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Sensory Processing and the Teenager: Helping Teachers, Caregivers and Teens Understand Sensory Needs

This month's blog is for teens to help them discover how to live in a more “sensory safe world.” And for the caregivers and teachers to help them better understand teen behaviors as they relate to sensory processing challenges, preferences, and needs.

The Teen Sensory Tools Survey
Teens: Complete the Teen Sensory Tools Survey  (Teen%20Sensory%20Tools%20Survey.pdf) from the

Tools for Teens handbook. It will help you learn about your sensory preferences as a teenager, for achieving success both at school and at home. Share the results of your survey, so that the adults in your life will learn how to best support you and your sensory preferences.
Many caregivers have encouraged their teens to change the homework setting and many teachers have changed their classroom environment and after reading the Teen Sensory Tools Survey completed by their students.

Designing a Sensory Lifestyle from a Sensory Buffet of possibilities

Learn about the 7 sensory categories, so you can integrate “sensory tools” (moving, touching, muscles, mouth, hearing, and smelling) from an abundance of possibilities (as found in a buffet) into your personal sensory lifestyle.
Everyone has individual sensory preferences for calming, waking up, concentrating, etc. The key is to figure out which strategies work for YOU and how you can integrate them into your lifestyle. Here are some examples:
MOVING: taking a brisk walk after 20 minutes on your tablet/computer
MUSCLES: doing chair push-ups in class or working out at the gym before homework time
TOUCHING: fidgeting with your tablet stylus during a long lecture
MOUTH: popping in a piece of sour candy just before a big exam
HEARING: listening to your favorite music while studying
SEEING: asking to be placed away from fluorescent lights in class
SMELLING: eating lunch in a designated “odor free” zone.

The Teenage Brain


Why does life seem so difficult at times? Are your behaviors related to what is going on in your brain?
These are the questions researchers have been asking themselves. Here is what they have discovered thus far and what it means to YOU.

First of all, your brain is still growing! We used to think that the brain stopped growing by age 10. Now we know this isn’t true! For example, did you know that juggling can help your brain develop? Research in the Journal of Nature indicated that juggling influences cortical plasticity and that changes in grey matter were induced by training in juggling (Journal of Nature: Issue 325 3-25-04 427:311-312 Draginski, B. et al).

Juggling … a Wonderful Eye Tool


Classroom Teachers: Did you know that juggling can help teens build the visual skills needed for better note taking in classes, by allowing them to shift their eyes from far to near?

PE Teachers: Juggling can be an individual or a team sport. The constant right-left shifting patterns (also called alternative reciprocal movement patterns) help develop eye-hand coordination. Sports such as golf, basketball, and tennis are often improved by juggling.

Parents: Juggling is helpful for improving focus and concentration, reducing stress, and relaxation.
For some whose motion sickness and attention difficulties are related to peripheral eyesight problems, juggling could be helpful.

Teens: You can develop an edge in driving as you improve your peripheral eye sight.
It is lots of fun, easily portable, and challenging. You can take short breaks during the day to juggle.
Anyone can learn to juggle. Some learn in less than an hour - others need more time - it’s supposed to be fun. Learn at your own pace, it’s okay.

Sleepy Teens

Teachers: Did you know that research indicates too little sleep leads to impaired memory and a reduced ability to perform math calculations.

As a teen, your sleep pattern may change. Most teens tend to stay up late and sleep later in the morning. Research indicates that this change in sleep patterns is a biological need because older teens get a nightly squirt of the hormone melatonin (which induces sleepiness) about an hour later than younger adolescents do. This causes the teen to stay up later at night and to have more difficulty getting up early in the morning.

YOU may not be getting enough sleep! The National Sleep Foundation reports that most adolescents need between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep each night. How much sleep do you usually get? Go ahead - do the math … unless you’re too sleepy.

Look at your schedule. If early starting times are interfering with the amount of sleep you need, speak with your caregivers, teachers, coaches and/or administrators. Together you may need to make some adjustments.

You may want to start a campaign with your parents, caregivers, teachers and school administrators to make a systems change related to school starting times and late night activities for teens. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement reports that Minneapolis high school students (who since 1997 start school at 8:40 am. rather than 7:15 am.) get an average of 5 hours more sleep per week than most high school students, leading to improved attendance rates. In addition to affecting mood, concentration and memory, the “extra sleep could be enough to keep teens from falling asleep when they drive.” (Gelula, 2001)

Muscle Tools:

Movement Tools: to “Wake Up” the Body and Brain

Research indicates that an exercise such as running has a positive effect on brain cells in the hippocampus - which is an area of the brain important for learning and memory.
Aerobic activity has been found to improve grades, lowers depression and increases self-esteem.
Other studies suggest exercising can actually enhance creativity and imagination.

Sitting on the Chair Ball ... during schoolwork and homework:

Do you like to rock in your chair? Try a Chair Ball!
► it can take the wiggles out and help you sit up straight
► it can take care of some of your sensory need to move while listening
► it can also help strengthen the back.

Dynamic Sitting (active sitting on an unstable surface) provides just enough movement to keep you alert and improve your attention and focus while working at your desk.

Dynamic Sitting is a simple way to add more movement into your sensory diet, promotes flexibility and balance, prevents uneven pressure or strain on the spine, and it is fun!

