Proprioception is the sensory information produced by the contraction and stretching of muscles and by the bending, straightening, pulling, and compression of the joints. This information occurs primarily during movement, but also constantly relays sensory information to the brain regarding our position, even as we simply stand, or sit on a chair. “Heavy work” activities, such as running, jumping, swinging, pulling, stomping, and skipping provide additional proprioceptive input. Proprioception is a crucial component to our children’s development, as it increases body awareness and contributes to learning how much force is required for everyday tasks such as pushing a heavy door or snipping with scissors; or how much pressure is needed to draw, color, and write.
The vestibular system has its receptors in the inner ear and senses movement of the head in all planes. It is partly through the vestibular system that we know right side up, upside down, left, right, horizontal and vertical in relation to our bodies. Vestibular input also tells us if we are moving, how fast, and in what direction. Sensory input through the vestibular system “anchors” us in our environment.
Children who have difficulty with proprioceptive and/or vestibular processing may have difficulty with engaging effectively in their environment or they are often are poor self-regulators.
Depending on the child, sensory seeking (or avoiding) behaviors manifests in a number of different ways. Children experiencing differences in sensory processing skills are often trying to get their needs met using a number of adaptive strategies. Sometimes, these adaptive strategies are distracting to peers, or limit the child’s participation in class. Other times, students find a perfectly appropriate way to sit in a way that promotes sensory regulation, such as sitting in kneeling positon on the floor (instead of cross-legged), standing while writing, or even laying on the carpet while reading. Signs of sensory dysregulation may appear mild, such as minor fidgeting with materials on the table, or engaging in side conversations and laughter, to more extreme (e.g., crawling under tables, rocking, humming, speaking loudly, covering their ears, chewing on non-food items, jumping out of their chairs and walking/hopping/tip toeing around the room, or purposefully bumping into furniture and/or peers).
Kelsey Kleine is a 1st/2nd grade teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA. She is acutely aware of the various learning styles, preferences, and sensory needs of her students. Recently, while looking for art supplies at Lakeshore Learning Center, she came across sensory cushions. She recognized these as viable options to support adaptive or “flexible seating” in her classroom. “Every kid can benefit from having a choice. For a year and a half now, they’ve been choosing a space within the classroom to read. They often sit next to a friend, not always making the best choices for where to do independent work. I thought, instead of repeating “Make a better choice!” what if I give them options that are enticing? They can practice, how to choose alternative sitting options that will help them remain safe and productive.” Ms. Kleine completely included students in the brainstorming process. They were able to tell Ms. Kleine where they would chose to read in the classroom. “Students told me they’d want to work on top of and under tables, even on the ceiling.” These types of responses reflect the students’ desires to have alternatives to the standard desk and chair, options which would change head and body position. Ultimately, Ms. Kleine and her students decided on including dynamic work space to allow for alternate positions during reader’s workshop in three different areas in the classroom. Initially, they will start off using sensory cushions, however a couple students already have flexible seating options to support sensory regulation, including bean bag chairs or choosing to sit on the carpet. If this trial proves to be successful, the class may expand to additional seated options, such as t-stools or standing desks.
Other teachers are also showing interest in meeting our students’ needs through dynamic, flexible seating that promotes regulation, attention and focus for learning. If you are an educator interested in learning more about implementing flexible seating for your classroom, the school occupational therapist will be able to support you in making the most out of your space!
Marika Minczeski, Occupational Therapist