Understanding the impact of sensory modulation on learning, participation in class, and enjoyment of life

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If we want our children to feel in control and empowered at school and home, then promoting healthy sensory modulation might be the key.


What is sensory modulation?

We are completely dependent on our senses for almost every task we perform during the day; that our brains are constantly being bombarded with sensory input. At any given moment, information is coming in from our seven senses: touch, balance (vestibular), body awareness (proprioception), sight, hearing, taste, and smell. All sensory input - except for smell – is filtered by the brainstem before being sent to other parts of the brain. This is called sensory processing.

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Sensory modulation refers to you regulate and organise the degree, intensity and nature of emotional and behavioural responses to sensory input. It allows you to achieve and maintain an optimal range of performance, and adapt to challenges in daily life. Healthy sensory modulation rests on efficient sensory processing.

Because the body’s responses are often automatic, they can be taken for granted. If or when there is a breakdown - a child’s productivity, participation and enjoyment can be impacted significantly.

Appropriate sensory modulation fosters happy, healthy children

Children with irregular sensory processing may have atypical sensory modulation- meaning they will have difficulty responding in proportion to stimuli in their environment to sensory input, and are less likely to be able to maintain an alert state. They may have a narrow 'comfort zone' when it comes to the amount of certain stimuli they can tolerate, and taking them out of this zone can result in negative emotional and behavioural responses. Subsequently, these children can behave in ways that are ‘mismatched’ to stimuli in their surroundings. This can come across as ‘bad behaviour’ when their issues are actually sensory-based. For example, a loud noise may cause a child with irregular sensory modulation to scream and cover their ears, while their friends remain unaffected by the same sound.

Children with impaired sensory modulation can display 

  • poor self-esteem

  • unexplained outbursts

  • decreased social skills

  • difficulties with daily tasks

  • anxiety 

  • poor focus

A child whose responses to sensory input are much the same as other children's will not have to cope with the added emotional and attentional demands caused by disproportionate responses to everyday stimuli. This allows them to:

  • think more clearly

  • manage variations in their mood

  • bounce back from stressful/adverse events

When a child can modulate their emotions and responses in different situations, they gain a sense of empowerment, and self-efficacy.

It’s not surprising then that when it comes to learning- sensory modulation is closely linked with success.


Promoting sensory modulation

Teachers and parents can help children develop their capacity to respond appropriately to sensory stimuli by becoming aware of any difficulties they may have with sensory processing. Certain sensory input can then be targeted and matched to student needs.

Sensory input will always be the answer – but the type and intensity will vary depending on what the student needs in the moment. The table below describes the four types of sensory processing difficulties that occur in children, and suggests ways you can help.

Table 1. Types of sensory processing patterns - and how you can help. 

Difficulty typeWhat it means in a nutshellHow it looksSensory input that can help make the child feel comfortable, alert and focused
Over-avoidant Easily over aroused, but takes action to keep this from happening.

Quiet, withdrawn, fearful, uncooperative

Tendency to keep a watchful eye on everything going on around them, making it hard for them to thrive on routine and predictability.

Predictable and consistent calming activities that activate the balance and body awareness senses

Encourage more gradual involvement in activities.

Extreme sensory seeker Due to overwhelming drive to 'find' more sensory input - seeking behaviour may also disrupt others./td>

Always seems to be in motion Impulsive, takes a lot of risks May appear clumsy and uncoordinated

Needs extra sensory input to remain focused, but can easily become over-aroused.

Scheduled activities: heavy work, aerobic exercise, use of hand fidgets

Fidget spinners and water bottles with in-built straws are great for these kids. Both can be kept on desks for use when needed.

Overly sensitive Low threshold for sensory input: it doesn’t take much to send this child into over-arousal.

Difficulty focusing, easily distracted.

Can react negatively to situations.

Reactions may be out of context to the situation.

Calming, soothing sensory input: low lighting, soft talking, relaxing music.

Provide a sensory retreat for this child to go to when they need to calm down.

Low registration of sensory input Misses important sensory information needed for participation, e.g. verbal instructions. Appears disinterested, lethargic, or unresponsive.

Varied sensory input – novelty helps with alertness.

Increased intensity of sensory input: aerobic exercise to start the day, and plenty of movement breaks throughout the day.

Bright lighting, highlighting of important information on the page, and upbeat background music.

The tricky thing is, these difficulties don’t always occur in isolation. The same child can present with a combination of two, three, or all of them depending on their mood and classroom environment. So if you’re wondering how to improve concentration in a certain individual, you may have to do a little digging to figure out what works best.

Ideally, each child would have their own ‘sensory diet’ a unique combination of sensory-based activities tailored specifically for them. The aim of the activities in a sensory diet is to provide sensory input that helps address over or under-stimulation at certain points of the day, to help maintain focus and participation.

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Activate the master modulator

An occupational therapist can help you create tailored sensory diets. But, there are general activities you can introduce right now that can help promote sensory modulation in all children.

Proprioceptive activities are believed to enhance the ‘master modulator’: serotonin, which, when activated, helps regulate arousal and alertness, and makes us feel that all is well with the world.





Examples of proprioceptive activities are:

  • aerobic exercises (dancing, fast walking, star jumps, jumping)

  • carrying groceries

  • sweeping or vacuuming

  • working in the garden (pulling weeds, raking leaves)

  • tug of war games

  • moving desks

  • running an errand to the office (ideally something heavy, like a stack of books)

  • chewy snacks

  • push-ups off the back of a chair

  • sweeping or vacuuming

These activities can be implemented easily at school, or home, meaning every child can have access to sensory input that is matched to his or her unique preferences.


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