounds, especially when in a noisy environment
      • Hums in order to hear the sound of humming


      The gustatory system perceives input through the tongue.  Taste cells in the mouth perceive five sensations: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and savory.  The gustatory system is closely related to the sense of smell and proprioception.  How we perceive taste is deeply influenced by the sense of smell. 

      While many children with sensory needs have a tendency to chew on their shirt collars or pencils as a sensory strategy in order to seek proprioception needs, the behavior may occur as a result or as a reaction to under-responding to oral input.  Other children may seek out intense taste sensations and in that case put non-edible items into their mouth to satisfy that sensory need.  Still other children may over-respond or under-respond to certain flavors or taste sensations.  For those children, it is common to experience food refusal related to texture or taste.

      Hypersensitivity to oral sensory input may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to gustatory sensation. This looks like:

      • Dislike of mixed textures (cereal in milk or chunky soup)
      • Resistant to trying new foods
      • Avoids certain textures
      • Avoids straws
      • Avoidance of specific food or drink temperatures
      • Picky eating
      • Preference for bland foods
      • Avoids temperature extremes (unable to tolerate hot or cold foods)
      • Prefers foods that do not touch or mix on their plate
      • Use of only a specific spoon or fork or no utensil at all
      • Intolerance to teeth brushing.
      • Anxiety or gagging when presented with new foods
      • Drooling

      Hypo-responsiveness of the gustatory sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to gustatory sensation. This may look like:

      • Licking objects
      • Bites others
      • Chews on clothing
      • Hums all the time
      • Prefers a vibrating toothbrush
      • Prefers spicy foods
      • Stuffs food into cheeks
      • Prefers food very hot or very cold temperature


      The olfactory system, or the system that enables the sense of smell, has receptors in the tissue of the nose that are connected by pathways to the brain.  Connections occur via two pathways, one being a direct route to neurons in the brains and the second being a path that passes near the roof of the mouth.  This channel is connected to the taste of foods.

      There is some evidence indicating that the sense of smell is more associated with memory than the sense of vision or the other senses.  The connection of the olfactory sense to the emotional part of the brain and previous experiences, as well as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to smells can cause anxiety or sensory related breakdowns in children with sensory processing difficulties. 

      Hyper-responsiveness of the olfactory sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to olfactory sensation. This may look like:

      • Overly sensitive to smells
      • Notices smells others don’t
      • Anxious around certain smells
      • Holds nose in response to certain scents

      Hypo-responsiveness of the olfactory sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to olfactory sensation. This may look like:

      • Smells unusual items like paper or certain materials
      • Prefers strong scents


      The interoceptive sensory system is an area that most people are not as familiar with.  This system is connected to amygdala, the emotional system, the limbic system, our emotional awareness, our feelings, and subconscious arousal.  Receptors for the interoceptive system are in our organs and skin.  The receptors relay information regarding feelings such as hunger, thirst, heart rate, and digestion to the brain.  This is the foundation to sensations such as mood, emotions, aggression, excitement, and fear and in turn, promotes the physical response of our bodies. 

      Physical responses include functions such as hunger, thirst, feelings, digestion, heart rate, and body temperature.

      Hyper-responsiveness of the interoceptive sense may present in a child as over-responsiveness or overreaction to interoceptive sensation. This may look like:

      • High pain tolerance
      • Distracted and overwhelmed by feelings of stress
      • Distracted or overly sensitive to sensations of stomach digestion
      • Distracted or overly sensitive to sensation of heart beat
      • Always hungry or thirsty
      • Eat more and more often to avoid feelings of hunger
      • Unable to sense the feeling of being full; overeats or overdrinks
      • Overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, anger, happiness, etc. and unable to respond appropriately
      • High urine output
      • Use the bathroom more often than necessary to avoid feelings of a full bladder or bowel
      • Distracted by changes in body temperature
      • Distracted and overly sensitive to sweating
      • Overly sensitive to feeling ticklish or itchy
      • Overly sensitive to cold or heat
      • Overly sensitive to signs of illness
      • Fearful of vomiting

      Hypo-responsiveness of the interoceptive sense may present in a child as under-responsiveness or underreaction to interoceptive sensation. This may look like:

