Sensory Integration: Is Lack of Sensory Integration behind My Child’s Poor Academic Performance?
This article provides helpful information about how sensory integration could impact your child’s learning ability in the classroom. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
One of the most common questions parents ask me when they visit our center is “what do you do exactly to help children?” At any given time, parents may walk through my door and see Suzie swinging in a tire swing, or Bobby tossing beanbags, Kurt may be talking in a microphone or Dolly could be running an obstacle course. A bewildered look passes over the parent’s face as they wonder, “How is this going to help my child read?” or “What could this possibly do to help my child write their letters or listen to their teacher?”
The sad truth is, no child can learn to read and write until they are developmentally ready. Too often in today’s world we push our students to progress at a level they are not yet ready or mentally prepared for. Preschool is now the new “kindergarten” and kindergarten is the new “first grade.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tested preschoolers for reading and writing issues that most often end in tears.
I always tell parents that our center’s sole purpose is to enhance the learning and academic development of children. However, what is sometimes difficult to grasp is the child’s brain lacks sensory integration and is not yet ready for this type of higher learning. Some of the children I see do have specific learning challenges or a special sensory diagnosis, but what’s amazing, is that most of my students are mainstream children that have been “left behind” in the system due to sensory issues that has created gaps in learning, but they are what you would consider a “normal” everyday child. Their disabilities aren’t always seen on the outside, but there is often a disconnection in the brain that prevents them from learning to read, write, spell, comprehend and retain the facts they learn in school.
How Sensory Integration is Tied to Learning
Each student I see is smart and has the ability to learn. I have no dumb students. But, before I can help the child learn, we must get to the root of the problem. Why can’t the child read? Why are they writing their letters and numbers backward? Why do I give them instructions and one minute later they forget everything I just taught?
In order to understand why the child can’t do all these tasks, we must ask “what is the overall issue that is preventing them from learning.” Is it because my child can’t attend and focus in the classroom because they are too distracted by what is going on around them? Do my child’s eyes jiggle or shake when trying to read words across the page? Is my child bothered by loud noises, clothing, bright lights or strong smells? Were there developmental delays as a baby or toddler? Can they cross the midline, do they have good balance and coordination, and are their hands and fingers strong enough for writing? All these questions stem from the child’s sensory-motor development and must be evaluated before we can answer the question of why they can’t learn.
In addition, while many of my students come to me with some type of learning challenge, there are students that come to me not because they have an academic issue, but because they have meltdowns, anxiety, can’t sit still at their desk, they experience emotional outbursts, don’t make friends easily, they often invade personal space or struggle with communication.
Believe it or not, many of these signs and symptoms for both academic and emotional development are tied together through the child’s senses. Until we “fix” the underlying issues of the child’s sensory-motor development, which includes visual perception, proprioception, vestibular, bilateral coordination, fine motor and gross motor skills, the child cannot and most likely will not learn.
What the Experts Say about Sensory Integration
Angela Hanscom, founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program, found this exact problem in young preschoolers. In an article released by the Washington Post entitled, “The Decline of Play in Preschoolers – and the Rise in Sensory Issues,” Hanscom says, “Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical development period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions.”
Schools in Finland further support Hanscom’s theory as they have found more academic success with their students when they begin reading and writing at age seven, not four, like many other countries.
In addition, several sensory experts have collaborated to bring you their best sensory tips and tools to help improve your child’s sensory integration. Each day in October 2016, an new expert is featured during this online conference to help your child. To access the conference details, click here.
What do we see?
Most of what we find after testing and evaluations is that a child’s sensory integration is lacking and is not developed enough to support the child’s learning development. The child is so distracted and focused on stimuli within their environment, that learning simple tasks does not become automatic. In many cases, children may have what we call a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) when their senses are over or under developed. However, there are many children not diagnosed with this disorder that still need sensory-motor input to channel their energy and mental capacity into academic learning.
Sensory Integration, sometimes called Sensory Processing, is, “the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses” (Star Institute). With a Sensory Integration Disorder, “the sensory signals are either not detected or don’t get organized into appropriate responses” (Star Institute).
