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Sensory Strategies to Help Kids Focus In The Online Classroom

Sensory Strategies to Help Kids Focus In The Online Classroom

How is online school going?  How is your child handling distance learning?

Going “back to school”, while remaining at home for distance learning, is proving to be a challenging experience for the majority of students and parents.

As a pediatric occupational therapist and a parent of school age children, I understand the challenges of distance learning firsthand. In other words, if you’re struggling to keep your child focused and calm for online school, you are not alone. Nevertheless, we all must deal as best we can under the current circumstances that require social distancing.

There are specific, yet simple adjustments you can make in your child’s environment to help improve their endurance for online learning.  Certain sensory strategies and environmental adaptations can be made to support your child’s overall attention and focus.

The goal is to find out what sensory inputs and modifications to the environment will best support your child’s sensory learning profile and overall well being at school.  You can review all of the sensory systems explained in this blog post. Click Here.

Your child’s ability to process sensory information efficiently, directly impacts his or her ability to focus, attend and learn.

Keep in mind that every child is different, and everyone has different sensory preferences… but the common goal is to discover which strategies best support your student in achieving a calm body and a mind that’s ready to focus and learn.

A Sensory Guide for Student Success

How does auditory processing affect my child’s ability to focus and learn?

Auditory processing involves not just hearing sounds, it also includes your child’s level of responsiveness to auditory input.  Some kids are particularly sensitive to noise and easily distracted, whereas other children may not seem to notice sounds in the environment. A child’s ability to listen in the regular and virtual classroom is impacted by his/her ability to localize where the sound is coming from as well as being able to discriminate sounds (e.g. filtering out speech sounds when the teacher is talking from a noisy background).

Think about when you were a student… Which type of setting helps you focus?  Would you prefer to study in a busy coffee shop surrounded by continuous background noise?  Or did you prefer to study in a quiet environment such as the library?

Auditory Strategies to Support Attention

Reduce competing distractions: Find a quiet place in the home, turn off the TV. Use high quality headphones or consider noise cancelling headphones for quiet study or reading time if your child is easily distracted or bothered by sounds.

Following directions: Too much noise can make it difficult for kids to focus and attend. Some kids have difficulty filtering out the teacher’s voice from all the background noise which makes it more difficult to listen and directly impacts their ability to follow directions. Teach your child how to mute the microphone or adjust the volume on their device to help prevent extraneous noise and chatter from the online classroom.

Stay alert: If your child benefits from music to stay alert, try out different types of study music during homework sessions.

How Does Visual Processing Impact My Student’s Learning?

Visual processing skills go beyond how clearly your child can see the screen or the black board. However, problems with visual acuity are the first thing to rule out because reading and academic work rely entirely upon how clearly your child can see the worksheet, text, or the whiteboard. Some children may be more sensitive to visual input when it comes to lighting or they may be easily distracted in busy visual environments or overly crowded work sheets, which can make it hard to focus.

Visual processing involves how well the eyes work together, such as eye teaming, scanning and binocular vision which directly impacts reading skills and other academic work.

Visual Strategies to Support Attention

Limit distractions in the environment: Position the desk or table facing a blank wall or away from the action. Reduce clutter to help kids focus by clearing everything off the desk except the essentials needed for classroom work.

The right lighting for learning:  Experiment with the level of lighting in the room and adjust the brightness level on your child’s computer screen to prevent eye strain.

Visual contrast to support reading: Often times children with visual tracking challenges, difficulty reading or a history of dyslexia, will benefit from altering the visual appearance of the text. Experiment with changing the font, size, spacing or the color contrast of the text on the screen to make it easier to read.  I recommend checking out Microsoft Learning Tools Immersive Reader.

Prevent visual overwhelm:  Some children become “visually overwhelmed” and may even refuse to start a worksheet if they perceive there’s too much visual information or text presented.   Cover up parts of the worksheet not currently being worked on with a sticky note or a blank piece of paper.

How Can Whole Body Movement Support My Child’s Learning and Focus?