      • Low pain tolerance
      • Poor or low response to interoceptive stimuli
      • Doesn’t know when to go to the bathroom
      • Never says they are hungry or thirsty
      • Does not drink or eat enough
      • Difficult to toilet train
      • Never complains of being cold or hot (always wears shorts in the winter or pants in the summer)
      • Never complains of sickness
      • Difficulty falling asleep
      • Unable to identify feelings of stress
      • Unable to identify specific feelings and appropriate responses

      Sensory Checklists, explained

      There is a lot to think about here, right? Taking a giant list of common sensory processing disorder lists and knowing what to do with that list is complicated. What if you had strategies to address each sensory system’s over-responsiveness or under-responsiveness so you could come up with a sensory diet that helps kids function?

      In The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, I do just that.

      The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook

      Sensory processing is broken down by sensory system so you can understand what you are seeing in the sensory responses listed above. Then, you can use the lists of sensory activities to help the child complete functional tasks while they get the sensory input they need to focus, organize themselves, and function.

      The sensory activities are presented as meaningful and motivating tasks that are based on the child’s interests, making them motivating and meaningful.

      You can get the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook and start building a sensory diet that becomes an integrated part of each day’s daily tasks, like getting dressed, completing household chores, school work, community interaction, and more.

      Get your copy of The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook here.

      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

      Coping Strategies for Kids

      Coping strategies for kids

      Whether it’s the classroom, home, or day to day life…coping strategies for kids are needed. Coping strategies are mechanisms or tools to adjust and respond to emotions, stressors, and unbalance so that one can function and complete daily occupations, or everyday tasks. Coping tools help to balance and regulate a person. Coping strategies can look different for every individual and that’s why this giant list of coping skills will be powerful in building a toolbox of strategies for kids (or teens and adults!)

      Coping strategies for kids that help kids with regulation, emotions, stress, worries.

      We all need coping strategies! It can be difficult to cope with stress or worries as a child.  Most of the time, it can be hard to just figure out what is going on with the mood swings, frustration, behaviors, and lack of focus.  Most of these problems can be a result of a multitude of problems!  From emotional regulation concerns, to sensory processing issues, to executive functioning struggles, to anxiety, communication issues, or cognitive levels–ALL of the resulting behaviors can benefit from coping strategies. Here on The OT Toolbox, I’ve shared sensory coping strategies for anxiety or worries. These can be used for so many other underlying concerns as well.
      It’s not just anxiety or worries that causes a need for sensory-based coping strategies. Emotional regulation, an unbalanced sense of being, stress, situational or environmental issues…the list of concerns that would benefit from sensory coping tools could go on and on.

      Incorporating sensory strategies and sensory play into a coping toolbox can help kids with a multitude of difficulties.  Try using some of these ideas in isolation and use others in combination with one or two others.  The thing about coping strategies is that one thing might help with issues one time, but not another.

      Coping Strategies for Kids 

      One thing to remember is that every child is vastly different. What helps one child cope may not help another child in the same class or grade.  Children struggle with issues and need an answer for their troubles for many different reasons.  The underlying issues like auditory processing issues or low frustration tolerance are all part of the extremely complex puzzle.

      Other contributions to using coping strategies include a child’s self-regulation, executive functioning skills, self-esteem, emotional regulation, and frustration tolerance. That makes sense, right? It’s all connected!

      Coping Skills for Kids meet needs

      Coping skills are the tools that a person can use to deal with stressful situations. Coping strategies help a us deal with occupational unbalance, so that we can be flexible and persistent in addressing those needs.

      Coping skills in children can be used based on the needs of the individual child.  Also, there is a lot to consider about the influence of factors that affect the person’s ability to cope with areas of difficulty.  Likewise, feedback from precious coping efforts relates to the efficacy of a coping plan. (Gage, 1992).

      Coping skills in kids depends on many things: wellness, self-regulation, emotional development, sensory processing, and more.

      Having a set of coping skills benefit children and adults!  Every one of us has stress or worries in some manner or another.  Children with sensory processing issues, anxiety, or social emotional struggles know the stress of frustration to situations.  It’s no surprise that some of these issues like sensory processing disorder and anxiety are linked.

