These days, it’s not uncommon to hear about kids who have difficulty with paying attention. They can’t sit still, they can’t keep their eyes on what they’re doing, or they miss important instructions and details.
Sensory Processing and Attention
Our sensory systems help keep our bodies and minds at an optimal state of alertness and arousal for any given situation. Calm enough to listen, attend, work, and engage but not so calm that we’re falling asleep. Alert enough that we can take in the information in our surroundings and be ready to respond, but not so alert that we’re hyperactive and bouncing off the walls.
Some children who experience difficulty with paying attention may need less sensory input because they become distracted or overwhelmed by certain sensory experiences. However, many children are better able to attend to and participate when tasks appeal to the senses. They need more sensory input to regulate themselves and stay focused.
For these kids, adding a sensory component or enhancing the existing sensory features of an activity can be helpful to promote attention and engagement. The following sensory strategies can help children who require more sensory input to remain focused and attentive.
Sensory Strategies to Help With Paying Attention
Auditory Strategies for Attention
Some children need more auditory input to attend. These children may miss important details or instructions that are presented verbally. They may not respond when the teacher calls on them, or they may find ways to generate their own noise to stay focused (humming, singing, tapping, and making strange noises). For these children, try:
1 || Making up songs or rhymes to bring attention to a task (e.g. instead of telling a child to get dressed and then brush his teeth, make up a song to grab his attention and help him remember what he’s supposed to do; make up songs and rhymes to help the child learn and remember academic concepts)
2 || Having the child repeat instructions or important information back to you
3 || Including breaks throughout the day with active movement songs and music
4 || Sensory breaks using musical toys
5 || Exposure to games and apps that teach concepts using music and sound
6 || Use your body to build sound into learning (e.g. clapping out syllables of words, stomping feet to count out the days on the calendar, snapping fingers while counting by 10s)
Visual Strategies for Attention
Some children need more visual input to help them attend. They may miss instructions that are written on the page or barely notice the visual details in their surroundings. They may lose interest and focus on visual activities like reading. For these children, try:
7 || Using learning materials that are bold, bright, and colorful
8 || Working or playing on a brightly colored surface
9 || Highlighting or using color to draw attention to important details on worksheets and in books
10 || Work and play on the computer or tablet using programs and apps that incorporate movement and color
11 || Visual cues like sticker charts, picture schedules, and checklists
12 || Visual learning activities like: word searches, hidden picture pages, color by number pages, word scrambles
13 || Learning activities that incorporate visual discrimination (sorting, finding which one is different)
14 || Learning activities on a light table
15 || Sensory breaks with visual activities like sensory bottles or seek and find bottles filled with dry rice and small objects to find
Tactile Strategies for Attention
Many children are best able to pay attention when their tactile systems are engaged. These kids are hands-on learners who love to touch and be touched. For these kids try:
16 || Learning and play with manipulatives and hands-on materials rather than pencil and paper (e.g. building with Legos for math, stringing beads to learn about patterns, adapting worksheets to make them into a cut-and-paste format rather than written)
17 || Combining learning materials with tactile bins (e.g. digging for math flash cards or letter magnets in a bin filled with sand or dry rice)
18 || Incorporating vibration with tools like ARK’s Tran-Quill Writing Kit. This is a textured, vibrating writing utensil that draws kids’ attention to writing, drawing, and coloring by providing tactile feedback. It comes with pen, pencil, and crayon attachments as well as Bite-n-Chew tips for kids who also need some extra oral sensory input during learning activities.
19 || Adapting learning materials to incorporate texture. Try tracing over text using puffy paint or a hot glue gun. Cut letters and numbers out of textured paper or sandpaper for little hands to touch.
20 || Tactile sensory breaks that provide deep pressure (bear hugs, smushes with pillows or beanbag chairs) and play with tactile materials like play dough and shaving cream
21 || Fidget toys for kids to hold and play with in their hands when they have to listen or pay attention for extended periods of time
Movement Strategies for Attention
Many, if not most, children need to MOVE to attend and to learn! It’s one of the main messages we preach here at The Inspired Treehouse. Children were simply not built to sit for extended periods of time, so the best way to engage little minds is by moving little bodies! For children who benefit from extra movement throughout the day, try:
22 || Offering frequent changes in positions. One method is to move children through work stations in the classroom to complete a task at teach station. Allow children to complete classwork or homework while sitting or lying on the floor with a clipboard, sitting on a beanbag chair, or even lying under the table with their work taped to the underside of the table!
23 || Offering different seating options that provide movement such as inflatable seat cushions, rocking chairs, ball chairs, etc.
24 || Building movement into learning whenever possible. Set math fact flashcards out on the floor and make it a relay race to run, skip, jump, or gallop to pick one up and give an answer! Use body movements to help kids remember letter sounds. Tape sight word cards at various heights on the wall and have the child jump to touch them as you read them one by one.
25 || Including movement breaks regularly throughout the day and during transitions. Try movement breaks with vestibular activities like swinging, rolling, balancing,and rocking or proprioceptive activities that require movement against resistance (heavy work).
Oral Sensory and Olfactory Strategies for Attention
Some kids are able to attend better when they receive sensory input that appeals to the oral sensory and olfactory systems. Certain smells, tastes, and textures have been associated with more attentive behavior in children. For kids who benefit from oral and olfactory input, try:
26 || Chewing tools like ARK’s Y-Chews, and Tri-Chews. Or try Grabbers, which also come in scented versions to target the oral sensory and olfactory systems at the same time!
