It is very likely that you have heard the term sensory diet at some point. But what exactly is a sensory diet, why are they important and how do you create one? Let’s go in depth on this topic today!
What is a sensory diet?
Simply put, a sensory diet is a plan or schedule of activities that are tailored to meet the sensory needs of a person/child. A well designed sensory diet will help a child stay at the ‘just right level’ for learning and engagement throughout the day. While OT services are important when addressing sensory needs, just engaging in activities during therapy sessions does not promote carry over and function in daily life. This is where a sensory diet comes in.
How do I know if a child needs one?
People of all ages can benefit from a sensory diet. You probably have your own sensory routines that help you get through the day. Do you start your day with a hot shower and coffee? Or chew gum to pay attention at work? You may tend to spin in your office chair, take movement breaks during the day, or drive home in silence after a long day. These activities can meet your sensory needs without you even knowing it. The concept is the same for our students. We want to get to know their sensory profile, the tasks they need to perform and environments they work in. With this information, we can put together a solid sensory plan of activities to help with self regulation throughout the day. The more complex a chld’s sensory needs are, the more detailed a sensory diet may be.
Why are sensory diets important?
Creating a sensory diet that is more formalized can help build consistency across the board. If students just engage in activities in my therapy sessions, it does not help promote carry over into daily life. When I am asked to put together a sensory diet for a student, there is a lot to consider across the school day. The child may work in many environments, with many different staff. A specific sensory plan can help.
How do I create one?
It is essential to work with your occupational therapist to design a sensory diet. The OT will work with all members of the team to gather important information about the child that can guide recommended activities. While many sensory activities may seem great, what works for one child may not work for another. You don’t want to choose an activity that you think is calming the child down (if that’s your goal) but is actually revving the child up. Your OT will be able to work with you to design a sensory diet appropriate for your child’s unique needs.
Here are some general guidelines, but please remember to consult your OT to create something specific for your child!
- Consider all 8 senses. Check out my sensory series for more information on each sensory system. It is important to know how a student responds to sensory input in each of the areas, so appropriate activities can be utilized. This is where a good assessment can come in. I like the Sensational Brain checklist for a quick and easy look at a child’s sensory processing. Clinical observations as well as parent/staff interviews can be extremely helpful. Formalized assessments such as the Sensory Processing Measure or the Sensory Profile may also be appropriate to incorporate.
- Consider the environment. Where does the child spend his/her day and what are the sensory components of those environments? What are the task demands within those environments? Looking at this information will help you put together a good plan.
- Be proactive. Embedding powerful sensory activities throughout the day, especially before tasks/environments that may pose a challenge, can help a child better regulate during those hard times. Kind of like a real diet, if I eat small healthy snacks during the day, I can successfully avoid the 3pm after school junk food binge.
- Use visuals. As students learn to manage their sensory needs, they may need reminders. Using visual supports can be so effective. I have done this in many ways. Some students may need a specific schedule of activities laid out for them. Others may benefit from a choice board of helpful sensory activities, either laminated pieces or on technology. For my students with communication devices, we typically load sensory options onto a designated page that is easy for student and staff to navigate to, and it is always with the student. We frequently use the Zones of Regulation curriculum, so I often color code the sensory choices that match the zone. For example, when a child is feeling in the blue zone (tired, sad, moving slowly), the child may be encouraged to pick a blue strategy, which may be a alerting sensory strategy like bouncing on a therapy ball.
- Heavy work. You probably have never met an OT who didn’t talk about heavy work. It is so versatile and so powerful to the sensory system. When in doubt, use heavy work! Check out ideas for activities here.
- Training. Provide training to all staff who are involved in implementing the sensory diet. We have to be especially careful with suspended equipment like swings and weighted equipment like weighted vests/blankets.I typically provide a visual or written component for this as well to go in the student’s binder or a central location, so any staff member working with the child can easily access the information.
- Keep it simple. Sensory diets don’t have to be difficult to implement and shouldn’t be a burden. For example, if a child needs heavy work activities before sitting at circle time, but the classroom is understaffed, having the child do a classroom job that requires lifting/pushing/pulling will be much easier to implement then recommending a heavy work activity that requires the child to leave the classroom or use specialized equipment. With some creativity and teamwork, you can find ways to meet may sensory needs within the child’s natural routines.
The term ‘sensory diet’ can seem intimidating, but the concept is very simple. In collaboration with your OT and team, you can offer a variety of activities throughout a child’s day that can help them manage all kinds of situations. Strategic and consistent use of appropriate sensory strategies across tasks and environments can make a world of difference for our students.