      Research on wellness tells us that child well being is dependent on various factors, including parental resources, parental mental health, parental relationship quality, parenting quality, father involvement, family types, and family stability. What’s more is that taking a look at the overall balance in a family and the child can provide understanding into things like stress, frustration, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings. The wellness wheel can help with getting a big picture look at various components of overall well-being.

      In fact, studies tell us that coping flexibility may be an important way to investigate coping. Coping flexibility, or an individual’s ability to modify and change coping strategies depending on the context, can be impacted by executive functioning difficulties including flexible thinking, working memory, impulse control, emotional control, and self-monitoring.

      And, having more coping strategies in one’s toolbox coping may be an important precursor to coping flexibility, especially because having flexibility in coping abilities can only be obtained if an individual is able to access and use different coping strategies. It’s the chicken or the egg concept!

      Another study found that children who used problem solving or constructive communication were better able to manage stress and that those who used maladaptive strategies like suppressing, avoiding or denying their feelings, had higher levels of problems related to stress. It makes sense. The most effective coping strategies are ones that adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.

      So, how can we help with stress and frustrations?  One tool is having a set of sensory coping strategies available to use in these situations.    

      Types of coping skills

      All of this said, we can break down coping skills for kids into different types of coping strategies that can be added to a coping toolbox:

      Physical- exercise, movement, brain breaks, heavy work are some examples. Physical coping strategies might include pounding a pillow in frustration, using a fidget toy, running, yoga.

      Sensory- While there is a physical component to sensory coping strategies (proprioception and vestibular input are just that: physical movement…and the act of participating in sensory coping strategies involves movement and physical action of the body’s sensory systems) this type of coping tool is separated for it’s uniqueness. Examples include aromatherapy, listening to music, mindfulness (interoception), and sensory play.

      Sensory strategies that are motivating can be a big help for some kids. Try these train themed sensory activity ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

      Emotional- Thinking about one’s feelings and emotions is the start of emotional regulation and social development. Acting out feelings, talking to a friend or teacher…communication is huge!

      These social skills activities are a great way to build awareness of self and others and can double as coping tools too.

      Communication- Talking about feelings, talking to others, writing in a journal, singing. Have you ever just had to “vent” your feelings about a situation? That ability to “let it all out” is a way to process a situation and talk through solutions, or find common ground in a situation.

      Use this list of coping skills to help kids build a coping skills toolbox.

      List of Coping skills

      1. Move- Get up and run in place, jog, do jumping jacks, or hop in place.

      2. Fidget tools in school– Use learning-friendly fidget tools, perfect for the classroom or at-home learning space. Here is one desk fidget tool that kids can use while learning.

      3. Talk- Talk about it to a friend, talk to an adult, or talk to a teacher.

      4. Snuggle- Grab a big cozy blanket and pile pillows around you to build a fort of comfort!  The pressure from the blanket and pillows provides proprioceptive input.

      5. Take a bath or hot shower.

      6. Blow bubbles.  The oral sensory input is organizing.

      7. Sensory water play.

      8. Scream into a pillow.

      9. Pound play dough.  Try a heavy work dough like this DIY marshmallow proprioception dough.

      10. Use a keychain fidget tool. This is a DIY fidget tool that kids can make while building fine motor skills. Attach it to a belt loop, backpack, or even shoe laces for circle time attention.

      11. Exercise. This alphabet exercise activities can be helpful in coming up with exercises for kids. Use the printable sheet to spell words, the child’s name, etc. This alphabet slide deck for teletherapy uses the same letter exercises and offers exercises for each letter of the alphabet. Use it in teletherapy or face-to-face sessions or learning.

      12. Look at the clouds and find shapes.

      13. Deep breathing. Deep breathing exercise are a mindfulness activity for kids with benefits… Try these themed deep breathing printable sheets: pumpkin deep breathing, clover deep breathing, Thanksgiving deep breathing, and Christmas mindfulness activity.

      14. Take a walk in nature.

      15. Play a game.

      16.  Build with LEGOS.

      17. Listen to the sounds of the ocean on a soothing sounds app or sound machine.

      18. Count backwards.  Try walking in a circle while counting or other movements such as jumping, skipping, or hopping.

      19. Drink a cold drink.

      20. Drink a smoothie. There are proprioceptive and oral motor benefits to drinking a smoothie through a straw. Here are rainbow smoothie recipes for each color of the rainbow.

