Young children need to smell, taste, hear, see, touch and move their muscles and joints as they learn how to interpret and navigate the world around them. But this has become quite a challenge during the pandemic.

The challenges

“Covid-19 is limiting our children’s exposure to sensory stimuli and sensory processing opportunities, which are crucial for development and academic learning,” says occupational therapist, Annetta Saaiman. “Parents and caregivers are urged to provide safe, sensory-rich environments at home by using everyday life activities such as gardening and baking (no need for fancy toys!).” 

Sensory triggers

“Furthermore, our children’s sensory systems are severely challenged by the lockdown restrictions and this can lead to meltdowns and resistance to learning.” Annetta says sensory triggers that could affect children’s behaviour include the following:

  • Wearing a mask can be distracting, lead to fidgeting, anxiety and frustration build-up. Some children might find it soothing and calming but be aware of ‘avoidance’ behaviour.
  • Social distancing prevents children from running freely and participating in games with friends that require bumping, pushing, pulling and touching. Movement will be restricted on the playground equipment. Strict boundaries will apply in the classroom, at the desk and during floor time. Children will be required to stand behind lines, in lines and sit on specific ‘dots’. No sharing of clay, pencils or sweets will be allowed. Your high-energy child won’t be able to express and release built-up energy freely and will struggle to follow the rules. The sensory sensitive child will benefit from the structure and feel safe, but this can enforce rigid behaviour and prevent the learning of new skills.
  • The need for frequent hand washing and sanitising hands and surfaces can also act as sensory triggers. The constant smell of hand sanitiser, and touching sticky objects and surfaces will affect your sensitive child’s tolerance and frustration levels.

The opportunity

Annetta says the Covid-19 pandemic has also created a wonderful opportunity for us to practice self-regulation, which matures just like other developmental processes. This refers to our ability to control the following in our everyday environments:

  • Body (motor actions) – Sensory regulation
  • Mind (thoughts) – Cognitive regulation
  • Heart (emotions) – Emotional regulation

“As children get older, they learn to think before they act,” says Annetta. “Children with higher levels of self-regulation have achieved higher scores in reading, vocabulary and math. It is not only associated with higher future academic levels, but gives children strategies to stay calm in stressful situations. By developing strong habits of self-regulation, they will be able to apply them throughout their lives.”

How do we do it?

  • Parents, teachers and therapists should model good self-regulation for developing children.
  • Children who show good self-regulatory behaviour should be grouped with others who struggle.
  • Sensory breaks with movement that requires the muscles and joints to work hard should be used, as this is calming and releases tension (sensory regulation).
  • Body/sensory regulation can contribute to emotional and cognitive regulation.
  • Specific strategies for emotional and cognitive regulation need to be addressed.
  • Good self-regulation should be rewarded.
  • Children who show signs of poor self-regulation should be identified and referred to occupational and/or psychological therapy for more direct intervention.

Workshops

Her mission is to promote sensory healthy children by running workshops for parents and teachers on how to change the home and school environment to develop sensory processing and sensory regulation abilities, says Annetta. She is offering two workshops next month – one for parents/caregivers from 21 – 22 August (‘Sensory processing made practical for parents’), and one for educators from 28 – 29 August (‘Sensory processing made practical for educators’). Due to the need for social distancing, participants will be limited according to venue size. Workshops are also available via zoom.

“It is important to remember, though, that workshops do not replace individual assessment and treatment, in collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team,” says Annetta. To find out more about how occupational therapy could benefit your child, or to sign up for one of the workshops, Annetta can be contacted on 072 118 5683. 

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