behavior development

Toddler Activity Levels: What parents need to know about the sensory system.

toddler busy sensory seeker

If you are reading this, you likely have a toddler in your life and, if that is the case, you know just what a puzzle they can be.  I've talked in other posts about the big emotions and such, but today, I'd like to talk about sensory processing and how it can impact learning.  Why?  Because I've met soooooo many parents over the years who are overwhelmed or frustrated by their toddler's activity level or struggle with their limited attention (which is totally normal).  When we understand the 'why' behind a behavior, I think it is much easier for us to be solution focused.  

So, let's start with a quick overview of the sensory system.  I'm not going to go into great detail as I am sure you are familiar with the five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell and sound).  What you may not be aware of is that their are two more senses:  the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense.   Let me give you the cliff notes on each:

  • Both senses help us to know where our body is in space and coordinate movement.  
  • The vestibular sense involves motion and balance having to do with our inner ear.  
  • The proprioceptive sense involves the inputs into our muscles and joints.  

Again, a VERY simplistic overview of two very complex and important systems.  I will share a resource at the end which provides a much more comprehensive look at each of these senses for those that are interested.  Before we go any further, however, I want to point out that we all have different sensory preferences.  This is important to know when trying to understand your toddler.  For example, both of my kids like to listen to music while studying whereas I must have silence when reading or I can't focus.  Another example would be massage preferences:  My husband likes deep tissue massage which I find painful.  My sensory system prefers relaxation massages involving a lighter touch.  

In my experience, we typically have three responses to sensory stimuli 1) sensory neutral; 2) sensory avoidant or 3) sensory seeking.  These responses, of course, can be different for each of the sensory systems and can be impacted by frequency, intensity and the over quantity of input coming in from all of the senses combined.  Think of sensory processing as a continuum:  there will be some experiences in the middle, some on the high end and some on the low end.  Just as an FYI, I've talked sensory overload and meltdowns in one of my YouTube videos which you can find here if your child struggles with sensory overload.

In this post, I really want to focus on sensory seekers and sensory avoiders as I think these are the two responses that parents of toddler's struggle the most to understand.  I often hear parents say "I think my child has ADHD" or express frustration that their child won't sit still.  Conversely, I have had many parents over the years express their concern that their toddler hates bath time or doesn't like going on swings and slides.  Let me share a few examples to highlight:

Joey was a busy little two year old.  When I went for my first visit, he was running around the house in circles happily.  Occasionally he would run into the wall (on purpose) or into the couch before going back to do laps.  Even when he was presented with toys, he would stop momentarily but then quickly resume his running.  Needless to say, his pregnant mom was overwhelmed and frustrated by his constant motion.  He was unwilling to sit for meals, was constantly climbing and jumping off furniture and nap time?  Forget about it.  I should point out that Joey had significant language delays.  He had a limited vocabulary of fewer than five words and was unable to identify pictures or follow simple directions. His mother attributed this to him being difficult and not wanting to listen, but having a strong understanding of the sensory system, I knew better.  He was a sensory seeker!  He sought both motion (vestibular) and input (proprioceptive).  The problem was that Joey's constant need for motion and input was interfering with his ability to learn. I mean, how can one slow down enough to engage with a communication partner if the brain is saying 'move move move!'  THAT is what I want parents to understand.  Sensory seekers aren't in constant motion because they want to drive us crazy -- their brain is telling their arms and legs that they need to FEEL more and this is what leads to constant running, jumping and climbing.  They aren't get ENOUGH input.

Now let me say one more thing about sensory seekers because you are probably thinking what many of the parents I have worked with over the years do:  How can my child need MORE movement when they are always in motion?!  It is about the INTENSITY of the input, not the necessarily the quantity.  Several robust bouts of heavy work throughout the day for a sensory seeker can lead to more periods with less activity.  We call this a sensory diet.  I use the phrase 'huffing and puffing' as my litmus test to determine whether or not we have hit the intensity threshold.  We need to get sensory seekers huffing and puffing so their brain can say 'all right, I'm good!'  For example, when I provided social work support to a school based preschool program for children with delays, the teacher would take the kids to the gym and have them hustle for a good 20 minutes.  She had them jump across the gym, slither across the gym, hop across the gym...the kids LOVED it!  AND what a great way to work on following directions!  She kept them busy the entire time and, when gym was over, we went back to the classroom for story time.  The majority of the kids were able to sit for 10-15 minutes and listen and participate in circle time activities.  Those who still had the wiggles were able to sit in 'boats' (rubbermaid tubs) during story time or were given weighted animals to hold on to.  This is what we did with my little friend Joey.  We created a sensory diet that included a lot of running, jumping, pushing and pulling.  When his mom saw him running his laps, she took this as a cue that his body wanted input.  She would incorporate an activity from the sensory diet list that we created together to give him the input he was looking for.  Over time, Joey's ability to sit and engage in play grew and grew and along with it, so did his language.  Why?  Because he was now able to be more engaged with a communication partner thus allowing more opportunity for learning.

Sensory avoiders, on the other hand, experience some sensory information more INTENSELY than others, like my little friend Mary.  She was a sweet and happy little girl who was content to sit in one spot on the floor and play with her toys.  While she enjoyed being held and cuddled, she did NOT like tickle games or being swung or tossed in the air.   Unlike her siblings, she screamed when put on a swing and during bath time.  Her parents were loving and supportive but felt frustrated that none of their efforts to calm and reassure Mary worked.  You see, she needed LESS input.  She needed SLOWER input.  I will say that, in my experience, sensory avoiders can be really tricky.  They always seem to those bright observers who watch those around them very closely tending to be very cautious.  This was certainly the case with Mary.  As such, the strategies we introduced with her had to be done VERY slowly following her lead closely.  For example, we worked on acclimating her to the swing by having her just sit on her mom's lap on the swing without moving.  Once she felt comfortable with this, mom would swing ever so slightly following Mary's cue for when she had enough.  Over time, she was able to gradually swing faster and higher while on her mom's lap. Eventually, she felt comfortable enough to swing on her own.   Mary too had delays in her speech.  She was often in distress making it difficult for her brain to focus and concentrate on learning.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, brains that are overwhelmed by emotions don't learn well.  Once we were able to help Mary feel more calm and confident during movement activities, she was able to focus on us as play and communication partners.  Her language took off quickly thereafter.  

So, the next time your child is bouncing off the wall, I'm hoping you will now be able to see that they are sending you a message that they need MORE input.  If your little one is screaming when the vacuum comes on or when you try to dance with them, recognize that they are telling you they need LESS input.  I'm hoping as well that you are able to see how being a sensory seeker or avoider can interfere with learning.  Just know, that as you create a sensory diet for your child based on their needs, with time and experience their sensory system will adjust and they will eventually outgrow this need -- well, at least the majority of the kids I've worked with over the last two decades ;)

If you are looking for more hands on, specific strategies to help improve your child's concentration and learning while meeting their sensory needs, check out my e-book Sensory Strategies for Little Learners.  In it, I share strategies for sensory seekers, sensory avoiders as well as toddlers who struggle with motor planning (you can learn more about motor planning here).  Specifically, I break these strategies down into daily routines, e.g., mealtime strategies for sensory seekers, bath time strategies for sensory avoiders, etc.  In addition to the sensory strategies, I include ways to incorporate language development into each because, hey, why not work on talking at the same time, right?!  You can find the e-book here.