Category Archives: sensory integration

How to get children to focus for a reading lesson

Is your child having trouble focusing during his or her reading lesson?  Here are some tips.

Establish a routine for the lessons, so the child knows what to expect. Be consistent with time and place.  Try working on the hardest thing first, such as reading lists of phonics words.  Try ending with a game—something fun but related to the work you are doing.  The younger the child, the more important it is to segment lessons into predictable parts.  If possible, identify all parts of the lesson before you begin so the child has an overview of what he will be working on.

If the child is distracted by sounds, while you work run a low, constant sound in the background—perhaps one of those baby sound machines of a heartbeat or of ocean waves.  Or run the dishwasher or a hair dryer.

If the child is distracted by sights, create a bland space to work in—soft colors, no patterned draperies, no posters. If there is a window, close the blinds or pull the shades to limit distractions.  Keep the surface of the child’s desk or table clear.

Consider whether the child will have trouble putting down electronic equipment. If so, save that part of the lesson to the end.Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Model the behavior you want from your child. If he is to read a paragraph, then you read a paragraph.  If he is to read a column of words, you read a column of words.

Before your lesson, encourage the child to have physical exercise—to run outside, to take a walk with you, or to bicycle, for example. The exercise will bring oxygen to the child’s brain and it will get rid of the “willies.”

Allow the child time to consider an answer to a question. If she seems to be having trouble, ask her to think out loud.  Perhaps give her hints, but let her struggle a bit to find the answer.

Allow the child to have a say in the “rules” of your lessons. If he wants a five minute break every ten minutes, allow it so long as he pays attention during the lesson.  If he wants to stand on the chair or  twist like a pretzel while he is reading, allow it so long as he is doing the work.  Kids with sensory integration issues need this leeway to hang in there.  Compromise so that you can achieve what you need to during each lesson and so that he feels like he is being heard and respected.

Before one part of the lesson ends, tell the child what will happen next. Let the child mentally prepare for what comes next.  Let the only surprises be good surprises.

Let the child wear comfortable clothes and work on a comfortable chair.  Put a box or a pile of books in front of the chair so the child has a place to rest her feet.

When you talk to the child, wait until she is looking at you, until you have her complete attention. Use small, easy to follow sentences.  Put one idea in each sentence.  If directions are three steps, say one step, allow the student to follow it, and then say the second step.  For some children too much incoming information is distracting.

Try to find game-like ways to teach. Children will be more cooperative if they think they are playing a game.

10 picture books with simple illustrations

Picture books with simple illustrations and bland backgrounds—the kinds which appeal to toddlers and children with sensory integration problems—can be hard to find if you search online or on shelf.  Even harder to find are such books which tell a story.

But they are great books for reading aloud to sensitive children.  And they are equally valuable for suggesting story ideas for children to write.

Here are ten such books from all over the world which your child might enjoy.  Many have won awards.


Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl (the version illustrated by Quentin Blake)

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde by Joyce Dunbar

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (wordless)

Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle (wordless)

The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Snow White and the Fox by Niroot Puttapipat

Lon Po Po:  A Red Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young

For kids with sensory integration issues, choose picture books with pared down shapes, colors, focus

If your child resists being read to or resists reading certain picture books, it could be the pictures themselves that discourage reading.

Look for books with no backgrounds, solid colors, and focused on one or two characters.

Picture books with detailed backgrounds or with copious patterns can turn off children with sensory integration issues.  Such children have difficulty focusing if there is too much pattern, noise, motion, or texture in any experience.  They prefer plain painted walls and plain bedspreads, not papered walls and patterned bedding; low, instrumental music by a single instrument, not loud music or music with lyrics; sitting or standing still, not rocking or dancing; and loose knit clothing, not clothes with tags or clothes that are tight-fitting.

When you choose books for children who show sensory integration issues, search for picture books with these characteristics:

  • Pictures with no backgrounds, or just the hint of background—a wash of green to represent grass and trees, for example, or one or two birds in the sky, not a whole flock.
  • Characters dressed in solid colors without shading or patterns in their clothes. If you have seen Pippa the Pig books or cartoons, with their simplistic images, that is the kind you want to show your child.
  • Pictures using flat shapes and limited colors, the kind that children themselves produce. (Think of the way Peanuts cartoon characters are presented—Charlie Brown with his round head and Lucy with her dress of a single color.)
  • Pictures focusing on one or two characters, not groups. Look for pared down, minimalist images which have removed everything but the essential elements.

Likewise, when you look for  picture books for children with sensory integration issues to write about, search for picture books with the same features.  Some wordless picture books offer these kinds of pictures, but not all do.

Finding such books in your library or book store is not easy.  A section labeled “simplistic art” doesn’t exist.  I have had to scour shelves to find what I am looking for.  But the search is worth it to entice a reluctant child reader or writer.

Next blog:  Names of some books that might appeal to kids showing sensory integration issues.