The brain-body connection is powerful when it comes to a child’ ability to regulate their level of alertness, activity and engagement. Movement breaks or brain breaks can help your child re-energize and re-focus.  Movement breaks are an effective way to minimize the negative effects of prolonged sitting (e.g. neck, shoulder and back strain). Additionally, movement breaks are also an essential strategy to prevent mental fatigue.

And just because school is taking place at home, doesn’t mean that recess should be skipped!  Here’s a great fact sheet about the importance and benefits of recess from AOTA. Click Here 

As a matter of fact, recess is an essential part of a child’s daily routine, when it comes to overall fitness, managing activity levels and the development of gross motor skills.

Sensory-Motor Movement Strategies To Support Learning

Movement breaks and indoor recess ideas: Build in breaks throughout the day. Search for “brain breaks for kids” on YouTube. One of my favorite channels for short bursts of fitness are Go Noodle, Go with YOYO and Cosmic Kids Yoga. Do animal walks or races down the hallway (Jump like a kangaroo, slither like a snake, crawl like a crab etc.)

Move to learn: Learn information while moving.  Jump or sit and bounce on a large exercise ball while reciting math facts or spelling words.

Walk and talk: Get some fresh air and go for a walk while brainstorming pre-writing topics out loud.

Spell to the rhythm: Practice spelling words out loud while clapping your hands or patting your knees.

Fidgets: If you’re child is constantly touching things or has extra nervous energy, consider a quiet fidget or doodling to keep the fingers busy while listening. A common challenge for kids is when their online connection is disrupted.  Or, if they have to wait to be let back into the classroom.  Prepare for this and print out some coloring sheets of their favorite character or have some books close by to give them something to do while waiting.

Alternative seating: For kids that have trouble staying seated, try alternative seating such as a ball chair, child size rocking chair, move n sit cushion, disc o sit or even a semi-inflated beach ball as a cushion to allow for movement while remaining seated.

Allow alternate positions for studying: Some children who have a difficult time sitting still, will find it easier to focus when standing at the desk or table. (Think about adults who have standing desks at work and ask them why they like it and how it affects their productivity!)

Other positioning ideas: Turn the chair around and let your child stand on one leg while putting the other foot up. Lying on your stomach and propping up on elbows is a good work out for core strength, shoulders and the upper back.  This is a great alternate study position while looking at books or reading.

Ergonomics: Avoid eye, neck, back and shoulder strain with proper positioning and ergonomics. When seated, feet should be flat on the floor with hips, knees, and ankles at 90-degree angles. The tabletop should be about 8 inches above the chair seat to promote good posture.

How a “Motor Mouth” Can Support Attention and Focus

Typically a “motor mouth” in the classroom refers to talking too much, however I’m talking about a different kind of motor mouth!  From an occupational therapy  perspective, OTs have come to appreciate the effects of oral motor movements on sensory processing and modulation.  The mouth is a powerful receptor and conductor of sensory input.  Deep pressure input can have a calming effect.  Sucking, chewing, biting and deep breathing techniques are all powerful mouth tools that use oral motor movements that contribute to supporting a child’s ability to calm and focus.

For example, think about how sucking a pacifier or drinking from a bottle has a calming effect on an infant or toddler.  Baseball players may chew wads of “gum” to help relieve tension and improve focus on the game.  Deep breathing, such as in yoga, promotes respiration to calm and relax the body and mind.

The Role of Mouth Tools In The Classroom

Taking deep breaths supports mental alertness, reduces stress, and promotes calmness: Take deep breaths to oxygenate the brain and promote a calm body.  Inhale through the nose for a count of 3 seconds, hold, exhale for 3 seconds. Pretend to smell a flower then blow out an imaginary birthday candle.

Chewing gum is not a bad habit: Studies have shown that chewing gum helps increase blood flow to the brain which impacts overall alertness for learning.  Click Here to read the article. Proprioception, or deep pressure input is calming to the nervous system. The jaw is one of the strongest muscles in the body, plus a place where tension is often held. Chewing gum is a simple way to help relieve tension and promote alertness.

