School is almost here and teachers are working hard in classrooms to prepare and organize for the students coming back from summer vacation. After my 15 years of time as a pediatric occupational therapist working with parents, teachers and administrators, I believe that you could walk into any classroom and hear teachers asking students to sit still multiple times a day.
All children need movement and learn by interacting with their world through all of their sensory systems, including their vestibular system that processes movement and their proprioceptive system that processes input from actively using their muscles and joints. Each of us have different movement needs and thresholds, so some need or can only tolerate very small amounts of movement, while others have high needs and high thresholds for movement. Some children come from homes with environments that offer many opportunities for movement while some come from very sedentary home environments. Teachers will find a variety of these students in their classrooms and don’t have control over how a child’s neurological system processes sensory information nor what their home environment offers their sensory system to meet their sensory needs. But, teachers must still teach all these students with different needs!
The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder reports on their website that, “In a study of children born between July 1995 and September 1997 in the New Haven, CT area 16% of 7 to 11 year olds had symptoms of SPD-SOR (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). That is the same as 1 in 6 children. An earlier study in younger children (Ahn et al., 2004) found a prevalence of 5%, which is 1 in 20 children.” Yes, with this prevalence, children with sensory processing or sensory integration disorders are in every school and every classroom.
I’ve collaborated over the past several years with parents and teachers to help address the needs of these wiggly students. I’d like to share the seating options that teachers are using to help students regulate their sensory systems and prepare to learn. When you initially present these options, remember that the novelty is exciting for students. Let them try it several times and watch how they react. For all students, the novelty will wear off. Some may never use them again in the year. For those who do use it, you may see it helping. Use these as tools in your toolbox, none of which are a magic wand to fix all concerns. You can always set boundaries and expectations around appropriate use, but keep in mind the purpose of these ideas is to allow students to try to self-regulate their sensory system to prepare for learning. Please remember that these are options to try a few times to see what or what combination works along with other sensory strategies.
I’ve linked some of the products we’ve trialed, but there are other options to research! I’d love to hear if you find other good products!
Bounce, roll back and forth and activate muscles not used by sitting in a regular school chair (vestibular and proprioceptive input)! Exercise balls are easy to find and you can buy them fairly cheap. You don’t need to buy the highest quality. Yes, exercise balls will become victims of pencil stabbings, so find some good prices. I’ve found some for as cheap as $8-12 at places such as Ross, TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon. Be sure to look at height recommendations because small children will not be able to sit on too large of a ball independently. We’ve found that very young students or students with poor core strength or balance aren’t able to stay balanced all day without falling off the exercise balls or the wobble chairs below.
Wobble chairs allow a student to move slightly while having a little more stability than an exercise ball. I first saw these in a classroom that had Hokki stools at the student computers. We assigned a wiggly student to sit on the Hokki stool throughout the day, which allowed him to follow classroom rules to not tip his seat back or get out of his chair during work time. Amazon also sells Hokki stools in two heights: 15″ Hokki stool, 18″ Hokki stool. The next year, we found these Kore chairs that were cheaper and they’ve been great for many students. Here is a link to buy single 14″ Kore wobble chairs from amazon.com. Amazon also sells the 14″ Kore wobble chairs in a set of 3 for a cheaper individual price. We’ve ordered taller Kore wobble chairs for taller students, although at 5’2″ with short legs, I fit most comfortably on the 14″ stool. Here is an Amazon link to the 18.7″ Kore wobble chairs for teens.
The disc cushions are inflated with air and allow a student to slightly move while sitting, rocking and wiggling in a regular school chair. Students who are concerned with being different can use these without standing out. We bought an Isokinetic brand on amazon.com.
We tried a wobble chair with a student with some slight motor difficulties with balance and core strength, but after multiple falls off the wobble chair, we realized we needed another option. We ordered this rocking school chair just for him. He used it the rest of the year without any falls, but was still able to get the movement he needed. We are ordering more of these, especially for the younger students who struggle staying on the exercise balls or wobble chairs without falling. This student also preferred to have a disc cushion on his rocking chair! (Remember that you need to trial the options to see what works!) We bought a Zuma rocker brand. The cheapest price I found to buy more just recently was at worthingtondirect.com
RESISTANCE BANDS FOR FEET
We bought the green medium-resistance Thera-Band on amazon.com to tie around chairs and desks for students to kick while they are sitting. We ended up wrapping the resistance band around the desk legs closest to the chair. Stacking chairs was difficult when the resistance band was around the chair legs and then the band would get lost, so this option seemed to be the best. Some students kick, some rest and swing their feet back and forth, and others pull with their hands while kicking with their feet. The resistance against active movement gives the students proprioceptive feedback (input into muscles and joints) that might otherwise be sought out with hitting, pushing or kicking other objects or students. I recently found some similar resistance band, CanDo brand, that was a bit cheaper on schoolspecialty.com.
