Sensory Strategies for Older Students

Categories: Sensory

Whenever I recommend sensory strategies for a student, I am always thinking about ways to embed those strategies within natural daily routines.  This becomes even more important as students get older.   As students move through the education system and eventually get to high school and transition programs, there is a heavy focus on learning life skills, vocational skills and community skills to prepare for the future.  While the goals and learning environment may change, the student’s sensory needs may remain the same.  Given this shift, students then need to learn how to manage their sensory needs not only in the classroom or the sensory room, but also in the community or on a job site.

Sensory Processing Happens Everywhere

Why is it even important to be talking about this?  First of all, when kids are young, they may learn to manage their sensory needs on a designated sensory break in a specific sensory room.  There may be special equipment in there, like suspended swings, ball pit, trampoline, etc.  As they get older, they won’t always have access to a sensory room.  Additionally, any specific items that they may have used when they were younger may not be as appropriate to use as they age.  Sensory processing happens all the time, and our students need to know how to manage their sensory needs in a wide variety of situations and environments.

It is important to think about the student’s unique sensory profile as well as the environment and tasks that he will be doing in the future.  All of this information can be very helpful when looking at the big picture.  For example, if a student is assigned to work in a crowded, loud place- maybe the use of headphones or a modified schedule could be helpful.  If the grocery store environment is triggering, maybe learning to shop in a small store at non-peak hours can help support that student to be independent and successful.  You may not just be teaching your students engage in certain activities, but you may also help them advocate for task or environmental modifications to meet sensory needs in the future.

Remember the Goal

Overall, the goal is to empower our students to know themselves, know what they need to stay regulated and be able to ask for it as independently as possible. Remember, all of us have sensory preferences and we all likely use some sensory strategies.  We probably were able to independently identify our preferences and choose strategies while still being able to complete our daily tasks.   However, for our students on the autism spectrum or students that have sensory processing challenges, we are talking about more than just sensory preferences.  True sensory processing difficulties can more significantly impact their ability to participate in daily activities.  Therefore, the strategies used to help manage sensory needs must be explicitly modeled and taught in order to support independence and generalization across settings.

Today, let’s explore some of my favorite sensory strategies that can be used as students get older and enter high school, transition and beyond!  I will include specific activity ideas, but there are also modifications that can be made to tasks and environments if needed.  As always, your OT will be a great resource!

Proprioceptive Strategies

Click here to read my blog post about the proprioceptive system.  This type of sensory input is often calming.  One type of proprioceptive input is called ‘heavy work’.  This usually involves pushing/pulling.  Another kind of proprioceptive input involves compression or pressure.  With younger students you may see them pushing a cart in the hallway, jumping on a trampoline or wearing a weighted vest.  Here are some ways that students can get proprioceptive input as they get older.

  • Pushing the grocery cart.  Load it up with heavy items like milk, water bottles, or cases of pop for even more resistance.  Some job training sites have large items that need to be pushed or pulled, such as a stocking cart, which would be another great option.  
  • Vacuuming, sweeping, mopping.
  • Unloading groceries/household items.
  • Carrying the full laundry basket up and down the stairs.
  • Hand mixing during cooking tasks.
  • Washing the table after a meal.
  • Exercising.  So many types of exercise provide opportunities for heavy work!  Lifting weights, body weight exercises, cycling, swimming, and theraband exercises are all great options.
  • Wearing a tight compression shirt under clothes.  Compression garments are popular with runners and athletes and can easily be found at big box stores.  Not only do they provide deep pressure, but they are often not noticeable under clothes.
  • Using a weighted blanket.  Please consult with your doctor or OT before doing so.  Weighted blankets have gained popularity and can easily be found at Target or on Amazon these days.


Vestibular Input

Click here to check out my blog post about the vestibular system.  This kind of input can be either calming or alerting.  It usually involves motion, back and forth, side to side or spinning.  The most common way young students often get this input is on a swing.  Here are some ideas for vestibular activities as students get older.

  • Varied seating during work tasks.  Options like an office chair, rocking chair, or gaming chair can all give linear or rotational movement.
  • Any movement activities!  Going for a walk, running or jumping are great options.


Tactile Strategies

Click here to read my blog about the tactile system.  It is common to see younger students engaging in calming tactile activities, such as playing with shaving cream, finding items in sand, or using a fidget.  How does that progress as students get older?

  • Alternative fidgets.  There are some options these days that look a little more age appropriate, but can still provide the tactile input the student needs.  I just found this cool iPhone case that is a fun fidget!
  • Theraputty activities.  Theraputty is a very resistive material that is commonly used with older adults in rehab settings.  It provides really heavy tactile and proprioceptive input and can be a great alternative for older students.
  • Cooking activities.  Getting your hands messy during cooking activities can give that tactile input a student needs within a natural routine.

Oral Sensory Strategies

Click here to read my post about oral sensory input.  The most common strategy I see with younger students to meet oral sensory needs includes using a chewy necklace.  This may be less ideal as a student gets older.  Here are some alternative ideas:

  • Chewing gum or mints.
  • Using a waterbottle with a valve, like a Contigo or Camelback.  
  • Eating crunchy/chewy snacks during the day.


Auditory and Visual Strategies

Click here to read my post about the auditory system, and here to read my post about the visual system.  In addition to environmental modifications based on a student’s sensory profile, such as working in a quiet space or reducing visual clutter in the environment, you may also consider the following:

  • Using sunglasses, even indoors if the lighting inside stores or a workspace is too bright.
  • Using noise cancelling headphones if noise is too overwhelming, or wireless headphones to listen to music.  

With some creativity, we can continue to help our students manage their sensory needs as they get older and spend less time in the classroom and more time at work and in the community.  What are some of your favorite sensory strategies for your older students?  Drop a comment below!

This blog is for informational purposes only.  Please consult your OT for specific recommendations.  


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