Sensory snacks: Providing chewy snacks such as dried fruit or jerky or fruit leather or crunchy foods such as apple slices, carrot sticks and pretzel sticks for example, are good snack alternatives to provide nutrition and oral motor sensory input.

Keep your body and brain hydrated:   Keep a water bottle on the desk, cold ice water has an alerting effect whereas warm drinks tend to have a calming effect. Plus, staying hydrated is a must for energy levels and optimal brain and body function.

Which strategies will you try first?

I encourage you to think about your child’s sensory preferences because they have a direct impact on learning, focus and attention. Start by choosing a few of these sensory strategies to help your child achieve a calm body and a calm mind that’s ready to learn and reach its potential.

When distance learning is over and children return to in person classrooms, these sensory strategies may continue to be a part of your student’s Sensory Toolbox to support ongoing learning and academic success!


Author note:  Jessica McMurdie OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 20 years of experience and additional sensory integration certification (SIPT Certified) and training from the University of Southern California and the STAR Institute For Sensory Processing.  She is an AOTA approved provider of continuing education courses for occupational therapists.

Sign up for the FREE Pediatric Telehealth Master Class!

If you're a pediatric therapist looking to level up your telehealth skills then this telehealth training is for you!

You'll learn 3 essential strategies to keep your students and clients engaged, tackling the tech, and how to be the most effective online therapist for family centered care.

Don't miss out on this FREE, 50 minute Telehealth Master Class.

Click the button to register and sign up for the time that works best for you.


How To Transform Your Telehealth Skills From Mediocre to Marvelous

How To Transform Your Telehealth Skills From Mediocre to Marvelous

  • Are your online OT skills in need of a quick makeover?
  • Do you ever wish you had a magic wand to transform yourself into an amazing online therapist?
  • Are you ready for your big telehealth debut?

If you’re a kind-hearted pediatric therapist who has a genuine desire to help kids, but your telehealth skills are not so pretty, I’ve got you covered. Don’t worry, you’re not alone…

Whether you’re brand new to online therapy or looking to level up, fortunately, you don’t need a fairy godmother’s magic to achieve success.

Ever since the pandemic, the occupational therapy profession has had to undergo a major transformation from what traditional therapy sessions look like.

If you’re a pediatric OT practitioner, now is the time to transition your in-person clinical skills to teletherapy skills.

As a matter of fact, if you want to transform your career and become an amazing occupational therapist in the world of telehealth, no wands are necessary!  All you need is an open mind and the right training to set you up for success!

Follow these 3 steps to make the magic happen!

#1.  Keep An Open Mind To Telehealth

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d wish for everything to go back to normal.  I wish that all the therapists who lost their jobs during the pandemic could find meaningful employment to not only fulfill their financial needs, but also be able to fulfill their desire to help kids and families.

The truth is, telehealth is here to stay… even after the pandemic is over.  There’s no going back to how things used to be in our profession.  You’ll have to make the transition to telehealth as effective service delivery model sooner… rather than later.

The time is now, and it’s best to accept this fact and have an open mind to learning all that you can to become competent and confident in your teletherapy skills.

#2.  Choose The Right Equipment and Telehealth Software

The second step to succeeding at telehealth is knowing which type of equipment and software is the best match for your needs and practice setting.

It’s also important to have a good understanding of the tech set up in order for your experience to go as smoothly as possible. I’ve done extensive research and there are definitely key features that you should know about before you invest in or before you start your telehealth services.  Important features such overall security as well as the ability to screen share, mirror, annotate and offer shared control, are just a few of the functions to help your sessions go from out-dated to outstanding.

#3. Use The Best Online Resources For Your Practice Setting

When it comes to evaluation, assessment and therapy activity resources, you’ll feel much more confident if you’ve prepared a variety of online resources.  It’s also essential for you to be able to access high quality continuing education and telehealth training to be the best online therapist you can be.