POSITIONING AT DIFFERENT LEVELS
Some teachers got really excited and even rearranged their classrooms to rotate through different seating levels like this. (Notice that wobble chairs are still an option in this classroom also.) The desk legs were adjusted to allow for different heights for sitting on the floor or sitting in a seat. (I didn’t even realize this was possible with the desk legs until after I saw this classroom!) Remember that there is no equipment or expense involved to allow a student to stand at their desk or lay on their tummy to work. Many teachers have small couches, beanbags and pillows to allow this.
Some children need an escape from the multi-sensory environment of a school classroom. Offer quiet corners, under a teacher’s desk or behind a bookshelf or filing cabinet. One teacher told me about a student who created her own secluded area with a few chairs blocking her off from the classroom while she sat on the floor in the corner. She then hung jackets over the backs of the chairs to help block out the extra sensory input that was too difficult to process before returning to her desk.
WEIGHTED LAP PADS, BLANKETS OR BACKPACKS
Laying a weighted lap pad or a backpack across the student’s legs provides deep pressure input, which tends to be calming. You may find certain students that want to wear their backpack while sitting at their desk. They may be seeking this calming input into their shoulders. If it’s too difficult to sit in a chair while wearing it on their back, give them the option to wear it on their shoulders frontwards.
One student preferred to either wear his backpack or lay the heavier weighted blanket across his lap while sitting. Another young elementary student had a hard time keeping his hands to himself or from taboo play inside his trousers, but with a weighted lap pad, these behaviors decreased significantly.
We used our local Comfort Weighted Blankets company for the weighted lap pads and blankets. I love having a local company that uses the softest fabric in our own choices.
SPINNING OFFICE CHAIRS
I know, I know… What teacher would really allow this? But, I’m only writing about my crazy sensory processing OT ideas if they’ve successfully been implemented in a teacher’s classroom. So, I promise that it has really worked!
Some children have very high movement needs and spinning is a highly intense type of vestibular input (movement) that meets vestibular needs faster than less intense movement. So, one option is to allow a student to spin in the office chair. Teachers most likely have a spinning office chair at their desk that isn’t always being used. Students that don’t have high movement needs will NOT want to spin in the chair or they will only be able to do so for a very short period of time.
The teacher who let a student spin in an office chair while fidgeting with paper clips found that the student participated more appropriately in the classroom, so allowed this everyday as much as he needed. The other students didn’t complain because they realized that they weren’t distracted by the student’s inappropriate behavior when sitting at his student desk and chair. Everyone functioned better! Some older students who let their teacher know they need a break and with prior approval, go into another room to spin in an office chair until their sensory system is ready to return to class and behave appropriately.
NOT JUST FOR KIDS!
Finally, you’ll realize that not just students want a variety of options for seating! I, personally, always prefer a wobble chair or exercise ball. This adult school employee realized that her back pain improved drastically by sitting on a disc cushion and wobble chair (after trialing some other expensive office chairs).
Thank you to all the great teachers and parents who have been willing to try out my crazy sensory OT ideas, then given honest feedback about how they’ve worked! I hope this will give you some ideas to brainstorm for your wiggly students! Teachers, I hope this is helpful and that your school will support these accommodations. Parents, this may be just what you need to take to your child’s teacher for support in the classroom. Talk with a pediatric occupational therapist for individualized guidance. Please share your experiences and any other ideas and products that are working for your students!
UPDATE: After ordering large quantities of this type of equipment at my school, the school secretary has told me that she prefers ordering from Amazon because of her familiarity with the ordering process, the lower shipping prices and the shorter shipping time. (Sometimes shipping prices can be so high that the order still costs more, even with a lower sales price.) I’ve added Amazon links if you also have these same concerns.
*Since writing this post, I have become part of the Amazon Affiliate Program. If you choose to buy any of these products on Amazon, I’d appreciate if you used the links through my website to help support the work I do at Yums Theraplay! Thank you!