Homework Help: A Neurological Snack

Is homework time just as painful for you as it is for your child?  “If they would just sit down and focus they could have their homework done, but I just can’t seem to get him to sit down at the table or I can’t seem to get her to focus on her work.  Then I get frustrated and start giving out punishments and meltdowns ensue.”  As a pediatric occupational therapist, I hear some version of this story from my client’s parents weekly.

Your child has been sitting way too long at school and has had many demands to stay still and stay focused all day to learn (Chaddock-Heyman et al., 2014; Wallace, 2015; Haapala et al., 2016).  Your child’s neurological needs have not been met, resulting in the need for them to move their body appearing as stubborn or defiant behavior; or on the opposite end of the spectrum, leaving your child completely drained from “keeping it together” all day at school appearing lazy or unmotivated when they come home.

Good news, you can help them re-charge their neurological system by helping your child get much needed sensory input to their brains before homework time!  Today we’re going to explore what activities can help your child get the sensory input they so desperately need when they come home from school.

Dr. A. Jean Ayres, a neuroscientist and occupational therapist, was a pioneer in the field of sensory integration (Ayres, 2005).  She found that when she provided children with disabilities opportunities for intense sensory input the children had a neurological “adapted response,” meaning their behavior appropriately matched situation (Ayres, 1972; Ayres, 2005).  Sensory Integration is a treatment approach occupational therapists use with children who have difficulties processing sensory input resulting in difficulties with coordination, postural control, and sensory modulation (Case-Smith & Miller, 1999; Ayres, 2005).

We all use sensory input throughout our day to achieve or maintain a just-right arousal state for self-regulation even if we do not have sensory processing difficulties or a disability (Ayres, 2005).  As an adult, we have better coping and cognitive skills to help us access the sensory input we need for self-regulation.

My morning goes much smoother and I’m much more organized and focused when I’m able to do yoga for proprioceptive and vestibular inputs.  At bedtime, I need the room to be cool so I can use heavy blankets, achieving the same effect as a weighted blanket, for deep pressure tactile input to help me calm to go to sleep.

2 Minute Action Plan:

Think about what you do throughout your day to help you wake up, calm down, stay alert, or relax.  Do you chew gum during the meeting after lunch or shake your leg?  Do you go for a run in the morning?  What about drinking cold water or taking a hot shower?  All of these activities provide sensory input to your brain and your brain sends messages to your body to help you calm or to help you wake up in order for you to have a just-right arousal level to achieve self-regulation to meet the demands of your day (Ayres, 2005).

Your child likely has not yet developed the necessary self-awareness, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills required for self-regulation (Kuypers, 2008).  You can help your child by helping them access the sensory input they need when they get home from school and before they start their homework.

Vestibular input helps you know where your body is in space and how your body is moving.  The vestibular system is responsible for helping you maintain an upright posture, balance reactions, coordinating your body movements, and helping you achieve a calm-alert arousal for self-regulation (Bundy, Lane, & Murray, 2002; Ayres, 2005).  The vestibular receptors are located in your inner-ear and are activated when you move your body or turn your head.  Vestibular input is necessary to help children’s brain develop, and unfortunately with an over-emphasis on seated learning starting younger and younger and sedentary leisure activities children are not getting enough vestibular input throughout their day (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015).  If your child is wiggly in their chair, in constant motion when they get home from school, moving like Eeyore with no energy, or slumped over on the table during homework time, try activities that require your child to move their body or change head position, such as:

  • riding a bike
  • scooter board game
  • jumping on a trampoline
  • spinning
  • races
  • swinging
  • sitting on air cushion

Proprioceptive input tells you the position of your joints; it’s how you know how your body is positioned when your eyes are closed (Bundy, Lane, & Murray, 2002; Ayres, 2005).  The proprioception system is responsible for helping you coordinate your movements and achieve a just-right arousal for self-regulation.  The proprioception receptors are located in your muscles and joints and are activated when you use your muscles or compress your joints.  Activities providing proprioception input are sometimes called “heavy work” because you must have muscle contractions to activate the proprioceptive system.  If your child is bouncing around the room, bumping into walls or furniture, climbing on furniture and jumping instead of sitting at the table for homework, try activities that require your child to use their large muscles, such as:

  • jumping on trampoline
  • animal walks (e.g. crab walk, bear walk, etc.)
  • chair or wall push-ups
  • yoga poses
  • stretchy band wrapped around the chair legs to push against with your feet
  • obstacle course with lots of crawling, jumping, climbing
  • laying on the floor on your belly to complete homework

Tactile input tells you about the properties of the environment or objects touching your skin, such as temperature, as well as pain (Bundy, Lane, & Murray, 2002; Ayres, 2005).  The tactile system is responsible for informing you of properties of objects you touch, coordinating your movements, safety with regards to registering pain, and self-regulation.  The tactile system receptors are located under your skin and detect both light touch and pressure.  Light touch is generally thought to be alerting, for example, tickles, and deep pressure is generally thought to be calming, for example, a massage or firm hug.  If your child is touching everything, unfocused, like to cover themselves with gooey and sticky things try activities that require your child to touch, provides pressure to their skin, or vibration, such as:

  • rolling a ball over your child’s body why they lay on the floor. Make sure their breathing is not obstructed.
  • using a weighted lap pad or neck wrap
  • Is the temperature of the room what the child needs?
  • use firm pressure to rub lotion on legs and arms
  • drawing in shaving cream or soap foam
  • playing with play doh
  • playing in slime or goo
  • playing in a sandbox

Other environmental considerations for homework time include making sure the space is uncluttered and distraction free.  Also, making sure the workspace is well lit.  If the child’s feet do not rest on the ground when seated in the chair at their workspace, use a footstool to provide extra support.  In addition to environmental modifications, having a routine for afterschool helps children develop good work habits and adds predictability.

Now you have activities and strategies to help you feed your child’s brain the right type of sensory input before homework time.  It’s time to go play!

Long-Term Action Plan:

  • What kind of activities can you try with your child to help them reach a just-right arousal level for homework time?
  • What environmental changes need to be made to support your child’s homework time?

Raejean Lopez, MOT, OTR/L Pediatric Occupational Therapist

References

Ayres, A. J. (1972). Sensory integration and learning disorders. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

Ayres, A. J. (2005). Sensory integration and the child, 25th anniversary. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Bundy, A. C., Lane, S., Murray, E. A., & Fisher, A. G. (2002). Sensory integration: Theory and practice. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.

Case-Smith, J. & Miller, H. (1999). Occupational therapy with children with pervasive developmental disorders. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 53, 506-513.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Healthy school facts. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/facts.htm.

Chaddock-Heyman, L., Erickson, K. I., Holtrop, J. L., Voss, M. W., Pontifex, M. B., Raine, L. B., Hillman, C. H., & Kramer, A. F. (2014). Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 19. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584

Haapala, E. A., Vaisto, J., Lintu, N., Westgate, K., Ekelund, U., Poikkeus, A. M., Brage, S., Lakka, TA. (2017). Physical activity and sedentary time in relation to academic achievement in children. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 20(2017) 583-589. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2016.11.003

Kuypers, L. M.  (2008). A curriculum designed to foster self-regulation in students with neurobiological impairments. Unpublished master’s capstone, Hamline University, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Results from the school health policies and practices study 2014. Washington, DC: Author.

Wallace, K. (2015). Standing desks become newest change to help students’ health. Retrieved from https://www.reviewjournal.com/life/health/standing-desks-become-newest-change-to-help-students-health/

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