Kids who retain primitive reflexes can have reading, writing problems

Babies are born with primitive reflexes—automatic physical responses that increase their chances of being born properly and of surviving infancy.  These same primitive reflexes, if they persist beyond the first few months of life, can indicate poor physical functioning in the toddler, and reading and handwriting problems for the young child.

Some common primitive reflexes include:

Moro Reflex (or startle reflex):  This reflex has three parts.  First, the baby rapidly extends his arms.  Then, just as rapidly, he pulls his arms close to his trunk.  Lastly, he cries.  When a baby feels he is falling or losing his balance, he displays this reflex.  It is the baby’s way of showing fear.  The Moro reflex shows for the first four months of life and then subsides.  If it persists beyond four or five months, the child may show sensory processing problems, anxiety, balance and coordination difficulties, poor muscle tone, motion sickness and poor impulse control.

ATNR:  The asymmetrical tonic neck reflex shows when a new baby moves her head from one side to another.  If her head turns to one side, her arm and leg on that side extend into a straight position while her arm and leg on the opposite side bend.  The ATNR reflex is sometimes called the fencing reflex because the baby takes the same pose as a fencer.  This reflex develops before birth and helps the baby navigate through the birth canal.  Usually it disappears by six months, but if it continues, it could show as several problems.

  • Handwriting can be difficult because each time the child turns her head, the hand on that side will want to straighten and the grip on the pencil will loosen. Children compensate by holding their pencils tightly, causing stress in the hand.  They focus on the physical process of holding a pencil rather than on the ideas they are writing.  The handwriting might slope every which way.
  • Reading can be difficult because of eye tracking problems. Instead of moving smoothly across a page of text, the eyes jump.  The child might lose her place and lose comprehension.
  • Mixed laterality can show as a child not developing a dominant hand for writing, holding utensils and catching a ball, and not developing a dominant foot for kicking, walking and running. The brain is more efficient if one side dominates.  Otherwise both sides compete for dominance.  Poor coordination can result.

STNR:  The symmetrical tonic neck reflex shows between six and eight months of age.  When a child is on his tummy, this reflex allows the child to straighten his arms and bend his legs in order to crawl.  This reflex is needed for crawling and for developing hand-eye coordination.  As the child grows, the STNR reflex allows the child to read without losing his place and to follow his hand with his eyes while writing.

TLR:  The tonic labyrinthine reflex causes the baby’s arms and legs to extend when the baby’s head turns up, and causes the arms and legs to fold when the head bends down.  This reflex helps a baby to crawl.  Children with poor posture, or who walk on their toes, or who have trouble playing with a ball may have this reflex persisting long after four months of age.  If it persists it can also interfere with speaking because the tongue wants to extend.

Spinal Galant Reflex:  When an infant’s skin is stroked on the side of her back, she will tend to move toward the stroked side.  This helps during birth but usually disappears by nine months.  If not, problems could include an inability to sit still; a dislike of tight clothing, especially around the waist; bed wetting; and poor short term memory, making reading comprehension difficult.

What is the best place to do homework for an elementary school student?

A desk in a bedroom?  The kitchen table?  The public library?  Is there a best place for little kids to do homework?

boy reading

A child’s bedroom offers privacy away from house noise. On the bed, on the floor, at a desk—the child has options for posture.  For a self-sufficient and focused child, a bedroom can be great.  But for a daydreamer or a procrastinator, a bedroom can be disastrous.  Also, bedrooms are usually upstairs or down the hall from the refrigerator.  And Mom or Dad are in another part of the house, making it difficult to consult with them.  Kids like to hang around the family in the evening.

The kitchen table or counter offers little privacy and is busy—the dishwasher chugging, someone cooking, and the family crisscrossing the room.  For a child sensitive to noise, the kitchen table is not ideal.   But for a child who needs someone prodding him to continue his work, it can be ideal if noise and distractions are limited.

The family room couch and coffee table can be great.  They offer a comfy seat and various postures.  They  are near the kitchen.  But what if Dad wants to watch the TV news at 6:30?  Or the baby or dog is crawling around?  The rest of the family has to respect the student’s need for quiet.

Girl reading Junie B. Jones.

The floor can be a great homework area, especially if the child has a mat designated for homework.  Roll it out in any part of the house, and the child can sprawl and relax her body.  But again, the rest of the family needs to respect the student’s need to focus without noise.

Public libraries are generally not good for young children unless they need to work on a group project.  Then some libraries have private conference rooms where children can talk, exchange ideas and work together, providing an adult reserves and is responsible for the room.  Transportation can be a problem for some students.  If a student does not own a computer, and if he needs to do internet research, a library can be a great place to work.  Reference materials abound.  But usually an adult needs to reserve a computer, and transportation can be an issue.  Some libraries are not open evenings.

The best place to do homework depends on a number of factors—the student’s personality and study skills, noise levels, hunger, interruptions, time of day, transportation—so there is no perfect spot.