      21. Squeeze a stuffed animal.

      22. Listen to music.

      23. Hum a favorite song.

      24. Blow bubbles.

      25. Chew gum.

      27. Tear paper for fine motor benefits and heavy work for the fingers and hands.

      28. Smash and jump on ice cubes outdoors.  Jumping on ice is a great activity for incorporating prioprioceptive sensory input.

      29. Journal.  The Impulse Control Journal is an excellent tool for self-awareness and coming up with a game plan that works…and then keeping track of how it all works together in daily tasks.

      30. Guided imagery.

      31. Think of consequences.

      32. Stretch.

      33.  Go for a walk.

      34.  Write a story or draw a picture. Sometimes it helps to crumble it up and throw it away!

      35.  Blow up balloons and then pop them.

      36. Take a time out.

      37. Animal walks.

      38. Imagine the best day ever.

      39.  Swing on swings.

      40.  Name 5 positive things about yourself.

      41. Draw with sidewalk chalk. Drawing can relieve stress.

      42. Try a pencil topper fidget tool for focus during written work.

      43. Add movement- This monster movements slide deck uses a monster theme for core strength, mobility and movement breaks. It’s perfect for teletherapy and using as a coping strategy.

      44. Try this easy coping strategy that only uses your hands.

      45. Take a nap.

      46. Sensory-based tricks and tips that help with meltdowns.

      HEAVY WORK coping skills

      Brain breaks are a powerful and effective way to address regulation needs, help with attention, and impact learning into the classroom or at home as part of distance learning.

      The impact of emotions and changes to routines can be big stressors in kids. They are struggling through the day’s activities while sometimes striving to pay attention through sensory processing issues or executive functioning needs. Brain breaks, or movement breaks can be used as part of a sensory diet or in a whole-classroom activity between classroom tasks. 

      This collection of 11 pages of heavy work activity cards are combined into themed cards so you can add heavy work to everyday play.

      heavy work cards for regulation, attention, and themed brain breaks

      Coping strategies for kids printable

      Want a printable list of coping tools for kids? This list of coping skills can be printed off and used as a checklist for building a toolbox of strategies.

      Get the printable version of this list.  It’s free! Click HERE to get the printable

      Try these sensory coping strategies to help kids with anxiety, stress, worries, or other issues.
      Printable list of sensory coping strategies for helping kids cope.

      Coping strategies can come in handy in many situations:

      When saying “calm down” just isn’t enough…

      When a child is easily “triggered” and seems to melt down at any sign of loud noises or excitement…

      When you need help or a starting point to teach kids self-regulation strategies…

      When you are struggling to motivate or redirect a child without causing a meltdown…

      When you’re struggling to help kids explore their emotions, develop self-regulation and coping skills, manage and reflect on their emotions, identify their emotions, and more as they grow…

      Gage, M. (1992). The Appraisal Model of Coping: An Assessment and Intervention Model for Occupational Therapy, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 46, 353-362. Retrieved from : oi:10.5014/ajot.46.4.353 on 5-24-27.

      Christmas Mindfulness Activity

      Use this Christmas mindfulness activity as a coping strategy for kids during the holidays.

      This time of year, most of us knee deep in holiday planning, prep work, and to-do lists! Today, I wanted to provide some tips on mindfulness during the holidays. Below, you will find a Christmas mindfulness activity and some coping strategies to address the holiday stress. This mindfulness tool goes along well with our Pumpin deep breathing exercise, and Thanksgiving mindfulness activity.

      Christmas Mindfulness Activity

      Christmas mindfulness activity for kids during the holiday season.

      When we think about the holidays from the perspective of a child. Having a set of mindfulness activities for kids is a great way to fill their toolbox with strategies they can use each day. Essentially, the post urges us to be mindful of the child’s thought process, emotions, and coping strategies this time of year.

      Kids are barraged by schedule changes, anticipation of holiday events, later bedtimes, holiday travel, parent/teacher stress, increased sugar…and more. They feel these big feelings and can “lose it”, seemingly at the drop of a hat. Children can melt down in front of our eyes. This time of year perhaps especially, there is SO much going on inside those little bodies and minds. Focusing on mindfulness and coping strategies can help.