27 || Adding chewing accessories to pencils, like ARK’s colorful and durable Krypto-Bite Chewable Pencil Toppers.
28 || Wearable chewing tools to make it easy for kids to get the oral sensory input they need whenever they need it. Try ARK’s Krypto-Bite Chewable Gem Necklace or the cool Brick Stick Textured Chew Necklace.
29 || Snacks! Chewy snacks and treats like bagels, gum, and fruit leathers are typically associated with calmer, more attentive behavior in children. Sucking against resistance can also help children focus and organize themselves. Try sucking a thicker liquid like a smoothie through a straw or drink out of a sports bottle. Crunchy, cold, and sour snacks and drinks like orange wedges, grapefruit, or lemonade can help to promote more alert, active behavior for kids who appear sluggish or tired.
30 || Incorporating smells using oils, scented doughs, scented sensory bins, and other activities to explore the olfactory system. Stronger smells (e.g. peppermint) often correspond with more alert and active behavior while softer smells (e.g. lavender) are usually associated with calmer, more relaxed behavior.
What are your favorite tips for keeping kids focused and on-task in the classroom and at home? Share with us in the comments below!
Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a therapist, or a caregiver – our book, Sensory Processing 101 is your starting point to gain a better understanding of the sensory systems and of how sensory processing works.
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Maria Carmona says
Candace B says
This is amazing information. I have been trying to find different ways to help with my son who has oral chewing issues and the products you have recommended will be perfect! Thank you for posting this information! This is also something I am going to keep on hand for those I work with who have children with similar issues. Such great resources to help with my work and for my son.
Try fruit “gummies ” but leave them out of their package a day so the are more chewy and take more time and effort to chew. Also try pretzel rods and carrots for heathy alternatives. A wet wash rag or cloth can also be handy to chew on. Finally, for more public or age appropriate ” chewy” try drinking straws or sports bottles ( please check for plastics that are chemical free and safe to children)
Thanks for the great suggestions Theresa!
Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m so happy you’ve found some useful strategies in this post! If you’re seeing oral sensory issues in your child, also check out our other post about the oral sensory system: What Does Oral Sensory Mean? (https://theinspiredtreehouse.com/sensory-processing-what-does-oral-sensory-mean/). We appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment! :)
Kids who are stimulated by scent can benefit from a one one one instructor using breath mints or gum. This draws the child’s attention to the speaker and keeps them engaged .
Dianne Mason says
this is sooo interesting. I have been trying to explain to my daughter that there is just “something ” that I couldn’t put my hands on with her son who is 5yrs old. A beautiful boy but you cannot get his attention for more than a minute or so and he is struggling with his school work and particularly reading. This sounds like it is what I have been looking for. Does Claire Hefron make appointments with child and mother at all? We would be extremely interested to see her if she does. Cheers Di Mason
Thank you very much. It was so informative. I teach children with different abilities. I find rolling and asking kids to bounce the ball with their head instead of catching with their hands also helps to calm them before any table and chair activity
I have a son who needs MOVEMENT and activity. I just learned about all this from my sister-in-law law who is an OT for a school district.
It is a little exhausting for me to think about as my husband and I would not be considered remotely athletic (or overly social).
Georgia Meeks, Spherion says
So happy to run across this article on Facebook. ARK Therapeutic Services has wonderful products, and is a truly innovative company.
Marianne White Dunlap says
And what about children who are overstimulated and need less sensory input? Aren’t their symptoms about the same? How are they different? It seems that there is an overload of visual and auditory “pollution” in our society today. All the media and tablet time that are made available to our children contribute to the fast pace of their lives. Many children are prevented from moving from the moment of their birth. We put them into one container after another and then restrict their movement with passive activities. Free movement outdoors becomes so very important for children on both ends of the spectrum. Young children are sensorial explorers and the kinds of sensations that are naturally a part of our world seem the most important. Perhaps if we let them move and explore from the beginning of their lives, we wouldn’t need to invent artificial activities to make up for what has been taken away.
Hi Marianne! We have another post that addresses calming sensory strategies for the classroom for kids who tend to be overstimulated (https://theinspiredtreehouse.com/10-calming-sensory-strategies-for-school/). And as far as “container time” and “screen time” – we couldn’t agree more! We believe that many of the sensory processing problems we see in kids today may be associated with the limited time they spend engaging in free play and outdoor play. We are huge advocates for motor and sensory exploration beginning in infancy to promote healthy development. However, many of the kids we see at school have not had this kind of exposure, so as school-based therapists it’s our job to support teachers and children by providing strategies and suggestions like these that can meet their needs in the classroom. Thank you for your insight and for taking the time to comment – we love meeting others who share our passion for promoting healthy development in kids!! :)
Deborah Haroun says
Esther McCartney says
Great information and some new ideas for me to try out. I’m moving from working as a counselor in a middle school to an elementary school this year.
Kathy Butterworth says
Thank you sooooo much for this awesome resource. I plan to share it with my colleagues at school :-)
People like you help to make my job easier and more enjoyable….a thousand ‘thanks’ :-)
Very useful information. They are very helpful for my job as special education teacher. Thank you.. Congratulation.
MACD EA says
Perfectly composed content material, Really enjoyed looking at.
Pooja Rani says
Exactly right information to get attention of the kid.
We should work on every aspect of sensory function .
Lisa Lewis, MD says
Wow! This is a great post with wonderful ideas. Thank you so much.
Kendra Humphrey says
How do I figure out which one of these will work for her? Do I just try them all and see?