Our friend and fellow OT, Courtney Dickinson, is back today with more great information about sensory issues and teens! This week, she’s tackling how teens and older kids process movement via the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
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Does your teen constantly crave movement and appear to be “on the go?”
Or maybe he appears clumsy and is always getting hurt?
Does she avoid movement activities such as riding bikes, skateboards or rides at amusement parks?
Or does he get car sick or motion sick easily?
Together these two systems help lay the foundation for body awareness, position in space, and motor skills and contribute to an overall sense of organization and well-being in the world. Check out this printable checklist to help identify possible sensory issues related to the proprioceptive and vestibular systems.
The Proprioceptive System
Proprioceptors are located in our muscles and joints and, anytime input is given to the muscles and joints, we are stimulating this system. Examples include running, jumping, lifting weights and even chewing.
The proprioceptive system provides information about where our bodies are in space, and it allows us to move without having to look at what body part we are moving (i.e. this tells us how hard to push on the gas and brakes and how high to step when climbing up or down stairs).
Kids who are not processing proprioceptive input effectively (under-responding) may appear clumsy, often bumping into things, tripping, and appearing to have a lack of body awareness. The reference of a “bull in a china shop” might apply to someone who is under-responsive to proprioceptive input!
Signs of Being Under-responsive to Proprioceptive Input
-Having low muscle tone
-Appearing “sluggish” and/or lethargic
-Slumping in chair and/or often resting head on desk
-Having poor body awareness
-Appearing clumsy, often bumping into or tripping over things
-Struggling to move around in an efficient manner in crowded spaces (i.e. classrooms)
-Having difficulty grading the force of movements: may break things often by being too forceful
-Hugging too hard, squeezing too hard with handshakes, using too much force for high-fives
-Leaning against walls, furniture, or others
The Vestibular System
The vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear and are stimulated any time there is a change or movement in head position. Vestibular processing impacts several areas including muscle tone, postural/trunk control, extensor tone, bilateral coordination, and eye movements. Vestibular processing also plays a role in one’s ability to focus and attend.
Signs of Being Hyper-sensitive to Vestibular Input
-Being fearful of or avoiding movement and heights – may not like to ride a bike, skateboard, swing or go on rides
-Disliking riding in cars or get easily sick from this movement
-Appearing cautious and hesitant with movement
-Becoming disoriented when tipping head back or going upside down (or may avoid these movements altogether)
-Exhibiting negative behaviors or “acting out” when expected to engage in movement activities.
On the other hand, teens who are under-responsive to vestibular input need more intense movement and vestibular input. These are the teens that we really need to watch out for and make sure this need is being fulfilled so they are not engaging in unsafe behaviors. These teens tend to be “daredevils”.
Signs of Being Under-responsive to Vestibular Input
-Being constantly “on the go” and moving
-Struggling to sit still
-Having difficulty focusing on seated learning activities
-Craving spinning, running or any other fast movements (i.e. skateboarding, riding bike, sledding, roller coasters, etc.)
-Engaging in “risky” climbing or movement activities and appearing to have a lack of safety awareness
-Seeking out positions where head is upside down
-Seeking out rocking, spinning and/or swaying
What can we do to help our vestibular seekers and avoiders? Before we help them, they need to understand what we are doing. Have your teen fill out the printable checklist to determine if they may have seeking or avoiding tendencies in the areas of proprioceptive or vestibular processing.
Once they realize what their sensory profile is, and that there are activities or strategies they can engage in to help their bodies, hopefully they will be on board!
Below are some strategies I like to use and/or that I have seen others use over the years. I hope something on this list will help your teen or the teens in your therapy practice or classroom!
Strategies for Teens Who Seek Proprioceptive Input
-Look into extra-curricular activities that will meet this need such as gymnastics, swimming, martial arts lessons and indoor trampoline parks
-Check out the local gym and/or see if your teen can have access to the school gym as the weights and exercise equipment provide good proprioceptive input
-Invest in a mini-trampoline
–Having your teen walk or bike to school can provide some good input to help “wake up” their systems in the morning; you can add ankle or wrist weights to increase proprioceptive input while they are walking
-Give chores that provide proprioceptive (heavy work) input such as taking trash out, moving wet laundry to dryer, raking, and vacuuming
-Wear non-skid socks and/or shoes with good traction and soles (for teens that can be clumsy or accident prone)
Strategies for Teens Who Seek Vestibular Input
-Look into dance classes, yoga classes, exercise classes and/or gymnastics
–Set up a physical activity routine for them to participate in before they are expected to sit and focus (jumping jacks, running stairs, chair dips, yoga poses)
-Mini trampoline, bikes, scooters, skis all provide vestibular input
-Try a local skateboard park
-Try a sport that is fast-paced with lots of movement such as soccer, basketball, tennis or swimming
-Hang a swing – one that looks like a hammock or a hanging chair may be more accepted by teens. I’ve also found some good prices on hammocks at Walmart and Old Time Pottery that work well as swings hung from one hook. You can also create your own with one or more layers of Lycra material from a fabric store.
Strategies for Teens Who Avoid or Over-respond to Vestibular Input
-Allow teens to use stairs versus elevators or escalators which may heighten their sense of discomfort and/or elicit a fight/fright/flight response
-Incorporate lots of heavy work into the day (weight lifting, push-ups, carrying heavy items from one spot to another, bringing in groceries, chewing gum); these all help calm down an over-active or hyper-sensitive vestibular system
-Incorporate deep pressure (which is also calming to an over-active system) such as heavy blankets and use of tight-fitting clothing which can be worn under regular clothing
-Engaging in strength and/or resistive sports activities, such as yoga or swimming, provides lots of calming input
I hope some of these ideas are useful for your teen or the teens in your therapy practice and that they can help improve those under-active or over active systems!
This age group can be tricky to work with and it’s important to find the right strategies. Find those activities that are internally appealing and motivating to them. Make sure they are motivated to participate in these strategies and have an understanding of why they are doing what they are doing.
If you find any other strategies that help your teen please share in the comments below! I will be following up in a few weeks with tactile strategies for teens so be sure to check it out!
As I mentioned in my last post, some resources I like to refer to often when coming up with ideas for my teens include the Adolescent and Adult Sensory Profile and Tools for Teens. I also am a fan of using Pinterest to find new ideas as well as watching my fabulous co-workers!