      Holiday Mindfulness for Kids

      I mean, think about it this way: We as adults are totally stressed out by deadlines, shopping lists, travel, extended family, holiday budgets, and the never-ending to-do lists.

      Our kids see that stress and anxiety.

      Now, think about the kiddo with executive functioning challenges. They can’t plan ahead or prioritize tasks when they have a holiday letter to write, a classroom sing-along to practice for, and Grandma’s house to visit next weekend. It’s hard for them to function when their routine is off kilter and anticipation is high.

      Think about our kiddos with sensory struggles. They are bombarded by lights and music, hustle and bustle in the grocery store, shopping mall, and even by the neighborhood lights. The later bedtimes and influx of sensory input is a challenge to process for them. It’s overwhelming and exhausting.

      Think about our students with praxis or motor issues. There are crowds to navigate, auditorium stages to maneuver and they need to do it FAST. There are schedules to maintain and growing to-do lists!

      And that’s just the beginning. All of our kids…no matter what their strengths or needs be…struggle with the change in routines, the adult stress, anticipation, holiday projects, gift giving issues, that extra sugar from holiday sweets, itchy holiday sweaters and scratchy tights, or mom’s stress from holiday traffic.

      That “iceberg” of underlying issues and concerns is a holiday version that leads to emotional breakdowns, poor coping skills, and sensory meltdowns.

      Christmas mindfulness activity

      Christmas COping Tools

      This holiday season, I wanted to fill your toolbox with the tools your little one (or client/student) needs to thrive.

      These are the strategies and tips we can use to slow down, take a deep breath, and recognize the underlying issues going on behind behaviors, meltdowns, and frustrations.

      Because when you have the tools in place, you have a blueprint for success in the child.

      Here are some holiday tools that can help both YOU and a CHILD struggling with all that this time of year brings:

      Christmas Mindfulness

      Use the Christmas tree visual graphic here and follow the arrows as you take deep breaths in and out. Pair the deep breathing with thoughts of things that remind you of peace and love (for example) for with each breath. For each layer of the tree, kids can concentrate on one thing, person, or aspect of the holidays. Thinking about whatever it is that you are grateful for is a simple way to pair the benefits of slow deep breaths with intentional thoughts.

      This is a coloring page. Use it as a handout or home program. Kids can color it in and work on fine motor skills, too!

      Use the Christmas mindfulness handout with kids as a group or individually. You can set this up in several ways. Ask them fist to list out some things they are grateful for. Then, quietly say an item with each breath break.

      As a mindfulness group activity, use the Christmas tree graphic and explain that they will be pairing deep breathing with a focus on love or peace. Come up with a list of things the group loves about the holidays. As you work through he deep breathing exercise, the children in the group can focus on things that brings them peace personally.

      Or, you could invite the child to think in their head about some things that remind them of the holidays and then with each breath in, they intentionally concentrate on that thing/person/idea.

      Get a Christmas Tree Mindfulness Coloring Page

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          More holiday mindfulness strategies

          Here are more coping tools for kids that focus on addressing underlying needs so that kids can function. Use these strategies as part of a sensory diet or within the day.

          Tips for Sensory Kids and Winter Clothing

          Sensory Coping Strategies for Kids

          Anxiety and Sensory-Based Coping Strategies

          Sensory Diet Activities for the Classroom

          FREE Outdoor Recess Sensory Diet Cards

          Mindfulness for Kids

          25 Days of Christmas Occupational Therapy Activities

          Motor Planning Tips, Tools, and Toys

          Wishing you a thriving, stress-free, and functional holiday season for you and those kiddos you serve!

          Sensory Swing for Modulation

          Sensory swings are a wonderful tool for improving sensory modulation in kids. Here, we will discuss how and why a sensory swing is used for modulation of sensory needs. Sensory swings are powerful sensory strategy when it comes individuals with sensory processing needs. Let’s discuss how sensory swings can help with sensory processing and modulation.

          This content is part of our week-long therapy giveaway event, where we are collaborating with brands to give you the opportunity to win various therapy items, toys, and games as a thank you for being here and a celebration of our profession and those we serve.

