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sensory needs - teensDuring my years as a school-based occupational therapist (OT), I consistently observed the following: younger kids, like preschoolers through third-graders, loved coming to OT. Often their peers would ask me why they don’t “get to go” to OT.  The kids on my caseload felt special to be receiving this extra attention. As they got a little older, fourth and fifth-grade, they still seemed to enjoy therapy but I would often note subtle signs of embarrassment.  They had figured out that a visit to the OT typically meant they were developmentally behind their peers in some way.  Then by middle school, the teens, more often than not, it seemed that I had become an all-out disgrace to them! This age bracket of kids didn’t want anything to do with me or my sensory tools!

So, how do we help these kids who typically need sensory strategies more than ever to cope with the increased demands on their sensory systems?  This age range is experiencing much higher expectations for independence and self-control.  Yet, they refuse to be seen using anything that makes them different than the norm.  A challenge indeed…

Five Tips for Sensory Success with Teens

Educate and Empower

We need to acknowledge that our role as the adults’ in these kids’ lives has changed. Most teens will resist if you continue to try to be the initiator of activities. Rather, you need to be the educator or facilitator, leading them through self-discovery.  Step back and allow them to be the initiator of the activities in their lives. Two of my favorite programs for educating teens about their sensory needs are:

Tools for Teens: Sensory Integration by Diana Henry

My Sensory Book: Working Together to Explore Sensory Issues and the Big Feelings They Can Cause: A Workbook for Parents, Professionals, and Children by Lauren Kerstein

Reward Their Efforts! 

No one ever gets too old for rewards! Typically, after completing educating and empowering teens, I  provided them with a “contract” to fill in.

In the top section, list as many strategies as possible that you feel would be beneficial for the teen.

Then, in the bottom section, include a list of the strategies the teen is willing to use.

Transfer these strategies to an index card for the teen to keep with him/her.  Ask the teen to put a check mark next to the strategy each time it is used.

Pop in to the classroom at random times to check the index card. If they have been using their chosen strategies, reward them with a candy bar or a cool pen.

One time, I even brought pizza for a teen and his friends because I was so impressed by his efforts. He loved it!

Offer Lots of “Invisible” Strategies

Stability balls and weighted vests won’t stand a chance in a general education middle or high school setting.

Instead, offer strategies like:

  • finger pulls,
  • desk stretches,
  • deep pressure from clasped hands down through the top of the head,
  • carrying books in his backpack between classes rather than keeping everything in his locker, and
  • lifting weights over his lunch break, if allowed.

Assist With Setting Up Next Semester’s Schedule

Kids who are mostly over-responsive to sensory input usually perform better in the mornings. Therefore, try to have them attend their core academic classes that require the most focus in the mornings.

The hard-to-motive, sluggish under-responders will do best with Physical Education first thing in the morning, leaving the core academics later in the day.

Sensory-seekers, the kids who are always in motion, typically do best when allowed to alternate between core academic courses and courses that provide more sensory input such as gym, music, art, and wood shop.

Enlist the Teacher’s Help

Most teens wouldn’t want to be the only one sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair.  However, if the whole class is doing it, they will all love the opportunity!

Other great ideas for the whole class would include brief sensory breaks such as three minutes of yoga, jumping jacks, simple stretches, and therabands tied to the front legs of all the chairs in the classroom for the kids to push and pull their feet against.

Another big one is encouraging the use of gum or peppermints during class time.


When possible, I prefer to use a group approach with teens. Sometimes we can use peer pressure to our advantage! My goal in educating the teens about their sensory needs is to always help them discover the positives in the way they process sensory input.

I like to point out that sensory “issues” alone do not constitute a disability. For example, most of our Olympic athletes are probably sensory seekers who have learned to meet that need for intense input in an adaptive manner.  It is also likely that many of our successful business men and women are over-responders who enjoy the relatively low sensory input in a quite office environment. Therefore our goal isn’t to change our sensory “issues,” rather just to learn to manage our needs appropriately.