Sensory Processing

What is sensory processing?

We all make 'sense' of our environment through the information our senses give us (see what we did there?).

Sensory processing is the brain’s ability to understand and process this information. Simply put, our brains interpret the material the senses give them into the appropriate actions for whatever situation we’re in. For example, recoiling from something that’s too hot or squinting when the sun is too bright. Going further, our brains also use this information to figure out and plan the best way to do things. For kids, it’s how they learn to play in the ‘organised’ manner that’s optimal for developing their skills

The calm alert state

Sometimes children can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to certain sensory stimuli (external factors that cause a change or reaction in the body, such as light and sound).

Ideally, it’s best if their sensory processing abilities sit somewhere in the middle at what Goldilocks would call ‘just right’. This is called the ‘calm alert state’.  The calm alert state is where kids have their best learning moments, because they’re the most receptive – open, responsive and undistracted. Therefore, it’s really important to teach your little miss or mister how they can reach this state themselves.

What does sensory processing involve?

So, you’ve no doubt heard of the five senses that allow us to taste, smell, touch, see and hear but did you know there are actually two more? Touch, hearing and sight are particularly important in the school environment, alongside two ‘lesser known’ senses that also contribute to whether we have good or poor sensory processing.

Let’s explore the seven senses...


Taste enables us to experience the flavour of food through the taste buds on our tongue. It’s not as important in the classroom but it’s definitely the sense that decides whether or not junior’s lunch will be eaten!


Smell allows us to detect and differentiate between various scents through our nose. Your youngster’s snout will enable them to enjoy the fragrance of nearby flowers while they’re on the playground but, like taste, it’s not as crucial for their learning as the five other senses below.


Touch lets us know about temperature, size, shape, texture and pain. Touch plays a big part in your little one holding their pencil, opening their lunch box and turning the pages of their books at school (to name just a few examples).


Hearing is the sense that most parents wish had an ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch! It feeds us sounds and enables us to interpret our environment based on these noises (and silences – such as when it goes eerily quiet and you just know little miss or mister is up to mischief!).

In a school environment, hearing enables learning in all sorts of crucial ways, such as being able to follow instructions and even the development of junior’s social skills.


Sight (or vision) allows us to interpret stimuli though our eyes. In the classroom, your youngster will rely on their sight to read and write, copy from the blackboard and find certain objects like their school bag or their name on a list.

Proprioception (Joint Body Awareness)

One of the lesser known senses, proprioception (or joint body awareness) tells us where our body parts are positioned and how they interact with each other, without using our eyes. It’s essential for junior being able to move smoothly and with coordination in school activities such as controlling a pencil while they’re writing and participating in group sports.

Vestibular Sense (Whole Body Movement Awareness)

The other lesser known sense is the vestibular sense. It informs us about the position of our head and body and is very important for maintaining posture, balance and resting tone (when the muscle isn’t being contracted). At school, the vestibular sense will enable your little one to sit upright and maintain their posture while they’re sat at their desk.

How do I know if my child is having difficulty with their sensory processing skills?

Occasionally, children can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to certain external factors and can consequently react in less than optimal ways. An over-sensitive youngster might appear overly excited, fearful, agitated, restless, hyperactive or even controlling. Alternatively, if little miss or mister is under-sensitive they might require a lot of encouragement to ‘get going’ or for you to ‘rev their body engine’.

General sensory processing

Kids with poor sensory processing skills may struggle with:

  • Concentrating or ‘attending to task’ (being able to settle into a structured environment and focus)
  • Having endurance when completing a task (how long they can focus or concentrate for)
  • Responding appropriately to different environments (e.g. speaking softly in a quiet environment)
  • Completing daily tasks (e.g. cleaning their teeth, getting dressed)
  • Maintaining friendships
  • Learning
  • Displaying consistent and appropriate behaviour
  • Regulating their emotions (being able to recognise their emotions, plus control and/or adjust them, so they’re appropriate for the situation)
  • Calming down or sleeping
  • Being touched or tolerating certain textures
  • Modifying their strength or not using extreme force (e.g. may play rough with their peers)
  • Understanding where their body is in relation to other objects
  • Fussy eating
  • Being washed or having their hair cut
  • Riding on swings, bikes or merry-go-rounds


Kids who have difficulty processing their sense of touch may:

  • Appear overly sensitive to fabrics or materials (e.g. wool, shaving cream, tags on the back of t-shirts)
  • Resist either heavy or light pressure touch
  • Drop things often
  • Struggle with using tools such as scissors
  • Avoid certain foods


Kids who have difficulty processing their sense of hearing may:

  • Be easily distracted by background noise
  • Get overwhelmed by too much noise
  • Have trouble understanding instructions
  • Find completing tasks in a busy or noisy environment difficult


