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Sensory-Based Intervention Groups

Sensory-based intervention (SBI) groups can be useful in schools and clinical settings to improve sensory skills, behavior and learning.  SBIs are the guided use of sensory strategies to improve behavior by addressing specific sensory modulation or sensory discrimination challenges.  SBIs are commonly implemented in early intervention, school, and mental health settings through individual, group and consultative interventions. SBIs include directing other professionals in embedding goal-directed sensory activities into a student’s daily routine to improve behavior for learning.

It is important to distinguish occupational therapy utilizing SBIs from Sensory Integration Intervention. While SBIs and Sensory Integration both utilize the theory of sensory integration, they are distinct interventions with unique research efficacy. Sensory integration intervention, also referred to as Ayres Sensory Integration® is a developmental clinic-based, child-led intervention that follows specific core concepts.

SBIs can empower clients to actively substitute the sensory input provided through aggressive, inappropriate and self-injurious behavior with sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment. SBIs are goal-directed and specifically matched to the client’s needs and preferences. The use of SBIs has been integrated into the evidence-based Greenspan Floortime Approach for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Collaborative Problem Solving Approach for children with oppositional defiant disorder, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for adolescents with borderline personality disorder, and models for reducing restraint and seclusion in mental health facilities and schools a-reducing-restraint-and-seclusion OTPractSchoolOTRedAgg .

The new ESSA “Every Student Succeeds Acts” (2015) potentially expands the role of school therapists in helping at risk students and consulting with parents and teachers to improve school climate.  Under ESSA occupational, physical, speech/language, and school mental health therapists are designated as Specialized Instructional School Personnel (SISP) and given a role in helping at-risk regular education as well as special education students.  SBI’s can be included in interventions to educate students, staff and parents in enhancing student self-regulation school therapist consultations and group leadership.

Effectively using sensory-based interventions (SBIs) to improve functional behavior is different from the more common practice of randomly distributing adaptive equipment or using a single sensory strategy such as brushing for every student in a class. Using SBI adaptive equipment and sensory strategies to optimally promote functional behavior begins with an occupational therapy assessment, developing an individualized functional behavioral goal, gathering baseline data on the goal, and matching the client with the most appropriate individualized environmental adaptation.  Once a specific environmental adaptation has been implemented consistently for a month in conjunction with other professionals, it’s effectiveness is assessed to determine if the environmental adaptation should be continued, modified, or discontinued.

Sensory modulation is the ability to respond to functionally relevant sensory information while screening out irrelevant input.  Simply helping students understand their sensory modulation and/or sensory discrimination differences is an important first step in SBI.  Therapists can begin by discussing sensory modulation “energy levels” as low, medium and high, to help students identify when their energy levels are too high or low for behaving appropriately and learning.  Consistently using the color codes developed by the Zones of Regulation program can be part of the effort in helping students gain a better understanding of how their arousal levels affect their behavior and emotional regulation.

Once students have modulated their energy level, consider and intervene if sensory discrimination disorders are negatively impacting behavior.  When in the quiet alert state some students can still become dysregulated because of sensory discrimination disorders in which they have difficulty distinguishing, interpreting and organizing the information coming in from all their various senses.  For example, sensory discrimination disorder can involve problems organizing and combining information from the pressure, touch, and movement senses to appropriately print the “b”.

Sensory discrimination disorder can occur in any combination of ones sensory systems: tactile (touch), proprioceptive (muscle force/tension), interoceptive (internal organ states such as hung & pain), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), auditory, and visual.   it is most widely described in tactile discrimination disorder. A common assessment item regarding tactile discrimination from the Miller Assessment for Preschoolers involves the therapist having a client identify which finger is touched with eyes closed, with consistently accurate identification expected by age 3. Some high school students who are above grade level who had a trauma history and psychiatric disorder were inconsistently able to do this task. This difficulty alerts me to the need of increasing body awareness. Sensory Discrimination Disorders can involve the sense of: touch, proprioception (body awareness), vestibular (movement), vision, sound, taste, and/or smell. Interventions of sensory discrimination disorder are best done after basic sensory modulation has been addressed.