I did homework at the dining room table surrounded by my brothers and sisters while another one practiced the piano in the next room.  The older children acted as experts to the younger children, and our mother looked over our shoulders frequently.  Ideal?  Maybe not, but it worked.

Let your child try many different places.  After each one, ask him to consider why it worked or not.  The more the child knows about his learning style, the more he can determine what kind of environment works best for doing homework.

How teachers can better deal with sensory integration issues

Many school teachers think that the more wall space covered with sight words, the ABC’s, classroom rules, maps, posters, the periodic table, steps in the writing process, and photos of fossils the better students can learn.

hard books, easy book because of white space, graphics

Not so.  At least, not so for students with sensory integration issues.  For them the information  meant to help instead distracts and makes focusing difficult.

What can teachers do to modify their classrooms so children can focus better?

  • First, assume sensory integration (SI) issues are as real as the problems of a child needing glasses or using crutches. To get the best possible learning from SI children, meet their needs.
  • Leave plenty of “white” space on the walls. Just as white space on a page of print encourages reading, white or blank space on classroom walls lessens distractions and encourages learning.
  • Limit wall decorations—especially graphic or vivid decorations—to the back of the room where students are not barraged by them. When students face forward, they should see the teacher, the board and the clock, but not distractions.
  • Make sure every student sits in a desk chair which allows the student’s feet—toes and heels—to touch the floor without straining. Children forced to sit in chairs too big for them are uncomfortable, and that discomfort distracts them from learning.
  • Leave elbow space next to every student desk. A student who must sit with both sides of her desk touching another desk can feel claustrophobic, making learning hard.  At the very least, put only two student desks together.
  • Don’t place students so that they face other students.
  • Leave space before and behind a student’s desk so that he can comfortably push back his chair or enter and leave his desk without bumping into another student’s desk. Leave enough space so another student’s feet can’t touch the chair ahead from behind.
  • When students sit cross-legged in a group, if a student wants to sit at the rear, allow it. If a student wants to stand at the back of the line, allow it.  Students sensitive to touch will be grateful and you will have fewer fights and less fidgeting.
  • If a student is concerned about the condition of a used book—ripped or folded pages, highlighting, doodling in margins—assume the concern is real and will interfere with learning. Find a book in better condition.
  • If students share pencils from a classroom bin, assign someone to sharpen them daily or twice daily. Writing with sharp points not only looks better but encourages students to do well.  Dull points can really annoy students with sensory integration issues.
  • Instruct students to use indoor voices in the classroom.

Let students know they can approach you if they have SI issues.  Ask them how they would solve a problem.  Many times they have already figured out how to live with SI.

Helping a child with sensory integration issues

Sometimes what we think is a reading problem is really a sensory integration problem.

child tired, cold, hungry with mother

Sensory integration means sorting through all the input from our senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste or feel—into a meaningful message in our brains. Sometimes too much sensory data clogs our brains, causing problems. On an airplane, for example, some of us can easily tune out the baby crying and the plane bumping through clouds.  But others are ready to scream.

A child might show sensory integration issues if the cat is purring is too loudly.  Or the new shoes are too tight.  The bath towel is too scratchy.  The banana texture is too squishy.  Bathtub bubbles hurt .  The label inside the T-shirt tickles.

If you child has sensory integration issues here’s how you can help her focus when reading:

  • Motion: Make sure she is sitting in a still, comfortable place where she is less likely to fidget.  No gliders or swings.  Not in the back seat of a moving car.  Make sure her feet are supported.
  • Sound: Eliminate noise distractions.  Turn off the TV and radio.  Put the dog in his cage.  Stop the washing machine.  Seclude your child to the quietest part of the house.  If there is still noise, turn on your hair dryer or your vacuum cleaner to provide constant, steady “white” noise which obscures background sounds.  One of those recordings of waves or a mother’s heartbeat meant for new babies might also help.
  • Sight: Face a plain painted wall if possible.  No wallpaper with designs.  Draw the blinds.  Surround the child with calm, soothing colors like pastels, whites or tans.  No oranges, reds or bright pinks.  Choose picture books with plainer backgrounds so the child’s eyes know what to focus on.
  • Touch: Dress the child in soft, comfortable, nonbinding clothes.  Remove shoes and socks.  Have her sit on a smooth or pillowy surface—nothing scratchy.  If you are with her, cuddle if she likes but keep some distance if she prefers not to be touched.
  • A trick an occupational therapist taught me: To settle the child, scratch her back for a few minutes.  Begin at the neck and scratch straight down the backbone—not sideways and not from the bottom up, but from the top of the spine to just below the waist.  Scratch with your nails hard enough for the child not to feel tickled but not roughly enough to hurt.  (This is a great technique to help a baby relax to fall asleep, too.)

In the next blog we’ll talk about some modifications a teacher can make to a classroom to help children with sensory integration issues to prevail in school.