(Fifth in a Series on Tutoring)
When an occupational therapy student showed up at our tutoring site last year with three drawers full of stuff that looked like toys, and told me they would help students with their reading, I was skeptical.
One drawer was labelled ‘calming’ the other ‘alerting’, and the other one had what looked like a big sock full of rice or beans or something.
The calming drawer was full of stress balls, squishy toys and colorful little things to fidget with. I took one look at it and imagined all that stuff flying through the air, books and reading abandonned to a free-for-all.
The alerting drawer looked even more problematic – gum that could end up stuck under tables, more distracting fidget toys, and a big inflated ‘wiggle seat’ with soft plastic spikes that I figured no self-respecting kid would be caught dead sitting on.
Turns out, I was dead wrong to be so cynical! We did have to be strict about not letting kids use the objects to play with, just to hold them while reading, but pretty soon I was hearing stories of how different gadgets were helping kids focus.
Then my nephew came over to my house and saw the wiggle seat, which I hadn’t even taken to the site yet, and said, “Oh those are really cool. We get to sit on them at reading time at school.” Get to – shows how much I don’t know!
The real clincher was the story I heard about a little girl at another site who had been unable to sit still at all. She was so distracted she had never completed a book during tutoring. Then her tutor got her a ‘weighted lap belt’ – the big stuffed sock I had mentally mocked on sight. Apparently the little girl sat calmly through her whole session, finished her book, held up the lap belt and announced joyfully, “This makes me smart!”
So now I no longer mock the Whiz Kids Sensory Tool Kit. Our site has hyperactive kids squeezing squishy balls as they read, tired kids sucking mints and little kids using colored film strips to underline their words as they read. We even use the spiky cushion.
Last year, these kits were researched and put together by Jillian Cloud, OTD, OTR/L, as part of her doctoral program. Children can have a range of sensory processing issues that interfere with learning – trouble focusing to over-sensitivity to noise or touch.
The handbook that Jillian wrote for tutoring sites not only explains the best use of the tools, it also includes a long list of calming strategies, ideas for taking quick breaks, and suggestions for improving sensory processing.
A helpful chart, called “Zones of Regulation”, gives tutors a way to guide students to identify how they are feeling and what their level of alertness is. In the green zone, they are ready to learn – happy, calm and focued. In the blue zone they are sad, sick, tired or bored. In the yellow zone they are frustrated, worried, wiggly or excited and in the red zone kids are angry, scared, yelling, hitting or elated. Picking a zone helps kids see whether they need to do something to help get themselves under control.
When you only have an hour a week to make an impact on a student’s life, these little toys are making a big difference.