Now that the holidays have come and gone, I want to get back into our sensory processing series. In the fall, I started the sensory series with a introductory post that you can read here,followed by a post on sensory processing challenges and red flags found here. Going forward, I will be highlighting one sensory system at a time. My goal will be to explain the system a little more in depth and include real life examples as well as tips to help you in your classroom or at home. We are going to start with the proprioceptive system!
What is the proprioceptive system?
Proprioception is one of our internal or hidden senses. Simply put, it is our sense of body in space.There are receptors in our muscles and joints that send messages to our brains about where our body parts are in relation to each other and where our overall body is in relation to the world around us. Our brains get proprioceptive input when we push or pull on things or provide pressure to muscles and joints.
Why is it important?
Proprioception is extremely important in our everyday life. When integrated with other sensory systems, it’s important for executing coordinated movements and also determining how much force to use for a task. We are constantly using our sense of proprioception and we don’t even think about it. When you walk up or down the stairs, your proprioceptive sense helps you lift or lower your leg just the right amount without even looking. The proprioceptive system helps you know how much force to use when writing with a mechanical pencil so the lead doesn’t snap. These are just a few simple examples.
Additionally, proprioceptive input is generally organizing for everyone! Remember that we all process sensory information and use sensory strategies to keep ourselves regulated during the day! If you chew gum, or enjoy running or lifting weights, you are giving your body proprioceptive input. Proprioceptive input can be calming and help us feel safe. This is why when my son is stressed, I often pull him into a very firm hug. It’s so helpful!
What does it look like when a child is having difficulty with proprioception?
There are a variety of behaviors you might see in a child who is having difficulty processing proprioceptive input. In general, we can overrespond, underrespond or seek sensory input. Check out this post for an overview of those terms. We don’t tend to see overresponsivity in this system – therefore, we will think about students who underrespond or seek proprioceptive input.
Some students may underrespond to proprioceptive input (meaning they need more input to make sense of it) but they don’t actively do anything about it – they are more passive. You may see these behaviors:
- sit instead of engaging in running/jumping/movement activities
- may slump at their desks
- may lean on things
- may slide out of their chairs
- may have difficulty with fine motor tasks
- may appear clumsy
These students may present as lazy, but really they are having difficulty processing proprioceptive input. We may need to help motivate them to engage in activities to get the input they need.
Now, let’s talk about the seekers. Seekers also underrespond to proprioceptive input, but they actively try very hard to get it. They are the complete opposite of passive! We all know the proprioceptive seekers. You may see these behaviors:
- frequently crash into things
- love rough play
- may run, jump or stomp down the hall instead of walk.
- may bite/chew excessively on things
- use way too much force on a crayon
- difficulty sitting still
These students may present as having poor behavior, impulsive, inattentive – but really, they are actively seeking the sensory input they need! We may just need to help them seek this input in appropriate ways.
How can I incorporate proprioceptive activities into the day?
There are so many ways to incorporate proprioceptive activities into your daily routines. These activities tend to benefit everyone! If you are trying to decide if an activity will target the proprioceptive system, keep these ideas in mind – push/pull and pressure. If the activity requires you to push or pull something, you are activating the proprioceptive system. You may hear this referred to as ‘heavy work’. If the activity applies pressure to muscles and joints, you are also targeting the proprioceptive system.
Here are some ideas to get you started!
- Jump on trampoline
- Carrying books
- Pushing a cart
- Chair pushups
- Wall pushups
- Animal walks
- Crawl through tunnel
- Climb on playground
- Jump and crash onto couch cushions, bean bags
- Pull a Theraband
- Open/close doors
What other tools can help ?
Sometimes, a child may use a tool to help get the input he needs. These tools tend to be more passive strategies, but they still target the proprioceptive system. Usually a child can continue to participate in the academic task at hand. Some examples for the proprioceptive system include:
- Compression shirt (like Underarmour)
- Compression Vest
- Weighted Vest **
- Weighted lap pad **
- Weighted blanket **
- Cube Chair
- Bouncy band – tie a theraband around desk legs, student can push on it to get proprioceptive input while still attending in class
- Chewlry or chewing gum
- Body Sock
In summary, the proprioceptive system is one of our hidden senses that is so important for many daily tasks. Proprioceptive input is generally organizing, so incorporating it into your day will be helpful for all students. When in doubt – use heavy work! Do you have any other ways you incorporate proprioceptive input into your day or any other tools you use that are helpful? I’d love to hear them!
Special thanks to my therapist/teacher friends for helping me gather photos for this post!
**There are specific guidelines regarding use of weighted items- please consult your child’s OT before trying. This post is for informational purposes only. The information provided is general in nature. Please contact your occupational therapist for specific questions regarding your child/student.