It is best to have a chair ball or stability ball with feet as it will not roll away when not in use.


► Sit in the center of the chair ball with your feet on the floor. At times one foot may be in front of the other and your torso will be in front of your hips. This is called ‘active sitting’ and helps promote attention during tabletop activities.

► You will want to inflate your chair ball enough so that your thighs have a slight downward slope to your knees. Your pelvis should be in an anterior pelvic tilt (tilted so there is a slight curve in your lower back). This will improve your posture. A posterior pelvic tilt (how you usually ’sink’ into a chair) results in a slouched posture.

► When you sit on the chair ball, your desk (or table top) should be about 1 to 2 inches above your bent elbows. Most teens will either need a 22 inch (55 centimeters) or 26 inch (65 centimeters) chair ball, although some may need a smaller or larger one.
► It will be important to use the chair ball correctly. When you rise from a seated position stand up slowly to keep the chair ball feet on the floor.

► With your teachers and classmates, establish the rules when using the chair ball to listen and work at your desk. See The Ball Chair page from the Tool Chest handbook TCH_page-13_The_Ball_Chair11-17-05.pdf) to help your classmates establish rules for using this tool in the classroom.

For more details on other ways to use a chair ball as a sensory tool for calming, alerting and muscle strengthening, go to the chapter titled: “The Chair Ball…A universal tool” in the Tools for Teens handbook. S-The%20Chair%20Ball%20-%20A%20Universal%20Tool_pg2-3.pdf

Touch Tools: A Touchy Subject

Listen to Grace, a teen describe her experiences related to difficulty with touch… and more in her Sensory Tools for Teens DVD.
In school, she was incorrectly labeled as a behavior problem, before her team discovered she had sensory processing challenges.


Some people enjoy a spontaneous hug from a friend, while others cringe at the thought. Some people like to stand up close, and some people need a little more space around them. Some people respond to touch (that others would consider non-noxious) with a ‘fight or flight reaction’ causing feelings of anger and/or wanting to run away.


Some people have a need for a little more S P A C E. Crowded places or standing close to others (like waiting in line) can be irritating at times.
It’s OK to ask (politely) for some personal space.

While tickling or unexpected touch is alerting to the nervous system (and can be distressing to some), maintained firm touch (or pressure touch) is usually calming.

For Calming:
These ‘calming tools’ may help you reduce stress and keep your cool:

• sit in or lie under a heavy beanbag chair  
• wear snug-fitting clothing
• use a weighted Lap Lander while sitting at your desk or on the bus
• use a pencil fidget
• wear your backpack. (Be sure it is not over 10-15% of your body weight)
• wear a heavy coat
• ask for a hug
• rub lotion on your body
• get a facial or foot massage
• pet your pet
• snuggle under a weighted comforter (LuvEase Snuggle Blanket)

Getting started at school:

The Kit Tool Chest for Teens offers a special treasure chest filled with sensory tools that work for teens.
These include
1. The Tools for Teens handbook
2. The Sacred Earth Drums CD which is great for completing homework or arriving in new environments in a calm, grounded state.
3. Chair ball to sit on/exercise, 65 and 75 cm (movement/muscle tool)
4. Core Disc With Pellets (movement/touch pressure tool when placed on the lap)
5. Large Stretch-Eze (muscle tool)
6. Theraband work-out bands (muscle tool)
7. Exertube Medium (muscle tool)
8. Group Loop (muscle tool)
9. Ribbed Weighted Lap Pad (touch pressure tool)
10. Back-T-Pack Backpack (correct ergonomic tool)
11. ChewEase Pencil Topper (mouth tool)
12. Watchminder 2 (eye tool)
13. Juggle Bean Balls (eye tool)
14. Three scent inhalers (nose tool)
15. Weighted Mechanical Pen (hand/finger tool)
16. Ergo Soft PenAgain (hand/finger tool)
17. Faster Blaster Pump (muscle tool)
18. Treasure Chest Containers (muscle tool) Search Tool Chests for more options.

For more in depth information check out:
1: The handbook: Tools for Teens: Strategies to Promote Sensory Processing
2: The webinar: 10 Ways to Support Teens and PreTeens with its PowerPoint

Have fun as you explore the sensory preferences of teens!

I was a teen too and I remember those days.
Here I am with my teen Special Olympians when living in Paris, France.
                            A blog for another day...

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Comment by Diana Ashby Henry on August 31, 2014 at 6:32pm

Great to see that the Academy of Pediatrics just declkared that school start times for teens should be lsater because of theri need for sleep. This is a topic covered in the Tools for teens handbook mentioned above :-)

Comment by Diana Ashby Henry on August 21, 2014 at 5:40pm

Hello teachers, parents and teens, 

I thought you might be interested in sharing with the teens you work with or live with, this article that my husband wrote. He is a bit like Sheldon on the Big bang Theory, though people say he is "much nicer". He is very funny and a great photographer. Anyway he is quite proud of his sensory preferences which are very different from my sensory needs. His article covers  how we managed to live full time in an RV for 11 years ...and still love each other. It is a bit humorous and many families have shared it with their children. 

The article is called My Sensory Tune-Up

 http://www.ateachabout.com/pdf/MySensoryTune-up-10-9-08.pdf

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