Sensory Modulation in Pre-K & Kindergarten

Many children with behavioral, developmental and sensory challenges have difficulty maintaining a quiet alert state for learning.  These children tend to be low registration (miss important sensory input) and/or sensory sensitive (overly responsive to functionally irrelevant sensory input) the majority of the time.  The Sensory Profile is a reliable, valid assessment that can be used to determine if children have significantly different sensory modulation.  It is important to help children with significantly different sensory modulation to learn to monitor and regulate their arousal levels and maintain a quiet alert state for learning.  Colors can help children understand their sensory modulation level by using Blue to designate hypo-responsive, green an optimal quiet alert state for learning, yellow a hyper-responsive, and red an extreme hyper-responsive state.connotapres2017handout



A visual support integrating colors, energy levels, and sensory modulation can help children learn to identify and modulate their arousal levels.  Children are encouraged to work with the teacher or therapist to identify their common feelings and actions when experiencing various energy levels.


A simpler alternative is to make a High, Low and Medium Energy visual, and have children identify their arousal level and whether their current energy level feels O.K. or not O.K and why.  Some children learn better using the visual supports shown above, while others do better without it through only adult modeling. without it can be used to teach children to modulate their arousal levels. For example, the therapist might model by saying, I am high energy and feel not OK, because I’m too hyper to be a good teacher.  My heart is beating really fast, I’m breathing fast, my hands are shaking, my arms feel tight like raw spaghetti, and I’m talking fast and loud.  I’m going to do 10 pushups to lower my energy level”.

For some children high energy is their only problem, while others experience low energy as well.  For low energy children I model “I’m low energy and feel not OK  because I don’t have enough energy to be an exciting teacher.  My heart rate and breathing feel slow, my arms are soft like over-cooked spaghetti, and I’m talking slowly and soft.  I feel sad and dead inside.  I’m going to do do 10 fast jumping jacks to increase my energy level”.


As children develop, yellow can be added to designate a slightly hyper-alert state that precedes the red hyper-arousal state in which they misbehave.  This is helpful because early recognition of high energy is easier to control.  They can also be encouraged to use colors to relate their most frequent arousal level accompanying their feelings. The student who constructed the feeling wheel shown below depicted sad and lonely as low energy; embarrassed as high energy; and frustrated & mad as very high energy.  In addition, happy & nervous were depicted as related to both average energy and high energy states.


A general FAB Strategy for helping all students modulate their energy levels is to first decrease, then if needed gradually increase sensory input.  This is depicted below using a visual support that shows a student who frequently fluctuates between a low energy and high energy state, with only a small window of quiet alert functioning.  In a classroom the teachers response would involve first lowering the noise level and visual distractions for a dysfunctional high energy or low energy student.  This alone will often enable students to achieve a quiet alert state.  If they are still not in a quiet alert state, give graded input from the lowered sensory level in a predictable, socially acceptable way until a quiet alert state is reached.


Once the therapist is able to vary environmental input to enable a student to reliably achieve a quiet alert state, they can help the teachers, parents and student to do this independently.

Therapists and teachers can expand their understanding of arousal levels by synthesizing theories of the Autonomic Nervous System, sensory modulation, influences of early childhood PTSD, and Bipolar Disorder to expand their understanding of arousal level challenges.  The focus is on helping children notice when they first enter the blue or yellow zones, so they can find ways to increase or decrease their arousal levels as needed.

fab-energy-level-theoryStudents can use colors through visual supports, modeling, and/or using the smells of the scented color markers to learn if they are in the blue, green, yellow or red arousal zone.  This understanding provides a foundation for developing individualized coping strategies to manage their arousal levels.






Using FAB Strategies®

“Functionally Alert Behavior” FAB Strategies® is an evidence-based curriculum of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies for improving the functional behavior of children, adolescents and young adults with complex behavioral challenges FAB Strategies ERIC document Complex behavioral challenges involve a combination of inter-related mental health, developmental, sensory and environmental challenges. The FAB Strategies® curriculum is individualized by occupational, physical, speech and mental health therapists for coordinated use in conjunction with the client, their family and teachers.  The FAB Strategies®curriculum emphasizes the use of a coordinated multidisciplinary approach that addresses specific goal-directed functional behaviors in the natural environment.

