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Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation |

Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation

This article contains information regarding important sensory systems and the learning hierarchy that comes from developing each one. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child. 

Whether a child is using his or her hands to write, ears to listen, eyes to read, or their entire body to play sports, they can execute and learn best when they are active and using all of their senses to the fullest. When a child’s brain directs the body to sequence and perform motor tasks this is called motor planning. The ability to motor plan relies on adequate functioning of all the sensory systems. In the learning sphere, a child must build on sensory input from many different sensory systems to fully unlock his or her learning potential. When children do not get enough sensory stimulation or if they get too much, they have difficulty learning through their visual and auditory systems. The auditory (hearing) and visual (seeing) systems are the circuits that children use most in schools.

Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation |

To build a strong foundation for learning, we must ensure our child’s sensory systems are developing properly for cognitive development and sensory integration. A child’s sensory input, visual perception, tactile, balance and coordination, and other stimuli derived from a child’s environment molds the child from the ground levels all the way up to higher-functioning achievements. There are key developmental systems that build upon each other to invoke learning in the classroom.

The Hierarchy of Learning

The hierarchy of learning that impacts all five sensory systems used for developing a strong educational foundation are as follows:

  1. Vestibular System

  2. Tactile System

  3. Proprioceptive System

  4. Visual System

  5. Auditory System

There are three systems that develop before further neurological building. The balance (vestibular), touch (tactile) and movement (proprioceptive) systems are the first to start acquiring sensory information, organize it, and turn it into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. When a child does not get enough sensory stimulation to their balance, movement and tactile sensory systems, many times they have a difficult learning experience and struggle with motor planning. To understand a child’s breakdown when one of these systems is not developed, we must take a look at each individually and how they relate to your child’s learning ability.

Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation |

Vestibular System

Because the vestibular system is responsible for your child’s equilibrium and keeps them grounded (gravitational field), it also controls the function of the head and trunk of the body in the space around them. This is one of the reasons why a child who has poor posture, trouble copying notes from the chalkboard, struggles with eye movement, has low muscle tone and has trouble with balance and coordination, may have an underdeveloped vestibular system.

To better understand why some children struggle to learn if they have an underdeveloped vestibular system, here are a few interesting facts:

  • The vestibular system is the first system to develop in utero.
  • The vestibular system is the first to have an organized response to stimuli.
  • The vestibular system has a close relationship to gravity, safety, arousal and attention.

When a child has a well-developed vestibular system, all the sensory information from the senses are categorized correctly and the appropriate response occurs. A child’s eyes tell them where they are in the room, the ears hear background noise and filter it out when necessary, and the vestibular system detects if the body is balanced. They are then able to devote more energy into higher learning because all other normal functions of the body become automatic without the child having to think about them (for example, sitting still in their chair).

If a child is not adequately exploring their universe with free-play or if they are not getting the right types of movement to build neural connections the brain, they are not experiencing new ways of how their body moves in relation to gravity and the space around the body. For instance, when your child takes off her rollerblades after a fun afternoon with friends, her brain now knows more about the muscle movement that is needed to balance and stay standing. Next time she puts on rollerblades, she won’t have to think about how to tie her skates, how to balance when she stands and how to skate forward. Movement after movement, exercise after exercise is how sensory integration develops.

When children tend to be sedentary, the vestibular system does not get a chance to properly develop. With more TV and video game usage, this adds to the sedentary problem and provides less opportunity for children to develop their vestibular systems through sensory integration.

Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation |

Tactile System

When young children move and explore in their world, they learn through touch. When the hands and arms are moving to elicit tactile stimuli, this correlates with the corpus callosum, a part of the brain that facilitates communication between the right and left hemispheres. In a recent study, babies who developed organized movement with the hands, engaged in tummy time, and used touch to gather information about their surroundings made vast improvements in their academic success. The results of the study remained the same when babies were compared by socioeconomic status, family education and other factors. There is strong evidence to support using our hands to experience new tactile information, which also enhances higher functions of the brain.

Proprioceptive System

The proprioceptive system refers to the components of muscles and joints that provide a child with an awareness of body position. Proprioceptive awareness is in our subconscious, which means we are not actively conscious of leg placement or how our body is positioned in the provided space. The proprioceptive system is located primarily in the cerebellum and it works closely with the vestibular system we discussed earlier. These two systems go hand-in-hand with body movement and control.

In this study it suggests that the proprioceptive system is active in infants. It describes that even a newborn baby is able to differentiate between self and nonself. When an older child engages in a push and pull exercise, such as pushing and pulling a wagon or climbing up a rope, they are fully enlisting the proprioceptive organization. This input is very calming to the central nervous system and the brain. Proprioception is what allows someone to learn to walk in complete darkness without losing balance and constantly falling.

When a child has poor proprioception they often appear to be clumsy or uncoordinated. Because they struggle to know where their body is in relation to objects, this tends to be why they have trouble reading from the chalkboard, grips their pencil too tightly, fidgets in class, slumps at their desk, or doesn’t retain what the teacher has taught.

Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation |

The Building Blocks of Learning

Now we have a little background on our first three building blocks for higher learning and motor planning. Balance, touch and movement have major implications on how a child’s body reacts in future learning situations. In each movement, tactile and balancing activity, the child further develops these systems, which creates the basis for more complex functions. The final two building blocks for learning are your child’s visual and auditory systems.

Visual System

In The Out-of Sync Child, written by Carol Stock Kranowitz, she explains a child’s learning connection with the visual system:

“Vision, unlike sight, is not a skill we are born with but rather one we develop gradually as we integrate our senses. Growing up, we learn to make sense of what we see. How? Through movement! Movement, the basis of all learning, teaches the eyes to make sense of sights, whereas sitting still to read or to gaze at the computer screen does not.”

When a child engages in deliberate movements, exercises and plays, their eyes naturally become better coordinated. This occurs because with every movement, there are multiple sensations that bombard the brain and force eye movement to view what is surrounding the body. When a child utilizes the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems consistently, they can start visualization experiences when they see an object. For example, if a child plays with a soccer ball, the next time he sees one, he knows how it feels, that it is round and the perfect size for kicking. This all happens without him actually touching the soccer ball the second time.

Because our visual system is one that our children use most often in the classroom, it touches every aspect of a child’s learning. How they perceive letters and words on the page, how they retain information, where is the chalkboard in relation to my desk, how to write in a straight line, math sequences, and how to retrieve information they learned to get their thoughts down on paper.

Auditory System

Finally, we come to the auditory system. The visual and auditory systems must work together to process all the various stimuli from light and sound. The auditory system is highly involved in the vestibular functions. The vestibular and the auditory nerves join in the ear canal, which becomes the eighth cranial nerve of the brain. Hearing sounds, knowing the direction of a noise and having the ability to filter out unnecessary sound are all components of a well-working auditory system. Anything that disrupts auditory processing will affect the vestibular system and motor planning.

If your child has a weak auditory system, it may be why they often say “huh?” or “what?” when you ask them to complete a task. It’s not uncommon for some students to go back to the teacher after the lesson and ask what they are supposed to do. Sometimes teachers mistakenly put these children up closer to the front of the classroom because they think the student can’t hear the instructions when really the student didn’t process the information the teacher was teaching. Their hearing is just fine, but their auditory has not been developed properly. If your child can’t receive instructions through their auditory, they won’t retain the information needed for completing their homework or when it is time to take their test.

Print Your Copy

To print your own free copy of the Sensory System triangle, please complete the information below.

Sensory Systems that Make up the Learning Hierarchy of a Strong Academic Foundation |

Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges 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

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