Creating a Sensory Diet: Arousal and Self-Regulation

Arousal refers to the ability to maintain an ideal level of sustained alertness needed to complete various tasks and activities.

In general, we are most productive in a calm-alert state with moments of low- and high-arousal in between.

Every day, our bodies constantly seek out ways to maintain the optimal state of arousal necessary to complete tasks and activities. Sure, there might be moments of lethargy or hyperactivity, but that’s typical. As adults, we have the ability to seek out whatever we need to help us self-regulate (Hello, coffee!).

However, children don’t have the freedom or knowledge to get them to where they should be. So when they are jumping off the walls, are cranky or tired, or just in a complete meltdown, it’s because they have exhausted the mental energy needed to handle stimuli and expected tasks (i.e. focusing on an assignment, completing chores, or engaging politely with others). They’ve simply run out of gas.

So, how can we help our kids self-regulate throughout the day, especially when they are stuck at home?

State of Arousal and Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to change arousal levels in order to meet and manage the energy demands of a presented task or situation. For example:

  • Low arousal level – This is when we are tired or bored, and minimal brain power is used. However, if we need to stay focused to the task presented (like driving or participating in a meeting), we will attempt to remain awake by increasing arousal level, by moving, chewing gum, or playing loud fast paced music for example.
  • High arousal level – This is when we are overstimulated, overloaded, and stressed out. Our brains try to find ways to calm down, such as removing ourselves from the current environment, deep breathing, or drinking water.

Children initially do not know how to self-regulate on their own. This will come with time as their nervous system matures. As they get older, their motor skills develop and begin to process the sensory information around them. By the age of 8, they start to cultivate and refine strategies of their own to self-regulate without thought; some good and some not-so-great.

Difficulties with self-regulation make it hard for some kids to get up in the morning or fall asleep at night, which can lead to a tumultuous day of ups and downs. It’s important to understand how they process sensory information so we can better create strategies to help.

Sensory Processing

To achieve and maintain that “just right” arousal cycle throughout the day, you need to know what your sensory system needs to perform efficiently. Does is need vigorous movement to stay up, background instrumental music to focus, or a heavy blanket to feel calm?

Sensory input refers to experiences that stimulate our sensory systems (touch, visual, auditory, smell, taste, movement, and pressure) to reach an appropriate state of arousal. Some may seek more of one type of sensory input while limiting or avoiding another. Children with self-regulation difficulties may be over- or under-responsive to sensory input, resulting in 4 common types of responses:

  • Hyporesponsive (Poor Registration):  Regularly in a low arousal state, these children require high-intensity input in order to respond or react. They appear to have low energy, quiet, uninterested, or withdrawn.
  • Sensation Seeking (Impulsive): These children are the “thrill seekers.”  Although they appear to have a high arousal level, they may be tired and attempting to keep themselves up by constantly looking for more intense sensory input. This frenzy makes them look reckless or aggressive to others.
  • Hypersensitive (Fearful/Cautious): A form of high arousal, these children may be overly sensitive to sensory input and react by being fearful or anxious. They may be clingy to people they trust.
  • Hypersensitive (Negative/Defiant):  Another form of high arousal, these children may be overly sensitive to sensory input and react by needing to control their environment to reduce unwanted stimuli.

Maintaining these high and low arousal levels for long periods of time can have a huge effect on completing daily home or school responsibilities. Ideally, we want to guide our kids to be at an optimal calm-alert state for a greater percentage of the day, so they can learn, grow, and function at their best.

Sensory Diet

One method of helping your child is creating a “sensory diet”. This is an OT-driven, customized set of sensory activities that a child can do throughout the day to ensure they’re getting the “just-right” level of input they need. Although sensory diets are typically developed for children who require large amounts of stimulation, its principles are still be helpful for a child who might need appropriate check points to regulate themselves to get through the day.

Homemade Sensory Diet
When developing a sensory diet with your child, the end goal is to keep them calm, focused, and alert to complete daily tasks and functional activities.

The first step is to observe what makes your child tick. Certain questions to ask yourself (or brainstorm with your child if they are old enough) would be:

  • What do they need before participating in certain activities or situations? They may need a pep talk before going somewhere new or some physical activity before logging into their computer for class.
  • What modifications or accommodations are needed to help them be successfully get through certain activities?  Maybe they need to some “tummy time” when doing their homework rather than sitting at a desk or listen to loud rock music when completing tedious chores.
  • What activities or tasks are the most difficult for them? It might be sitting in front of a computer for most of the day or cleaning up their toys after the school day.
  • What sends them into disruptive or unfocused behaviors? Are their siblings constantly in their personal space? Or are they affected by the smell of certain foods cooking in the kitchen?
  • What do they need to “wake up” their system? Do they need a splash of cold water in the face or bright natural sunlight?
  • What do they need to calm down? Do they need a big bear hug, a warm bath, or a glass of warm milk?
  • What are their best times of the day? What are the worst?

From those questions, you and your child can come up with a game plan of what sensory inputs they can apply to help them succeed. See how you can incorporate those inputs or checkpoints in their routine, like:

  • Morning preparation for the day (activities that will get them energized)
  • Specific activities needed throughout the day (Ex: if they are feeling tired, what can they do to wake up? If they are jittery, what can they do to calm down? Make sure those activities are appropriate for that time of the day and can be done with the amount of time given).
  • Activities that need to be avoided or modified to help them succeed (A quiet space to complete assignments, a scheduled time to do chores, or avoiding the kitchen when dinner is being made).
  • Evening/night routine from the day (activities that will calm their system for rest)

Consistency is key. Like any diet, if it isn’t regularly followed, it won’t do anyone any good. These tips can help you and your kid balance out your days, identify triggers, and create good, self-aware habits moving forward.

Arousal and Self Regulation“. Pediatric Development Center.
How to Help Your Child Achieve Self-Regulation“, Mary Ann Dias, MOTR/L. Day 2 Day Parenting, January 2, 2014.
How a Sensory Diet Can Help Your Child: Guide and Resources“, Claire Heffron, MS, OTR/L. Healthline, March 8, 2019.
Creating A Home Sensory Diet“.
What is Self-Regulation?“, Leah Kalish, MA. Your Therapy Source, January 19, 2020.
Mauro, T. (2006). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder: Get the right diagnosis, understand treatments, and advocate for your child. Avon, MA: F+W Media, Inc.

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