Salt Lake City mom Christina Lau Billings has her 11-year-old all set up for distance learning with a quiet space, a desk, and … a yoga ball.
“When he doesn’t have to be on camera during a Zoom class, sometimes he’ll switch to the yoga ball and bounce for a bit,” she says. “I think it’s very helpful in having him be able to focus on his online classes.” Similarly, over in Stamford, Connecticut, teacher Jessica Gerson remembers students who’d improve their focus by squeezing DIY flour-filled balloons during class.
Lau Billings and Gerson are using what occupational therapists and neuropsychologists call a “sensory diet.” It’s a collection of feel-good sensory input, which are techniques that use a child’s senses to help with emotional regulation, learning, and memory. Therapists often turn to the sensory diet when developing a child’s ability to calm themselves and focus—something many kids are struggling with now.
“Children have had so many changes in their routine—school, mask wearing, a decrease in seeing friends,” says Tracy Turner-Bumberry, a licensed professional counselor and play therapist in Milledgeville, Georgia. Add in distance-learning stressors—an Internet connection that suddenly drops, or just noise from sibs or parents—and “children may be on sensory overload,” Turner-Bumberry explains. “This leads to meltdowns, aggression, crying, and more. Providing an individualized, calming, sensory diet can help kids calm this overload and self-regulate.”
As Lau Billings and Gerson found, the right sensory input can make a big difference in helping kids focus to get their work done—even when the teacher isn’t physically there. The trick is finding the right exercise for your child’s particular distracting behavior. Here’s how to figure that out.
What’s happening in the brain
We all use sensory input every day to help us understand and interact with the world. “We take in information through our senses, and that tells us about the environment,” says Marie Briody, a pediatric neuropsychologist with Healthcare Associates in Medicine on Staten Island. This input is picked up by our bodies’ sensory systems—auditory (sound), visual (sight), oral (taste and texture), olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), proprioceptive (muscle and joint awareness), and vestibular (motion). From there the sensory input goes to the brain, which interprets everything as messages.
Those messages can be warnings, like when an ambulance screams past or a pungent smell wafts by. “The sympathetic nervous system, which is our fight-or-flight response, makes hormones like adrenaline course through our bodies,” Briody says. “That feels uncomfortable because our heart rate changes, our respiration changes.”
But with different kinds of sensory input, the opposite can happen. Enjoyable sensory input—listening to a gurgling stream or petting a soft dog, for instance—can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which commands resting conditions and helps to conserve energy. In other words, it helps people stay calm.
Scientists aren't sure exactly why positive sensory input works so well for children. Some studies suggest that it might lead to microscopic brain changes in the frontal limbic system, where emotional learning and memory are still developing in kids.
“We are honestly just scratching the surface of really understanding this stuff,” says Steven B. Schwartzberg, a pediatric neurologist at Healthcare Associates in Medicine on Staten Island. “But therapists will attest that it really does work for many children.”
How to pick the right tricks for your child
Using some of these techniques before your child sits down to work—or even when they’re anxious or frustrated—can make a big difference. Yet not every technique works for every kid.
“Every child’s brain is wired differently,” says Los Angeles occupational therapist Judy Tran. “That’s why I’m always asking parents to look for patterns as to what their child is drawn to naturally.”
The goal, she says, is to find the “just-right state.” Check out the ideas below to help your child deal with some of the most common unfocused behavior.
Kid Issue #1: Wiggling around or not sitting still
Sensory trick: Clasping hands and pushing or pulling them apart, pulling resistance bands, pushing feet against a stable object, bear hugs
Why it works: These exercises all provide “proprioceptive input,” which affect sensory receptors in muscles and joints. To give a visual, “I tell kids to pretend to ‘squeeze an orange in between their hands to make orange juice,’” Tran says. These techniques fatigue the muscles and therefore provide a sense of calm. “They help children feel more grounded and settled,” she adds.
Kid Issue #2: Getting frustrated and riled up
Sensory trick: Slowly turning in a desk chair, sitting, gently bouncing or rocking on a yoga ball, hanging upside-down (such as hanging the head off the edge of the sofa)
Why it works: These activities focus on the vestibular system, which gives us our sense of motion. It’s stimulated by the movement of fluid within the inner ear, which moves whenever kids rock, spin, make crazy movements, or go upside-down.
“In general, slower movement is more calming,” Tran says. She adds that these activities also help kids expend energy and release tension—and the calming effect may last up to eight hours.
Kid Issue #3: Lack of focus on the screen or paper
Sensory trick: Putting on a ball cap or hoodie, wearing lightly tinted sunglasses, reducing screen brightness, using more natural light
Why it works: This child might be getting too much visual input—and online classes might be making things worse. “They might put both hands over their eyebrows, shielding to focus down,” Tran says. “Or you might see a child putting their head down on the side so that their eyes are closer to the paper.”
Lowering brightness, tidying up, or even removing distracting decorations from the study spot can help reduce visual stimulation. “There's a reason why removing clutter helps you to focus,” Tran says. If you don’t have time for a major cleanup, Tran suggests a quick fix: throwing a solid-colored sheet over everything while the kids are studying.
Kid Issue #4: Biting lips or fingernails while struggling to focus
Sensory trick: Snacking on chewy foods like gummies or crunchy foods like nuts, apples, or carrots; sipping from a straw; eating sour or spicy flavors
Why it works: “Imagine you’re eating a meal and all you get is purées,” Tran says. “Then all of a sudden, you get a crunchy carrot or a crisp pretzel.” That new sensation will snap you to attention. “These kids are looking for extra stimulation to the muscles of the mouth,” she says. Once they receive it, they can focus.
Kid Issue #5: Losing focus with every little noise
Sensory trick: Moving to a quiet room, putting on noise-canceling headphones, listening to quiet music
Why it works: These children are extra sensitive to auditory input and might be partially covering their ears with their hands, or humming or singing to themselves over other noise in their immediate environment. “They may be trying to help themselves focus,” Tran says. “These things all reduce auditory input so they can attend to their work.”