FAB Strategies® is useful for guiding integrated individual, group, and home program intervention by teachers, family members, as well as occupational, physical, speech and mental health therapists. Teachers, therapists and familys face the challenge of helping students develop the behavioral skills that support learning. This challenge has become more difficult given the increasing academic demands and numbers of students with complex behavioral challenges. It is crucial to help students with complex behavioral challenges because their behaviors interfere with these students’ and their classmates learning. The “Functionally Alert Behavior” FAB Strategies® curriculum can improve self-control in students with complex behavioral challenges.

The FAB Strategies Form guides therapists in developing an individualized program for improving the client’s functional behavior fab-stratform Section A environmental adaptations provide the structural foundation for FAB Strategies. The child’s response related to his functional goal guides the use of environmental adaptations. Environmental adaptations include adaptive equipment such as fidgets, visual schedules and adaptive techniques.

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Environmental enrichment through adaptive equipment, visual schedules, and adaptive techniques reduces aggression in children with behavioral challenges and developmental disabilities. When developing environmental adaptations, it is important to consider the dynamic relationship between the child’s behavioral, sensory, cognitive, and environmental challenges. Environmental structure and behavioral demands are interacting variables, with greater sensory demands suggesting the need for more structure. When children show improved self-control or demands are decreased, structure is reduced to promote independence.

Section B sensory modulation strategies help lower stress and enhance self-regulation, with the massage activities included in this section. Sensory modulation includes body awareness, basic mindfulness, touch, and motor self-control strategies. The Pagano FAB Trigger & Coping forms use pictures visually representing common environmental and body triggers as well as sensory coping strategies for children with behavioral, developmental, and sensory challenges.

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Section C positive behavioral control strategies improve behavior and communication skills. Learning social and communication skills significantly improves the behavior of children with developmental and behavioral challenges. Functional communication can be supported and rewarded through socially embedded reinforcers. For example, when a child says or signs “jump”, the therapist takes the child’s hands and jumps with the child. Section C also includes the FAB Turtle Technique, where a child notices his triggers and does his individualized self-calming strategies in the sensory coping area.


Section D physical sensory strategies promote attention, behavior, and social skills through cardiovascular, dynamic balance, sensory motor, and sequential bilateral tasks. Children with developmental challenges are motivated to participate in sensory activities, making them an effective means for promoting behavioral change. FAB Strategies attend to a child’s arousal level so he can play without becoming overly excited. For example, if a child rates his energy level as “uncomfortably high” following play ground tasks he is assisted in calming down before returning to class.


“Functionally Alert Behavior” FAB Strategies® offers an evidence-based curriculum of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies for improving the functional behavior of children, adolescents and young adults with complex behavioral challenges.  Application of the FAB Strategies®curriculum emphasizes ta coordinated multidisciplinary approach that addresses specific goal-directed functional behaviors in the natural environment.



3 Popular Neurologically Based Treatments

Occupational, Physical and Speech/Language therapists often include popular neurologically based approaches in their interventions for students with behavioral and developmental challenges. Brain Gym, Bal-A-Vis-X and Sensory Integration Intervention are three popular neurologically based approaches to promote neurological development for improved functional skills. While many clinicians, parents and families report that these interventions are clinically useful in achieving functional goals, they are criticized for lacking adequate research support.

Given the current emphasis on using evidence-based strategies it is important that therapists using these approaches apply current research to justify their use of these popular neurologically based approaches. A good way to show the efficacy of using these approaches is through goal attainment scaling, which can validate the effectiveness of strategies in achieving the student’s education related goals SIforASDGoal It is also important to consider research related to the components of these methods.

In addition to gathering baseline data and assessing treatment effectiveness through goal attainment scaling, it is important to understand the evidence-based components of these popular neurologically based approaches that can contribute to their effectiveness. First is their emphasis on child motivation through allowing students to choose the treatment activities. Second is their use of cardiovascular and strengthening exercises, and third their implementation of pressure touch strategies.