          Use a sensory swing to help kids with sensory needs including sensory modulation

          Sensory Swings for Modulation…

          You’ve seen the issues in classrooms and in homes. There are kiddos struggling with self-regulation and management of sensory processing. We notice the child that gets overwhelmed or stuck on a direction to complete a worksheet. We see a child who breaks down and resolves into a pattern of hitting, biting, kicking, or damaging property. We notice the child that can’t sit upright in their seat to listen to their teacher. We can identify the child who bites on their pencil to the point of nibbling on eraser bits and chunks of wood. We see the actions and we see the results of a real need. Sometimes, we can even predict the events or situations that lead to these behaviors.

          What we don’t see is the internal struggle.

          We miss out on the feeling of overwhelming sensory input. We can’t feel the emptiness or the detached sensation. We miss out on what’s happening inside those beautiful, intelligent, and awesomely created brains and bodies.

          While we can connect the dots from event to behavior, our biggest struggle as advocates, educators, and loved ones is to know the true internal path that connects those dots.

          An occupational therapist analyzes the occupational domains that a child or individual pursues. They determine any difficulties in modulation, discrimination, praxis, motor skills, and other components that impact those occupations. In providing sensory-based interventions, therapists use tools to move their clients to optimal levels of arousal for functioning.

          The sensory swing is one of those ways to help with sensory modulation.

          What is Sensory Modulation

          Sensory modulation information including what is sensory modulation and how to help.

          As discussed in the book, The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, sensory modulation is the organization and regulation of sensory input through the central nervous system to enable skills and abilities such as attention, activity levels. This skill is an efficient, automatic, and effortless occurrence in those with typically developing individuals.

          Sensory modulation is defined by Dr. A Jean Ayres as “the neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. The spatial and temporal aspects of inputs from different sensory modalities are interpreted, associated, and unified” (Ayres, p. 11, 1989).

          Problems with sensory modulation result in difficulty responding to and regulating sensory input. A child with sensory modulation disorder might withdrawal as a result of their responses. They may become upset by noises or sounds. They may become overly distracted or obsessed with specific stimuli.

          Sensory Modulation in a Nutshell

          Essentially, sensory modulation is the ability to take in sensory input, sort it, and respond to that input. Modulation results in function, alertness, awareness of self, and awareness of the world around oneself.

          When sensory modulation is stalled, moving slowly, or running on hyper speed, we see disorganized, over-responsive, or under-responsive individuals.

          As a result, children struggle to complete functional tasks, follow directions, learn, manage emotions, interact socially, etc.

          How to Help with Sensory Modulation

          Sensory modulation issues can be improved to impact a child’s arousal state so they can be effective and function in daily living tasks, in school, emotionally, and socially. Some sensory strategies to help with modulation are listed below.

          Use the expertise of an occupational therapist to identify and analyze modulation levels. Identifying strengths and weaknesses can play a part in helping to understand other underlying areas that need addressing and play into sensory modulation concerns. Functioning individuals may require specific levels and intensities of specific sensory input, which can vary across different environments or on a day-to-day basis.

          1. Use sensory activities to add proprioception, vestibular input, or touch input to help with arousal states, and calm or alert levels in order to function in tasks.
          2. Create a sensory diet that allows for sensory use across environments and sensory tools or strategies to address changes in modulation or arousal.
          3. Set up a sensory station to successfully integrate sensory activities into daily lives. Sensory stations can occur in the home, classroom, or on-the-go.

          A sensory swing can be used to impact sensory modulation in all of these strategies.

          Harkla sensory swing for therapy and sensory modulation

          Use a sensory swing for Modulation

          A sensory swing can be a calming place to regroup and cope. It can be a safe space for a child to gain calming vestibular input through slow and predictable motions.

          A sensory swing can be a source of intense vestibular input as a means to challenge arousal levels.

          A sensory swing can use a firm pillow base to provide proprioceptive feedback and heavy input while addressing tactile defensiveness.

          A sensory swing can be a means for combining calming or alerting motions with coordinated movement strategies to impact praxis, postural control, and perception.

          A sensory swing can be used with others as a tool for building social skills and emotional regulation.

          A sensory swing can be used as an outlet for meltdowns before they turn into biting, kicking, hitting, or yelling.

          A sensory swing can be a transition tool to provide calming vestibular input before physical actions and executive functioning concepts needed for tasks such as completing homework, or getting ready for bed.