Recent research suggests that interoception can be a significant component of sensory discrimination disorders.  Interoception challenges involve confusion regarding internal body sensations such as hunger, thirst, and pain.  Exploring internal sensations through sensory mindfulness activities can help address interoception.  Research supports that mindfulness activities can be helpful interventions for individuals with somatic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder challenges.

mindfulnessSensory discrimination disorder contributes to difficulties with body awareness, embodiment, and organizational skills. Sensory discrimination disorder is more commonly seen in clients who experience early childhood post-traumatic stress disorder. It is hard to teach self-esteem and respecting others personal boundaries when clients don’t have adequate body awareness.

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It is important to help students learn to identify what they are feeling before they yell, hitting others or engage in problematic behavior “because they suddenly feel horrible”.   For students with developmental challenges it can be helpful to combine feeling faces with the color codes from the Zones of Regulation so they can use pictures to identify their negative feelings and arousal level and get assistance with finding self-regulation activities.

SBI involves the use of individualized adaptive equipment to improve specific goal-directed behavior, such as reducing noise and visual distractions with a study carol and noise-canceling headphones to reduce peer conflicts and increase attention.  It can also include massage, mindfulness activities, or embedded classroom tasks involving delivering a box of books for the teacher as a deep pressure movement break.  The most important and often neglected step is to identify and educate students regarding their specific sensory challenges related to behavior, and to reinforce all efforts to self-regulate.

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Sensory-Based Interventions (SBIs) Improve Behavior

Occupational therapists use sensory-based interventions (SBIs) to improve the behavior of children, adolescents and adults with developmental and sensory processing challenges. SBIs are the guided use of sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment to improve sensory modulation skills and behavior. Emerging evidence suggests that SBIs can significantly reduce distress and promote attention.

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SBIs empower clients to actively substitute the sensory input provided through aggressive and self-injurious behavior with sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment. However, SBI intervention needs to be goal-directed and specifically matched to the client’s needs and preferences. The use of SBIs has been included in the research supported Greenspan Floortime Approach for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Approach for children and adolescents with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and treatment models for reducing restraint and seclusion in pediatric and adult mental health facilities as well as schools OTPractSchoolOTRedAgg Reducing-Restraint-and-Seclusion  Continue reading

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Applying FAB Strategies

I developed FAB Strategies (Functionally Alert Behavior Strategies) to help children, adolescents and young adults who have complex behavioral challenges.  The FAB Strategies Form guides the use of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies.  The FAB Strategies forms enable teachers, families as well as occupational, physical, speech/language and mental health therapists to work towards the same functional behavioral goals using consistent strategies.  The copyrighted FAB strategies forms are offered free of charge to therapists for use in developing home programs that improve functional behavior.

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FAB Strategies combines positive behavioral support and sensory processing strategies to improve behavior.   School occupational therapists can effectively team with parents and school staff to reduce school aggression, restraint and seclusion.

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Body Awareness Intervention Improves Behavior

Many adolescents and young adults with behavioral disorders (e.g., Autism Spectrum, Post Traumatic Stress, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa) have body image challenges that negatively impact their behavior and social relationships. This is especially true for individuals who have developmental, mental health, and/or sensory processing challenges. Adolescents and young adults with body awareness challenges can be helped to improve their social skills with body awareness interventions.

Developmentally appropriate body awareness intervention involving massage, touch, movement, relaxation and mindfulness activities can take place within their work, school, home and community recreation activities. Body awareness provides the foundation for mindfulness, meditation and other calming activities that have been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, distress, aggression and addiction. Developmentally individualized body awareness tasks promote the emerging development of self-control using individual and group trauma-informed mindfulness, yoga, relaxation, visualization, massage, sensory processing, and movement activities.

Regardless of their chronological body awareness activities must match the adolescent or adult’s developmental level to be effective. The most developmentally basic and clinically effective experiences of embodiment, based on brain gym activities for special needs www.movementbasedlearning.com www.braingym.org , provide sensory awareness of the front, back, top and bottom of the body. Two activities for providing this experience is the X Marks the Spot movement game

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A second basic body orientation activity is the Roll therapyball on client core progression Strategy, in which a therapist specifically rolls a therapyball sequentially over the center, front, back, top and bottom of the body  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCD9JeFviKY  

Sensory body awareness experiences help develop adolescent and young adults awareness of their body and understanding of body based triggers for early identification of the need for coping strategies.

