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Sensory Modulation: Your Child’s Extreme Emotional Reaction to Unwanted Sensory Information
This article provides helpful information about sensory modulation and how it affects behavior and attention in the classroom. 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.
It is important to understand the entire operation of the complex human process so parents, teachers and educators can be aware of where and when something is not functioning properly in the child or student. Sensory processing involves many sequential parts, including reception, integration, modulation and responses. One of the integral parts of sensory processing that we sometimes overlook is modulation.
What is Sensory Modulation?
Sensory Modulation is a neurological function and a term that is used to describe the brain’s process of organizing and regulating your child’s sensory input. Typically, in a healthy sensory processing system, modulation is virtually automatic.
Children usually don’t consciously think about the majority of sensations in their world and in their environment. Yes, sometimes there is important “PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” stimuli in their environment (for example, touching something extremely hot, or running down a hill too fast). Other times, spinning in circles may make a child start to feel sick so their brain directs them to stop.
Most of the sensory stimuli in their world, however, is irrelevant. A simple wisp of air hitting your child’s skin or the touch of a cold desk ignites sensations that your child should ignore automatically so their attention can be focused on meaningful messages in the classroom. However, if a child is focused on every small piece of information or stimuli they receive, they are constantly distracted.
Modulation is what is in each of us, and is programmed to tell us, “never mind,” “calm down,” or “don’t think about that.” When there is a breakdown in your child’s modulation, the opposite will happen. The child won’t know when to calm down and can’t pay attention because their sensory system is not working properly.
How Sensory Modulation Looks in a Child’s Behavior
Child with Typical Modulation
Child with a Sensory Modulation Disorder
|Analise is a 7-year-old girl. She suddenly hears a loud noise that she does not recognize outside her window. She glances outside and sees her father using a leaf blower. The noise bothers her and she watches the action for a while, but then turns back to her dolls that she was playing with in her room. Analise joins the family for dinner later and acts like her normal happy self.||Janie, an 8-year-old girl, is startled by a loud noise outside her bedroom window. She has a strong defensive reaction to the noise and jumps and hides under her desk. After a few minutes she slowly goes over to the window and sees her father using the leaf blower in the yard. The noise continues to bother her immensely and she can’t focus on anything else. Later, she refuses to eat dinner because she states she is nauseous.|
|During recess at school, Marcus, a 6-year-old boy sits down with his friends on the cement to play Pokémon. He is new to the card game and wants to learn. The pavement is cold, but he ignores it because he is interested in the game. His hands start to get cold, so he doesn’t play with the cards or dice well. About halfway through recess he gets frustrated and announces, “I’m going to do the monkey bars.” Marcus starts to get warmer by moving around and in no time he is in a better mood.||Another friend of Marcus’s wants to learn more about Pokémon. James, a 6-year-old boy as well, sits down and joins the group of friends on the pavement at recess. He immediately can’t concentrate on the instructions and the cards shown because the pavement is cold. His hands start to get cold and he can’t focus on anything else. He tries to pick up the cards and they all fall. Suddenly, James explodes and yells, “I hate Pokemon!” He jumps up and runs to the doors of the school and starts crying.|
Modulation: The Gas Burner Control Knob
In The Out-Of-Sync Child, Carol Kranowitz, says, “When excitation and inhibition are balanced, we can make smooth transitions from one state to another. Thus, we can switch gears from inattention to attention, from sulks to smiles, from drowsiness to alertness, and from relaxation to readiness for action. Modulation determines how efficiently we self-regulate, in every aspect of our lives.”
For example, think for moment about cooking some veggies in a skillet over a gas stove. You ignite the flame and then control the gas while you are cooking the food. Modulation is like that gas burner control knob on your stove. You have the ability to control the temperature for optimal cooking conditions. If you turn it too high, the food will scorch and burn, and if you turn it too low, it will not cook in a reasonable amount of time. You have to control the heat so it will cook at a moderate pace. This is the same for your child. If their “control knob” or modulation is not balanced, like the heat temperature on the stove, you will see disruptions in their behavior, attention and learning.
In the brain, the sensory information can either be treated as excitable (emotional, impulsive) or inhibitory (shy, reserved). Efficient sensory modulation will direct the central nervous system to regulate behaviors such as attention, focus, avoidance and emotions.
Sensory Modulation Disorder
Sometimes, a child struggles with regulating the incoming sensory input. They have problems controlling the intensity and nature of responses to stimuli. Responses from a child with a sensory modulation disorder may exhibit behavioral issues, emotional outbursts or physical weaknesses and irritations. In addition, if there is stress in the child’s life in any given area, it can worsen the child’s particular conduct.
Signs and symptoms of a sensory modulation disorder may include the following:
- Extreme emotional reaction to unwanted sensory stimulation (hot, cold, touch, texture)
- Withdraws from bright lights
- Gags on foods
- Refuses to eat certain textures
- Oversensitive to sound
- Pulls away from unexpected touch
- Dislikes brushing hair
- Struggles to brush their teeth
- Avoids messy things on hands such as mud or lotion
If your child experiences any of these signs and symptoms, increasing their sensory integration through movement and sensory activities could help. Try a sensory diet at home or at school with different items that provide opportunities for your child’s body to stay calm and focused.
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