          Use a therapy swing to help kids with sensory processing

          INDOOR Sensory Swing

          Want to address modulation and impact sensory processing needs in the home, classroom, or therapy room? we’ve talked about how sensory swings impact sensory processing and the ability to regulate sensory input. Let’s take things up a notch by getting a therapy swing into your hands.

          One sensory swing that I’ve got in my house is the Harkla sensory swing. We’ve used this exact swing as an outdoor sensory swing, but it’s a powerful tool when used as an indoor swing. Today, you have the chance to win one of your own. Using a Harkla swing as an indoor swing provides opportunities for modulation in various environments and as a tool to regulate emotions, behaviors.

          Over or under inflate to provide more or less base of support and a challenge in postural control. Additionally, this swing holds up to 150 pounds, making it an option to address sensory modulation for adults.

          Use the cocoon swing to create a relaxation space or sensory station right in the home or classroom. With the easy-to-install swing, a sensory diet space can come alive using the Harkla Therapy Swing!

          Occupational therapists use pod swings to address sensory modulation, attention needs, regulation, or sensory processing disorder. The cocoon swing we’re giving away below provides a hug-like effect to address sensory needs or as a fun space to hang out in in the classroom or home. A few more details about this indoor swing option:

          • Comes with all the hardware for an easy setup, including a pump, adjustable strap, 4 bolts, carabiner, and a ceiling hook
          • Holds up to 150lbs for a safe place for your child
          • Includes an adjustable strap to make it easy to safely hang your sensory swings indoors from any height
          • Comes with easy-to-follow directions so anyone can hang it up
          • Free shipping & a lifetime guarantee

          Harkla Sensory Swing Giveaway

          This giveaway, sponsored by Harkla, has now ended.

          TOns of Sensory Modulation Ideas

          Some of the smartest and most creative folks I know are the readers of The OT Toolbox. I asked readers to tell me sensory strategies they personally love and use to address sensory modulation. Scroll through the comments…you might just find some new sensory strategies that will work for you! Hopefully we can learn from one another!

          Ayres, A.J. (1 989). Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests. Los Angeles, Western Psychological Services.

          Play Tunnel Activities

          Play tunnels are one of the best tools for therapy as you can work on so many skills if you just put a little creativity into it. Tunnel activities simply invite kiddo fun and engagement while working on very important skill development across a spectrum of areas. You can use fabric tunnels or nylon, pop-up tunnels depending on the skills you want to address with tunnel play. With a little imagination you can build your own DIY tunnels too! Keep reading to get some play tunnel ideas using different materials. For home-based therapists, DIY tunnels are a great tool for families to use in the home environment providing an opportunity for a fun and easy to implement home-based program. Some of these tunnel activities for babies and tunnel activities for toddlers can be used to address specific needs through play.

          Play tunnel activities using a sensory tunnel
          Tunnel activity for sensory input

          Play Tunnels and Sensory

          During tunnel play, not only do therapists want to work on the obvious gross motor skills such as crawling, bilateral coordination, motor planning, core/neck/upper extremity strength, and body awareness. They also like to use tunnels for sensory needs such as vestibular and proprioceptive input. In the simplest of terms, the vestibular sense is known as the movement sense telling us where our body is in space, while the proprioceptive sense is known as the deep pressure sense telling us the direction, speed, and extent of our body movement in space. These senses are important to help a child develop balance, body awareness, understand the position of their body in space as well as knowing how much speed and pressure their bodies are exerting when completing an activity or moving within their environment.

          Adding a play tunnel into sensory diet activities to meet a variety of needs. It’s an easy way to encourage sensory input in the school environment, home, or clinic.

          Tunnel activities using pool noodles

          So, you may be asking, how can children gather vestibular input from tunnel time activities? You can have children roll within the tunnel, perform various body movements such as forward and backward crawling, balancing on all fours while simply crawling through the tunnel, slither on their backs, or have them crawl in the tunnel placed on top of cushions and pillows.

          Fabric tunnel for proprioceptive input.

          Proprioceptive input can be obtained while the child is bearing weight on the upper and lower extremities during crawling providing input to the joints and muscles. They can push objects through the tunnel such as large therapy balls or large pillows, army crawl through the tunnel, and shaking the tunnel while child is inside can provide valuable proprioceptive input.