References

Frank, J. L., Bose, B., & Schrobenhauser-Clonan, A. (2014). Effectiveness of a school-based yoga program on adolescent mental health, stress coping strategies, and attitudes toward violence: Fingdings from a high-risk sample. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 30, 29-49.

Kovacs, M., & Lopez-Duran, N. L. (2012). Contextual emotion regulation therapy: A developmentally-based intervention for pediatric intervention. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 21(2), 327.

Silva, L. M., Schalock, M., & Gabrielsen, K. R. (2015). About face: Evaluating and managing tactile impairment at the time of Autism diagnosis. Autism research and treatment, 2015.

Taylor, S. E., & Stanton, A. L. (2007). Coping resources, coping processes, and mental health. Ann. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 3, 377-401.

 

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Behavioral, Sensory & Mindfulness Strategies

Positive Behavioral Support (PBS) interventions are used in many schools to improve student behavior and learning.  PBS interventions involve adapting the classroom environment, teaching basic social skills, and rewarding positive behavior to enhance learning. PBS interventions can be enhanced through integrating them with sensory and mindfulness strategies.  Sensory and mindfulness activities are especially useful when using PBS with classes that include young and special needs students.  As an occupational therapist I have found the Second Step, PATHS, and DECA programs helpful in guiding PBS interventions.

Occupational, Speech/Language, Physical and Mental Health therapists can team with regular and special education teachers to implement PBS, sensory and  mindfulness strategies.  Sensory strategies include environmental adaptations and movement activities that enhance learning.  Mindfulness strategies include body awareness, movement, and breathing activities that enhance student’s abilities to pay attention to learning activities.

PBS, sensory and mindfulness strategies teach students self-control by enabling them to be aware of their environmental and body triggers so they can implement coping strategies to avoid inappropriate behavior.  An extremely useful PBS strategy is the PATHS Turtle Technique, where an upset student notices they are becoming upset, stops and breathes to calm down.   The turtle technique can be adapted for students with special needs using the FAB Turtle Technique.  When the student or teacher notices the student reacting to environmental and body triggers they stop what they are doing and go to a pre-designated sensory coping area in the back of the class.  The student does their individualized coping activities for self-calming until they are sure they will no longer act aggressively.  Later, when they are calm the teacher can assist the student with problem solving.

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Combining PBS (Positive Behavioral Support), sensory and mindfulness strategies is particularly useful in inclusive classrooms that integrate regular and special education students.  Below is a description of ways to adapt research proven PBS strategies with sensory and mindfulness activities to provide increase individualized structure for students with special needs.

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Light touch and Holding Interventions

Light touch and holding strategies promote body awareness and social-emotional skills in children and adolescents with behavioral challenges. Deep pressure touch is a more common therapeutic intervention. However, light touch and holding are valuable therapeutic options for promoting attention, body awareness and social-emotional skills.

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Body awareness, stress and somatic pain challenges negatively impact behavior in many children and adolescents with developmental, sensory processing, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, internalizing behavioral concerns and other psychiatric disorders.  Attention, body awareness, stress and somatic pain problems can be addressed through the use of light touch and holding strategies.  Light touch and holding strategies are particularly useful for improving and directing functional attention, and provide a valuable option for reducing stress, somatic pain, and social-emotional problems when deep pressure massage is contraindicated.  Particularly for young people experiencing acute pain, edema, taking analgesic medications (e.g., which can decrease pain perception) or taking antidepressant medications (e.g., which can cause light headedness and dizziness) light touch and holding are preferred.

Recent research indicates that positively perceived slow, light touch specifically activates CT afferent fibers connecting to the Insular Cortex that convey social-emotional interactions and our internal sense of self.  FAB Strategies utilizing light touch and holding include: Vibration to the Back, Arms, & Body as well as the Rolling the arm, Back X, Spine crawl, Head crown, and Foot input.  These light touch and holding techniques which are components of FAB Strategies will be described below.

