Every student participates in Occupational Therapy within a group setting five days per week. OTs work to develop abilities in the following areas:
- Sensory Processing
- Gross Motor Strength and Coordination
- Body Awareness
- Fine Motor Strength and Coordination
- Handwriting (both print and cursive through the Handwriting Without Tears program)
- Visual Perception and Ocular Motor Development
- Shoelaces and fasteners (buttons, snaps, zippers)
- Cognitive Components such as memory, sequencing, processing speed, and attention
The development of foundational abilities (sensory, sensory motor, perceptual motor) enables the achievement of higher level skills (daily living, behavior/social interaction, and academic learning).
Collaboration with Classroom Teachers
- Teachers gain a better understanding of how to develop foundational abilities by participating during OT groups
- OTs brainstorm with teachers regarding classroom tools or strategies that may benefit specific students or the class as a whole
- OTs work with teachers to develop sensory diets, both for the whole group and for specific students who need even more input
- OTs work with teachers to integrate activities into their routine that develop visual and motor skills
- OTs instruct teachers in the use of The Alert Program (“How’s your engine running?); this program helps students understand and verbalize their sensory needs (e.g., “My engine’s running high right now; I need to go through the steam roller to start feeling “just right”)
Digging Deeper into the Importance of Sensory Processing
- Improve sensory processing: The ability to take in and integrate sensory information from multiple sensory systems generalizes from one task to another. In other words, practicing a motor task that requires you to integrate your visual and auditory senses impacts your ability to complete an academic task that requires you to integrate your visual and auditory senses (e.g., reading, understanding speech).
- Integration of input from multiple sensory systems is necessary for understanding. Consider how the visual input of a letter means nothing until we associate it with a sound, put multiple sounds together to make words, and associate visual, auditory, taste, smell, tactile, proprioceptive, and emotional experiences with that word. Each of these is associated with a different area of the brain, and all relevant areas of the brain need to be connected by efficient neural networks in order to enable efficient functioning.
- A good illustration of how one sense depends on other senses is an experiment done in which scientists wore glasses that turned visual input upside down and backwards – after a few days, they adjusted and the reversed world came to look right way up. Their brains used input from all their other sense and associated it with input coming in visually. This non-visual sensory input adjusted the perception of the new visual input.
- Multi-sensory experiences increase the number, complexity, and efficiency of neural connections in the brain. Every sensory experience results in the firing of specific neurons. Each time a neuron fires, its myelin sheath thickens; this makes it able to fire faster and helps keep that neuron safer than its neighbors. So neurons that fire frequently (from repeated sensory input), become more efficient and more durable. The more sensory systems being stimulated during learning, the stronger and more elaborate the neural connections linked to that information become. This results in improved memory, comprehension, and application of the new knowledge. The stimulation of the tactile system (touch) is especially powerful because it stimulates such a widespread area of the brain.
- The improved ability to process sensory information can lead to improved internal self-regulation over time. This refers to the ability to modify one’s level of arousal to fit the situation (e.g., appropriate level of arousal is different in PE than it is during a spelling test). Pfeiffer et al (2011) and Smith et al (2005) found that engagement in sensory-motor activities does result in benefits in sensory processing, internal sensory regulation, social-emotional functioning, and fine motor skills.
- Meet immediate sensory needs: Everyone needs a certain amount of sensory input throughout the day to feel grounded, relaxed, and able to attend to higher-level tasks (such as academics). The intensity of the sensory input necessary before it is registered by the brain varies from person to person. People who do not register sensory input as readily require more intense sensory input throughout the day in order to feel grounded.
- If sensory needs are not met, the child is likely to experience continuous stress. This feeling of stress comes directly from the lack of sensory input as well as others’ reactions to resultant behaviors. This stress, in turn, can impact learning. If we feel insecure or threatened, our body releases adrenalin and cortisol, leading to a decreased ability to learn and remember. Alternatively, if we feel safe, our bodies release dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, nerve growth factor, interferon, and interleukins, which increase our ability to establish and reorganize neural networks so we may more effectively learn (improves ability to create neural networks and remember information). Meeting ones sensory needs through sensory diets is one way of facilitating a sense of security rather than insecurity and stress.
- Prepare the mind for learning: Participating in activities that stimulate the vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive systems prepare the student for improved attention and learning.
- The vestibular system is the unifying system and is considered the “entryway into the brain”. Input through the vestibular and tactile systems goes to the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain stem, which “wakes up” the neocortex. This allows the neocortex to respond to incoming sensory input from the environment. If individuals do not receive enough vestibular and tactile input, it leads to impaired muscular movements, decreased sensory intake, over-reaction to stress, and a variety of emotional and learning difficulties.
- Participation in a coordinated cross-lateral movement activity every 30-60 minutes has been shown to improve attention and is the most efficient way to create new nerve cells and efficient neural connections.
- Cross-lateral movements stimulate the development of the corpus callosum, which allows both sides of the body to work together efficiently, including arms, legs, eyes, and ears. This is necessary for effective motor and cognitive functioning.
- Vestibular and Cerebellar Development
- Bilateral coordination and mid-line crossing activities are beneficial for cerebellar development. One role of the cerebellum is automatisation, the phenomenon of a task becoming increasingly automatic with practice. This automatisation generally takes much more practice in individuals with developmental differences as compared to a typically developing individual. Exercises that develop the cerebellum can make this process more efficient.
- There is consistent support for a link between learning difficulties and cerebellar-vestibular functioning.
- In a group of individuals with normal or superior IQ who had significant deficits in reading, writing, ocular motor tasks, spelling, math, memory, speech, simple grammar, concentration, activity level, and time and direction, 96% of them displayed symptoms of cerebellar-vestibular dysfunction.
- Acquired Space Dyslexia: transient ‘space dyslexia’ was experienced by astronauts; they began mirror reading at zero gravity
- People with learning disabilities who participated in sensory integration or vestibular training and ocular-motor exercises that help develop the cerebellar-vestibular system demonstrated improvements in reading, writing, and concentration.
- Individuals with dyslexia who spent ten minutes twice a day standing on a cushion and throwing a beanbag from one hand to the other or balancing on a wobble board led to improvements in dyslexia symptoms for all participants within six months.
- A California study found a correlation between scores on the physical fitness test and scores on the SAT
- Canada study showed that students who participated in an extra hour of gym class performed notably better on academic exams than less active children
- Adults in their fifties and sixties who engaged in an aerobic training program for four months increased their performance on mental tests by ten percent.
- Research has shown that elderly people who participate in activities that are physical, use cross-lateral movements, stimulate the memory system, and are engaging significantly decrease the risk of developing dementia (dancing leads to a 76% decreased risk, playing an instrument is linked to a 69% decrease in risk).
Hannaford, Carla Ph.D (2005). Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head.
Pfeiffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., & Henderson, L. (2011). Research Scholars Initiative — Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65, 76–85. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2011.09205
Smith, S. A., Press, B., Koenig, K. P., & Kinnealey, M. (2005). Effects of sensory integration intervention on self-stimulating and self-injurious behaviors. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 59, 418–425.
Levinson, Harold N. (1988). Perceptual and Motor Skills. The Cerebellar-Vestibular Basis of Learning Disabilities in Children, Adolescents and Adults: Hypothesis and Study.
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Visual Skills
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Mat Man
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Fine Motor Skills
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Integrating Academics
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Gross Motor Coordination
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Balance and Core Strength
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Sensory Diet Activities
Watch Video – Occupational Therapy – Sensory Strategies Used in the Classrooms