          By using a play tunnel to address proprioception to improve body awareness, the proprioceptive sense allows us to position our bodies just so in order to enable our hands, eyes, ears, and other parts to perform actions or jobs at any given moment. Proprioception activities help with body awareness. Using a fabric tunnel that is snug against the body can provide good input which can also have a calming effect for some children.

          DIY tunnel activity using cardboard boxes
          Use these play tunnel activities to improve motor skills and sensory activities.

          Play tunnel activities

          When using a tunnel, you can work on other skills that address multiple areas for children. Try some of these fun tunnel time activities:

          1. Play Connect Four with pieces on one end and the game played on the other end.
          2. Assemble puzzles with pieces on one end and then transported through the tunnel to the other end.
          3. Clothespins attached on end to transport and place on the other end. You can use clothespins with letters to spell words.
          4. Push a large ball or pillow through the tunnel.
          5. Crawl backwards from one end to the other.
          6. Slither through the tunnel (rocking body left and right) to get from one end to the other.
          7. Scoot through the tunnel using hands and feet or even crab walk through the tunnel.
          8. Recall letters, shapes, or words from one end and highlight on paper at the other end.
          9. Recall a series of steps to complete a task at the other end.
          10. Blow a cotton ball or pom-pom ball through the tunnel. Kids love this to see how many they can blow in a timed fashion.
          11. With pennies on one end, have child transport them to the other end to insert into a bank. You can even give them the pennies at end of the session if you want.
          12. Push a car through the tunnel to drive it and park it at the other end.
          13. Build a Lego structure by obtaining blocks at one end of the tunnel and transporting to the other end to build.
          14. Intermittently crawl through the tunnel and lie within one end to work on a drawing or handwriting activity. This is just a different and motivating way to encourage handwriting practice.
          15. Crawl over pillows or cushions placed inside or outside of the tunnel.
          16. Use a flashlight and crawl through the tunnel gathering specific beads that have been placed inside to string at the other end of the tunnel. You could work on spelling words with letter beads or simply just string regular beads.
          17. Place Mat Man body pieces at one end and have child obtain pieces per verbal directive and then crawl through the tunnel to build at the other end.
          DIY tunnel activity

          DIY Play TUnnel Ideas

          So, as mentioned previously, what if you don’t have a tunnel or you want to create one within a home for developing a home-based program? Well, make one! How can you do this? Read on for a few fun ideas.

          1. Create a tunnel by crawling under tables or chairs.
          2. Create a tunnel in the hallway with use of pool noodles. Bend them over in an arch to fit or simply cut them down to size to slide directly between the walls.
          3. Use large foam connecting mats and assemble a tunnel.
          4. Use tape or yarn and string to alternating walls down a hallway to crawl under.
          5. Use sturdy pieces of foam board positioned or connected together to make a tunnel.
          6. Use an elongated cardboard box. Sometimes you can get large boxes at an appliance, hardware, or retail store.
          7. Stretch a sheet or blanket over furniture and crawl.
          8. Simply place a sheet or blanket on the floor and have child crawl under it (a heavier blanket works well).
          9. Place a therapy mat inside a series of hula hoops.
          10. Use PVC pipe to build a tunnel. Add sensory items to the PVC frame to create a fun sensory element to the crawling experience. One such tunnel was built by my wonderful fieldwork student, Huldah Queen, COTA/L in 2016.  See the picture below.
          11. Sew a fabric tunnel (if you have that skill).
          12. Use pop up clothes hampers connected together after cutting out the bottoms.
          13. Simulate tunnel crawling with simple animal walks or moves.

          Tunnel activities can facilitate child engagement while providing an optimal skill development setting.  Tunnel time can address gross motor and sensory needs while also incorporating other activities making tunnel time a skill building powerhouse tool. Incorporate fun fine motor and visual motor activities to make tunnel time a “want to do” activity every time!


          Regina Parsons-Allen is a school-based certified occupational therapy assistant. She has a pediatrics practice area of emphasis from the NBCOT. She graduated from the OTA program at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, North Carolina with an A.A.S degree in occupational therapy assistant. She has been practicing occupational therapy in the same school district for 20 years. She loves her children, husband, OT, working with children and teaching Sunday school. She is passionate about engaging, empowering, and enabling children to reach their maximum potential in ALL of their occupations as well assuring them that God loves them!