It is probably not what you think. It has nothing to do with eating!
A teacher overheard me talking about sensory diets and very sensibly asked about food. With all the allergies and specialized diets nowadays, it’s easy to confuse the term. BUT- I decided to use this chance to clarify for all you parents and teachers out there!
A “sensory diet” (coined by OT Patricia Wilbarger) is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. Just as you may jiggle your knee or chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot tub to unwind, children need to engage in stabilizing, focusing activities too. Infants, young children, teens, and adults with mild to severe sensory issues can all benefit from a personalized sensory diet.
Sensory diets versus sensory techniques
As a teacher or a parent, you may realize that you naturally use sensory techniques with your own child or students. There are times throughout the day when you can see a child falling asleep, getting fidgety, or making excuses to move around.
For most students, changing classes, attending gym, or going to lunch is enough to keep them alert and engaged throughout the day. Sometimes teachers incorporate singing or dancing, alerting or calming music, or classroom jobs, etc. to keep the students engaged. These are very effective sensory techniques However, there are some children that need more input. Some students need calming input so they can lower their energy level while others need alerting input to raise their energy level.
Sensory Techniques Compared To Sensory Integration Therapy
Many parents don’t realize that there is a difference between Sensory Integration Therapy and Sensory Techniques. ASI® stands for Ayers Sensory Integration Therapy. It has a formalized protocol and specific standards, meant to help children improve the way they perceive input from the environment (such as touch or sound) and then respond to it (Watling & Clark, 2011). Though ASI® is an excellent method to remediate sensory concerns, some therapists, children, and families may opt to benefit from a less intense, less structured, and potentially less costly approach. Other ‘sensory-based strategies’ to help a child adapt to unpleasant sensations in the environment. Imagine a child who has difficulty participating in school activities because he dislikes loud or unexpected noises. You can read more about the difference between ASI® and Sensory Techniques here.
Who can design a Sensory Diet?
A teacher and Occupational Therapist can put together a “sensory diet” for a student at school based on what they know about the student.
A parent and an Occupational Therapist can put together a “sensory diet” to help a child at home.
Sensory diets at school
Susie is a student with significant sensory issues that impact her ability to learn and participate. She is always really quiet in the morning and doesn’t pay attention at circle time. In the afternoon, Susie comes back from recess very loud and has difficulty sitting for math. She keeps making excuses to get out of her seat. One part of Susie’s sensory diet could be to have an important morning job that requires a lot of movement (bringing something to attendance, carrying the snack bins to the cafeteria, collecting all the homework from last night, etc.) This movement should prepare her nervous system for the day and help her to stay on task throughout circle time. After recess, Susie may benefit from soft music playing in the classroom or a seat cushion to allow her to continue to move as she sits at her desk. Every child is different, and sensory diets often need to be revamped again and again. What works one day may not work the next day. However, when you really start to pay attention to your student’s sensory behaviors, it is easier to figure out what the child needs.
Teachers and parents use sensory techniques more than they even realize. A “sensory diet”, however, is a specific list of sensory input tasks that are incorporated throughout the child’s day at specific times.
9:00 am– Morning routine
Susie collects homework and passes out fliers to go home, placing them under each child’s desk. The head movement that Susie engages in by bending down toward the floor gives vestibular input to Susie, which is alerting. During circle time, Susie sits on a balance disc, which provides some movement while sitting and helps keep Susie engaged.
Susie’s mom gives her crunchy sourdough pretzels for snack and a thick yogurt drink with a straw. Both the crunching and the sucking provide strong oral sensory input to Susie, which helps her to feel internally organized and ready to focus.
12:30— Returning from recess
Susie is still filled with energy, running to put her coat away and talking in a very loud voice. It is time to start a math lesson, so Susie’s teacher dims the lights and asks the children to sit with their heads down for two minutes. She plays quiet, soft music to bring Susie and her classmates back to focus.
1:30— Music class
Susie gets upset when the music is too loud in class. Sometimes she cries and puts her hands over her ears. The music teacher prepares Susie by asking her to push the “on” button. Susie is allowed to turn the volume from “off” to halfway. If the music is particularly upsetting to Susie, she is given permission to put on noise-canceling headphones or sit in the back of the room, away from the speakers.
Susie’s teacher reminds her not to touch anyone else on the bus. She is given some fidgets to keep her hands busy. Susie’s mom keeps a heavy textbook in her backpack, which provides deep pressure during the transition home. It helps Susie to remain calm.
This is just a basic overview of what a sensory diet can look like. If you feel your child needs more input than a typical school day provides, check with their teacher. Sometimes kids can totally hold it together at school but get crazy when they get home. This is normal for some kids, and it means they need some downtime before expectations (homework, chores, etc.) are placed on them at home.
For some children, downtime can mean relaxing in a beanbag chair and reading a book or playing on the IPAD, but for others, it means they need to run, sing loudly, swing and jump. If the teacher agrees that your child needs more, start at home. Put an old phone book in their backpack and let them carry it back and forth to school. The extra weight strapped to their back can be organizing, and may help them start their day on the right foot. Give them crunchy or chewy food for lunch (see last week’s post for ideas) to give them input in the middle of their day. Then, contact your child’s teacher and their OT if they have one to set something up at school. Most professionals are more than willing to change their routine to help a child learn.
These suggestions are for your consideration and are not meant to be a personalized schedule for your child. Please contact a professional to set something up that suits your child’s needs.