First, these popular neurologically based approaches facilitate student motivation by involving students in selecting fun and engaging activities. While sometimes criticized for being popular “only because students enjoy them”, the importance of activities that motivate children cannot be over-emphasized.   PRT (Pivotal Response Treatment) is a behavioral intervention that emphasizes the importance of student motivation. PRT was found to be highly effective in improving communication and behavior skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.   The emphasis of PRT on facilitating motivation is a major reason for this success. Client motivation is facilitated in PRT by emphasizing child choice in activity selection and reinforcing attempts. In addition to its developmental efficacy in improving communication and behavior, recent research suggests PRT promotes more normalized neurological functioning.

The second component of these popular neurologically based approaches is their use of aerobic and strengthening exercises. Participation in aerobic exercise has been repeatedly associated in research with improved attention, learning and neurological development. Regular moderate exercise for 30 minutes daily appears to promote neurological development of the hippocampus for learning in both typical students (Cramer et al., 2011) and students with neurological challenges (Ploughman, 2008).

The third evidence based component of these popular neurologically based approaches is their use of pressure touch through massage and brushing. Massage has consistently been found through repeated research to decrease pediatric stress, which can help reduce behavior and learning challenges. More specifically, Asian massage strategies were found to improve behavior and communication skills in preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Piravij et al., 2009; Silva & Schalock, 2013) www.qsti.org

While caution should be used in applying these popular neurologically based approaches to school therapy interventions, these techniques can be useful for attaining school goals. It is important to gather baseline data and use progress toward school related goals in judging the effectiveness of these strategies. It is also important to consider research supporting the specific strategies used, as well their research supported components of student motivation, aerobic exercise, strengthening exercise, and touch pressure   Reduce Problematic Reflexes:Hab


Pfeiffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., Henderson, L. (2011). Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(1), 76-85.

Piravej, K., Tangtrongchitr, P., Parichawan, C., Paothong, L., Sukprasong, S. (2009). Effects of Thai traditional massage on Autistic children’s behavior. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(12), 1355-1361.

Ploughman, M. (2008). Exercise is brain food: the effects of physical activity on cognitive function. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 11 (3), 236-240.

Silva, L., & Schalock, M. (2013). Treatment of Tactile Impairment in Young Children with Autism: Results with Qigong Massage. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, 6(4), 12-20.


PRT Treatment in SLP, OT, & PT

PRT (Pivotal Response Treatment) is an important frame of reference for Speech/Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists. PRT uses applied behavioral analysis principles as well as child choice, reinforcing attempts, varying activities, alternating familiar with challenging activities, and direct natural reinforcers. PRT’s transdisciplinary family-centered approach makes it particularly appropriate for allied health therapists.


PRT shows significantly greater effectiveness for treating Autism Spectrum Disorder than traditional ABA  https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/docs/koegel_prt_rancomized_controlled_trial_of_prt.pdf and facilitates neuroplasticity in young children with Autism Spectrum Disorders PRT NeurogenisisArt.  In addition to its usefulness for addressing language and behavioral challenges related to Autism Spectrum Disorders, PRT is a clinically relevant intervention for addressing other developmental and psychiatric challenges (e..g., fragile x syndrome, cognitive deficits, developmental trauma disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, depression, anxiety). Treatment is done with the family across disciplines in the child’s natural environment, so gains in language and motor skills are generalized to improve functioning.



PRT strategies can be integrated with language, sensory and movement strategies as a component of occupational, speech and physical therapy interventions SensoryBehavior  I have found PRT is a particularly valuable treatment frame of reference for Speech/Language, Occupational and Physical Therapists.


Amaral, D. G., Schumann, C. M., & Nordahl, C. W. (2008). Neuroanatomy of Autism. Trends in Neuroscience, 31(3), 137-145.

Voos, A. C., Pelphrey, K. A., Tirrell, J., Bolling, D. Z., Wyk, B. V., Kaiser, M. D., McPartland, J. C., Volkmar, F. R. (2012). Neural mechanisms of improvements in social motivation after pivotal response treatement: Two case studies. Journal of Autism Dev Disord, 43(1), 1683-1689.