Doctors rarely send a child who is mainstreamed in the classroom to an Occupational Therapist (OT) or professional for an evaluation for Sensory Integration problems because they usually focus on other health issues that could be impacted by a student’s performance in the classroom and sometimes they do not recognize this type of issue. It is often left up to parents to find intervention and therapy outside their pediatrician as well as the school system for additional learning help.
How does Sensory Integration Impact My Child?
It’s important to remember that poor sensory integration can be the underlying problem to academics, but is not always easy to detect. That is why evaluate each child to determine if sensory issues are the heart of the problem and work at that level first before we focus on academics, which usually begin to come naturally as we fix other sensory-motor issues. “Slow learning and poor behavior in children are often caused by inadequate sensory integration within the child’s brain. They cause some bright children to have trouble learning in school, and they cause poor behavior in some children who have fine parents and a positive upbringing” (Sensory Integration and the Child).
Sensory Integration gives us so much information about not only our own bodies, but our world around us. Every second, more and more sensory information comes into our brain from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and touch, ready to be made sense of. This can create a lot of opportunity for error. In fact, many people struggle with sensory integration on some level. No one has completely perfect sensory integration. Some people do it well (but not perfect), while some have major issues, and there is also everything in between.
“The brain locates, sorts and orders sensations, somewhat as a traffic officer directs moving cars. When sensations flow in a well organized manner, the brain can use those sensations for form perceptions, behaviors and learning. When the flow of sensations is disorganized, life can be like a rush hour traffic jam “(Sensory Integration and the Child).
Early symptoms to watch for in your child that may prevent their sensory integration from developing may include the following:
-Not rolling over “on schedule”
-Not sitting “on schedule”
-Not standing “on schedule”
-Struggles with tying shoes
-Cannot learn to ride a bicycle
-Cannot move easily or gracefully
-Does not like to play
-Cannot color between lines
-Cannot perform tasks neatly
-Struggles with puzzles
-Lights and noises irritate them
Effect on Learning
“Reading, Writing, and arithmetic are extremely complex processes that can develop only upon a strong foundation of sensory integration” (Sensory Integration and the Child).
A child with sensory issues or SPD doesn’t just struggle with one thing in the classroom; he/she struggles with many different things. Typically, the student can’t calm their body and brain enough to attend and focus in the classroom. They are usually distracted by so many things going on within their environment that they find it difficult to sit still in their chair, retain facts, stay organized (executive functioning), remember assignments, take notes from the chalkboard and comprehend test questions.
In addition, if there is an activity where he/she is walking around to different learning stations, the student can struggle physically, because generally they are uncoordinated. If there is an activity where he/she has to work in a group, working with others can be a challenge, especially if they have trouble with social skills. Silent time is hard, because to a child with this disorder, nothing is truly silent. Small noises such as a faucet dripping or the sound of a clock will distract this student completely. This is only the beginning of the issues they may experience in the classroom. Their brain becomes so overloaded, and the traffic jam of senses in their head is so overwhelming, that the student will become either hyperactive or aggressive, sometimes both, to deal with this overwhelmed feeling.
First and foremost, if your child is diagnosed with SPD, inform the school and try to set up an IEP with the school’s special education supervisor. If your child does not have a special diagnosis and is more mainstreamed, finding school assistance may be difficult. If this is the case, you can still let the teacher know how to help your child based on what works at home or you can ask he/she if they would be willing to make special accommodations for your child in the classroom.
Next, find an OT, Pediatric Therapist or other professional to work with your child using sensory integration exercises and activities, or you can try the exercises we do at our center here. Using this type of therapy provides your child with play-based interventions that will expose your child to many senses. Your OT might suggest a therapist to help them with exercises to support their emotions and attention so they become less hyper and aggressive, or they may recommend exercises and activities to strengthen the eyes, hands and fingers for better reading and writing development.
You will also want to work on sensory integration at home as well as in therapy. You can further help your child by participating in this online sensory conference for more tips and tools to improve your child’s sensory skills. Parents, teachers and therapists can also take advantage of the following resources as well as support groups (like this one found on Facebook):
- Crossing the Midline
- Rewire the Brain
- Scooter Boards for Vestibular Input
- 50 Free Sensory Printables
- Basic Home Activities
- Preventing “Traffic Jams”
- Beach Home Therapy Camp
- Sensory Routines
- Cone of Learning
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs