When we think about the senses, we think about sight, touch, taste, smell and sound. The problem is, we actually have two more senses that not many people are aware of and it’s these two senses that play a major role in our ability to understand our environment. They allow us to stand upright, keep balanced, push, pull, and remain aware of our bodies positioning in space. It’s important that parents, caregivers and school-based educators are aware of these senses as they play a key role in understanding movement and body awareness. The vestibular and proprioception senses are not widely spoken of but they are two extremely important senses.
The Vestibular system is our movement and balance system and lets us know we’re sitting upright and where our head is positioned in space. If we’re on a roller coaster and we close our eyes, our vestibular sense informs us of which direction we’re moving. This system can be highly calming, like when we sway back and forth on a hammock or highly alerting, like when we spin or move very fast. In the classroom, children who are inadequately processing vestibular movement will most likely have a hard time sitting still or paying attention. This system supports arousal regulation, therefore children with vestibular concerns are often described by their teachers as being hyperactive. Children with difficulty modulating vestibular input can present with motion sickness whenever they engage in linear or rotary movement. They can also present with gravitational insecurity, where the pull of gravity is perceived as threatening, so being off the ground, climbing stairs or stepping on to a platform can be scary.
The proprioceptive system is our muscle contraction and informs body movement. When our muscle contracts it sends signals to our brain allowing us to know what movement our body is making. Children who inadequately process proprioception may appear clumsy, struggle with fine motor tasks and usually have a hard time grading force. These children are often wrongfully described as “aggressive”. Body awareness and motor planning dictate a child’s ability to navigate through a jungle gym or a new environment and this relies heavily on the proprioceptive sense. Dyspraxia is a sensory motor disorder where the brain isn’t able to organize sensory information sufficiently, therefore it presents with poor motor planning. Understanding the role that proprioception plays in body positioning and movement is crucial when identifying proprioceptive sensory concerns in children.
As you can now see, these two senses have a significant effect on daily activities and inadequately processing them can cause children to face challenges at school. Children who appear clumsy, avoid the jungle gym or new activities, have a hard time coordinating movements like jumping jacks, climbing or running may be looked upon as anti-social where in actuality there may be an underlying sensory explanation for these behaviors. In the same way, children who appear disinterested, easily distracted or hyperactive may be dealing with an underlying vestibular concern. It is important for childcare professionals to be familiar with these two senses so they can identify concerning behaviors correctly and seek an occupational therapy evaluation. Increasing awareness amongst educators can create opportunities for early detection and improvement.
As occupational therapists it’s our job to take these concepts and create playful activities to support individualized treatment goals. Every child processes sensory information in their own unique way, therefore every treatment goal is tailored to meet the specific needs of each individual child. It’s important for schools to prioritize sensory integration education for educators to become more aware of these potential concerns so children can be treated, which in turn will have a much higher outcome for success. Pediatric occupational therapists apply sensory integration treatment strategies to improve sensory processing and enable children to participate in their daily activities at their maximum potential.
The take home message here is that we don’t have five senses, we have seven very powerful and crucial senses that affect our ability to understand our environment. Increasing awareness of these seven senses and the role that occupational therapy plays in treating sensory integration and sensory processing disorders is crucial to improving a child’s success both socially and academically.