Imagine showing up to your online sessions with a full tool box of treatment ideas, assessment options and parent/caregiver consulting tips?  Wouldn’t it be a relief to know that you had all the tools required to best meet the complex needs of your clients and students?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need some extra guidance and training, I’ve got you covered!  I spent the past 20 years working as an pediatric OT and am happy to share my experience and lessons learned.  The past 4 years I’ve been creating T School, a telehealth pediatric OT training program for my own clinical team at Stepping Stones Therapy Network, who cross train in both outpatient clinic and school settings.

All of that hard work paid off and when my clinic was forced to close it’s doors to in person sessions, we made the transformation from in-clinic to online sessions overnight.  Plus, the T School Program has already been “OT Tested and Kid Approved!”

When you’ve mastered the art of working online, it’s truly a rewarding feeling to share your “therapy magic” with kids and families through telehealth.

If you need some help in updating your tech skills and want to take your tech skills from mediocre to amazing, you’re in luck.

“T School ” or Telehealth for Pediatric Therapists was created for novice telehealth OT practitioners who want to feel more comfortable and confident while navigating the  technical and clinical aspects of online therapy.

T School will help transform your future career by helping you to succeed online, while strengthening an essential skill set that you’ll need to stay current and cutting edge within the occupational therapy profession.  Plus, you’ll receive AOTA approved CEUs upon successful completion of the course.

Sign up for the FREE Pediatric Telehealth Master Class!

If you're a pediatric therapist looking to level up your telehealth skills then this telehealth training is for you!

You'll learn 3 essential strategies to keep your students and clients engaged, tackling the tech, and how to be the most effective online therapist for family centered care.

Don't miss out on this FREE, 50 minute Telehealth Master Class.

Click the button to register and sign up for the time that works best for you.


Telehealth Treatment Planning Made Easy

Telehealth Treatment Planning Made Easy

Do you ever find yourself asking, “What should I plan for therapy today?”  Or  “How am I going to keep my kids busy today?”

When it comes to planning  therapeutic activities for OT sessions online,  it definitely takes good communication and collaboration between therapist, parent or caregiver.

When kids come to the clinic, the answer to the question, “What are we going to do today?” often comes pretty easily, especially if you’re and OT with a closet or cupboard full of activities and ideas.

However, when it comes to working with kids virtually, this very same question has an extra degree of difficulty for a number of reasons.

Some of the biggest challenges of OT treatment planning for telehealth sessions are…

  1. You feel like you don’t have as many activity ideas for telehealth as you do for in person sessions.
  2. You don’t have the luxury of a therapy gym full of equipment or cupboards full of games and activities.
  3. Your clients may have different levels of support or access to therapy supplies at home.

So, what’s  a therapist to do?  How can parents or caregivers help support their child’s online OT session using every day household items?

Fortunately, the answer is a fairly simple solution.  When it comes to therapy activities for telehealth…

Telehealth treatment planning doesn’t have to complicated.  Start simply and make it easy by using items that the child already has at home.

There are a number of very common household items that most families will have on hand.  Some examples include: coins, paper, pencil, pens, clothespins or chip clips, rubber bands, recycled plastic containers, cups, canned food, kitchen tongs, cotton balls, Q-tips etc.

All you need to do is… harness your clinical reasoning skills, think creatively and add a sense of fun to help these household items go from functional to fabulous!

I’ve created a Telehealth Home Inventory Checklist to help you get started with your treatment planning.  Consider it as a starter kit for a home item checklist.  There’s no need to overwhelm yourself or your parents, with a giant of items they need for online occupational therapy sessions.

CLICK HERE To Get Your FREE Home Inventory Checklist

As a matter of fact, it’s helpful to review this checklist with parents the first session so you can get an idea of what supplies they already have at home.

Using the Home Inventory Starter checklist is  a quick win for everyone because it’s…

  • FREE
  • Convenient
  • Helps you plan future treatment planning knowing what materials are available to the child
  • Utilizes activities helpful for boosting kids development and can target specific fine motor or adaptive skills
  • Gives parents activity ideas to keep their kids busy and helps with carry over at home

The next question is… What are some ideas for using house hold items?

Share your favorite ideas in the comments below!

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