The Vital Role of Sensory Regulation in Children’s Learning and Communication

The journey of childhood is a remarkable period of growth and development, where each sensory experience shapes the young mind. Central to this development is the ability to regulate sensory input, which plays a pivotal role in children’s learning and communication skills.

Understanding Sensory Regulation:

Regulation is the ability to adjust arousal levels to match the demands of the environment and activities, ensuring an optimal state for engagement and learning. Throughout the day, the brain and body continuously work to increase or decrease arousal levels to maintain this balance. This process, often referred to as self-soothing (self-regulation), is essential for navigating daily experiences effectively and to stay focused, organized, and be emotionally balanced, enabling them to engage in various activities and interact with others.

However, some children, face challenges in regulating themselves (called as Sensory dysregulation). This difficulty can manifest in various ways, including struggles with sensory regulation and emotional regulation. For individuals with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and attachment disorders, regulation difficulties are commonly reported.

Impact on Learning:

Children who struggle with sensory processing may find it challenging to concentrate in educational settings, follow instructions, or engage in tasks requiring sustained focus. For instance, a child sensitive to noise might become easily distracted in a bustling classroom, hindering their ability to absorb new information. Similarly, a child seeking sensory input may exhibit repetitive behaviours to fulfil their sensory needs, further impeding their learning process.

Impact on Emotional Regulation:

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to regulate our emotions. Children who are unable to effectively regulate their sensory inputs may experience heightened emotional responses, such as anxiety, frustration, or temper tantrums. This can interfere with their ability to engage in learning activities and communicate their needs effectively. By providing sensory support and teaching self-regulation strategies, adults can help children manage their emotions and build resilience. Thus, adults become a co-regulator for their children.

Impact on Social interaction and Communication skills:

Effective communication relies heavily on sensory processing. Children who face challenges in processing sensory information may find it difficult to comprehend social cues, such as facial expressions and body language, verbal and nonverbal cues, affecting their social interactions – thus leading to misunderstandings and difficulties in forming relationships. A study published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology found that children with sensory processing challenges were more likely to exhibit difficulties in expressive and receptive language skills. Another study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders highlighted that sensory regulation difficulties were linked to challenges in social communication and pragmatic language skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

How does Sensory Integration (SI) therapy help support Sensory Regulation?

SI Therapy is provided by trained therapists who use play-based sensory-motor activities and the just-right challenge to influence the way the child responds to sensation, reducing distress, and improving motor skills, adaptive responses, concentration, and interaction with others. SI Therapy involves engaging children in activities that stimulate their senses in a structured and controlled manner, helping them learn to process and respond to sensory input more effectively. SI therapy can be especially beneficial for children with sensory processing disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, but can also benefit all children by promoting overall sensory development and regulation.

How co-regulation with parents develops into self-regulation in children?

Co-regulation paves the way for a child to be able to self-regulate eventually, but they need to practice alongside parents, first. Co-regulatory interactions with parents are key to their social-emotional development. They use parent’s emotional regulation as a model of how to nurture their own self-regulation skills.

In conclusion, sensory regulation plays a crucial role in children’s learning and communication. By understanding the impact of sensory processing difficulties and implementing strategies to support sensory regulation, we, as health professionals, can help create a positive and inclusive learning environment for all children. By prioritizing sensory regulation, we can help children reach their full potential and thrive both academically and socially.

References:

  1. Randell, E., McNamara, R., Delport, S. et al.Sensory integration therapy versus usual care for sensory processing difficulties in autism spectrum disorder in children: study protocol for a pragmatic randomised controlled trial. Trials 20, 113 (2019).
  2. Miller, L. J. (2006). An ecological model of sensory modulation: Performance of children with fragile X syndrome, autistic disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and sensory modulation dysfunction. In D. E. Saklofske, J. L. G. Blieszner, & M. J. Mahwah (Eds.), Handbook of developmental disabilities (pp. 203-228). Guilford Press.
  3. Dunn, W. (1997). The impact of sensory processing abilities on the daily lives of young children and their families: A conceptual model. Infants & Young Children, 9(4), 23-35