Sensory and Motor Learning in preschool

By Mia Thomas, PT, DPT



Sensory processing disorder (SPD) has been getting a lot of attention in the medical community recently, but it is important to note that anyone can feel over or under stimulated. Typically, those of us without SPD work within an optimal level of arousal, where we can focus on what we need to and filter out unnecessary stimuli. This puts us in an optimal place for learning to take place.


The problem is when kids are at a high state of arousal due to sensory overload or at a low state of arousal and require more sensory input; both of these kids, though they will present as polar opposites, are in a state of mind that will not allow learning to happen and may require some type of intervention, such as occupational therapy or creating a sensory diet.


You can likely think of the child that is in a state of sensory overload, they are spinning around in circles, running around the room, jumping up and down, chewing on toys, etcetera. It is the child that is in a low state of arousal that is more likely to slip through the cracks; this child will appear calm, quiet, reserved, maybe sleepy, and typically is never mentioned when speaking about behavioral concerns or events that might have happened in the classroom.


Before discussing different calming and alerting techniques, it is important to think about the neurological basis for sensory stimulation. This fully looking man depicts our sensory homunculus, which is where all of our sensory inputs get processed in the brain. This depiction enlarges areas of his body that has more sensory inputs, so you can see that the sensation going through his hands, mouth, ears, eyes, and nose have the largest area for processing; which means these are going to be the most effective areas to target with our calming and alerting activities.


For the kids that are in a high state of arousal, we need to find strategies to calm them. This may include applying firm touch, having fidgets available, deep breathing, providing movement breaks, carrying heavy toys, pushing and pulling heavy objects, sucking through a straw, and using sweet tastes, especially when they are chewy.  Essential oils, such as vanilla and lavender, can not only result in behavioral effects, but can also alter muscle tone.


Kids that are in a low state of arousal, need alerting strategies to help them get into a state where learning can take place. For these children turning the lights on, using songs to direct their attention during transitions, applying light touch, using cold sensations, sour tastes or crunchy foods, and giving them jobs that require movement, such as bringing attendance to the office will help them. Essential oils can also be alerting, specifically citrus scents, but you always want to be mindful that some are bothered by strong smells.