It can be clinically useful to provide extremely irritable children and adolescents who have significant body awareness challenges repeated sensory experiences of the front, back, top and bottom of their bodies. FAB Strategies light touch and holding techniques were developed to provide sensory experiences of the front, back, top and bottom of the body as a foundation for improved body awareness and social-emotional skills.  In addition to the light touch and holding strategies the awareness of the front, back, top and bottom of the body is practiced through several FAB Strategies deep pressure touch and mindful movement activities.

Vibration to the Back, Arms, & Body provide light touch input.  Vibration can also be applied to various body parts with eyes open and closed, to increase body awareness by having clients identify each body part as it is touched (e.g., arm, left ankle).  Light touch can also be provided through the Rolling the arm strategy.  The therapist rolls the arm in a palm open, thumb lateral direction providing relaxation.

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The Back X involves drawing an X across the back with your fist, while the Spine crawl involves moving up the spine to give awareness of the back. The Back X and Spine Crawl can be done as part of the X Marks the spot light touch game

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The Head Crown involves 10 second holding on the head, first on both sides then on the front and back of the head.

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Foot input involves massage and holding of the feet to provide improved sensory awareness of the feet as the foundation and bottom of the body.  Foot input can be followed by stretching exercises to help decrease the likelihood of habitual toe walking.  Light touch and holding strategies are a valuable intervention to improve attention, body orientation and social-emotional skills through interpersonal touch.  Light touch and holding can also decrease stress, pain, and provide comfort when more intense massage is contraindicated.

References:

Beider, S., Mahrer, N. E., Gold, J. I. (2007). Pediatric massage therapy: An overview for clinicians. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 54(6), 1025-1041.

Bjornsdotter, M., Loken, L., Olausson, H.., Valbo, A., & Wessberg, J. (2009). Somatotopic organization of gentle touch processing in the posterior insular cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(29) 9314-9320.

Koester, C. (2012). Movement based learning for children of all abilities. Reno, NV: Movement Based Learning Inc.

McGlone, F., Wessberg, J., & Olausson, H. (2014). Discriminative and affective touch: Sensing and feeling. Neuron, 82(4), 737-755.

Perini, I., & Olausson, H. (2015). Seeking pleasant touch: Neural correlates of behavioral preferences for skin stroking. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9.

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FAB Strategies Mindfulness Movement Activities

I wanted to share this video of my FAB Strategies Mindfulness Movement activities to improve student’s behavior  https://www.facebook.com/educationresourcesinc/videos/943257499082558/ It was recorded by ERI at their Therapy in the Schools Conference.  Mindfulness movement activities are simple to do and can improve attention as well as enhance behavior by reducing student’s anxiety and giving them a break from seated work.

Mindfulness movement activities help all students yet are especially helpful for students with developmental disabilities, anxiety, sensory processing challenges, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, ADHD, and/or other behavioral challenges.  Brief five minute mindfulness movement activities can help students attend better and promote the processing of academic learning when done between academic subjects (e.g., after math before proceeding to language arts).  Mindfulness movement activities can also be done in conjunction with teaching Positive Behavioral Support Interventions and used as a pre-correction before challenging school activities (e.g., lunch, playground, assemblies, and transitions).

In this video I demonstrate Touching the head-shoulders-stomach for sensory body awareness, Belly breathing, Hand opening and stretching to prevent hand cramping from writing (while breathing in) followed by thumb fisting as a mudra for relaxation (while breathing out)

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Bird breathing, and Mindful Clock Sitting (righting reactions moving forward-back and laterally).

Mindful clock standing activities can also be used, particularly to help students with sensory irritability gain basic body awareness of the anterior-posterior portions of their body through forward-back balancing movements  

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as well as sensory awareness and stability of the bottom (feet) and top (head) of their body through squatting then moving on their toes.

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I hope more early childhood and special education teachers as well as occupational, physical, speech/language and mental health therapists will begin using basic sensory mindfulness movement activities with their students.  Mindfulness movement activities offer a great opportunity for teachers and therapists to integrate and co-teach the academic and developmental curriculum areas.  As we continue to integrate the regular and special education curriculums, mindfulness movement activities can benefit students while promoting transdisciplinary interactions between teachers and therapists.