Kids who have difficulty processing their sense of vision may:

  • Have trouble telling different colours, letters or numbers apart
  • Find it difficult to see things clearly on the blackboard
  • Complain of sore eyes throughout the school day
  • Complain of seeing 'too much' on a page of writing
  • Struggle to find an individual item amongst other similar items (e.g. a particular pair of socks in the sock drawer)

Proprioception (Joint Body Awareness)

Kids who have difficulty processing their sense of proprioception or joint body awareness may:

  • Appear wriggly (because they’re frequently adjusting their posture)
  • Look clumsy or like they’re moving ‘heavily’
  • Bump into things
  • Drop things
  • Have difficulty holding their pencils with the appropriate pressure

Vestibular Sense (Whole Body Movement Awareness)

Kids who have difficulty processing their vestibular or whole body movement awareness sense may:

  • Have poor balance and posture
  • Avoid activities like swings and spinning games or seek excessive movement such as turning upside down or rocking in their chair
  • Experience motion sickness, dizziness or nausea that’s caused by watching things move (e.g. in a car, boat, airplane)
  • Have difficulty walking on uneven ground
  • Have difficulty navigating stairs 

Find out more about sensory processing skills!

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Ways you can help your child with their sensory processing skills

We’ve put together some strategies and activities that will help little miss or mister to achieve a ‘calm alert state’ where they’re not over- or under-sensitive to what’s going on around them.

Everything we recommend below will help your youngster to receive the ‘input’ they need and process it effectively.

In particular, activities that involve pushing or pulling actions will help either calm junior down or rev junior up so they’re in the ideal calm alert state. They’re known as ‘heavy work’ activities.

Achieving calm alertness

Encourage your child to revisit these strategies whenever they need to in order to feel both calm and alert:

  • Sitting on a fitness/exercise ball while they’re at the dinner table or desk
  • Using weight to ground them (e.g. a cushion or miniature bean bags on the lap, a weight bag on the shoulders)
  • Swaddling or wrapping them up in a blanket
  • Rolling on the ground or walking on all fours (on their hands and knees)
  • Playing on a swing, seesaw or rocking toys
  • Rolling on scooter-boards or skateboards (i.e. a board on four wheels)
  • Activities that involve blowing (e.g. blowing bubbles, playing with whistles, blowing through straws)
  • Drinking through a straw
  • Playing with messy things that have different textures (e.g. shaving cream, jelly, playdough)
  • Activities that involve ‘heavy work’ (e.g. jumping, bouncing, swinging, rolling, pushing, pulling)
  • Playing in tunnels
  • Squeezing stress balls
  • Playing in sand and water
  • Listening to relaxation music

Calming down

These strategies will help little miss or mister to calm down:

  • Slowly and gently rocking in a rocking chair or hammock
  • Being snugly wrapped up in a blanket
  • Forming a compression (e.g. laying pillows on top of junior and pressing firmly)
  • Having a play area with cushions, pillows and/or bean bags
  • Wearing compression garments
  • Using ‘oral sensory tools’ such as sucking on a sports water bottle or drinking through a straw
  • Chewing gum
  • Providing a 'quiet corner' (e.g. a play tent with a beanbag or a pillow and blanket)
  • Adapting the environment to be calming (e.g. dimming the lights, adding lavender scents, playing slow and rhythmic music, adding slow moving visual features like a lava lamp, painting the walls soothing colours)

Increasing alertness

The following strategies will help increase your youngster’s level of alertness:

  • Fast rocking or swinging
  • Jumping on a mini trampoline
  • Sitting or bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Walking like an animal (e.g. doing bunny hops by pushing the hands off the floor, lying on the belly and pulling the body across the floor using the forearms like a seal)
  • Doing jumping jacks
  • Playing music with a fast beat
  • Doing compression activities such as wall and chair push ups*
  • Hugging themself
  • Playing on playground equipment
  • Using ‘oral sensory tools’ such as mints, crunchy foods or sour lollie

*To do wall push-ups, get little miss or mister to stand about two steps away from the wall, with both hands placed on the wall at shoulder height. Then get them to let their elbows bend so their body ‘falls’ closer to the wall, followed by straightening their elbows to push away from the wall. For chair push-ups junior needs to sit on a chair with their hands palm down on the seat. Then ask them to lift their body up.

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Combined Videos

Combining several foundation skills, our PlayBiz Play-a-Long videos run for 10 minutes or so. We’ve carefully ordered the activities so they enable your youngster to have an optimal learning experience and develop the skills they’ll need for school by joining in the ‘teachable moments’. Picture a fun and educational TV program like PlaySchool crossed with an occupational therapy session that’s chock full of strategies. Ready, steady, learn! Please note: The Play-a-Long videos don’t need to be viewed in any particular order.