Helping Teens Help Themselves: Five Tips for Sensory Success

During my years as a school-based occupational therapist, I consistently observed the following: younger kids, like preschoolers through third-graders, love coming to O.T. Often their peers will ask me why they don’t “get to go” to O.T. and the kids on my caseload feel special to be receiving this extra attention. As they get a little older, fourth and fifth-graders for example, still seem to enjoy therapy but I do often note subtle signs of embarrassment as they have figured out the O.T. typically means they are developmentally behind their peers in some way. And then by middle school, often times it seems that I have become an all-out disgrace to them! These kids often don’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 as well as the higher expectations for independence and self-control and yet refuse to be seen using anything that makes them different than the norm? A challenge indeed…

Five Tips for Sensory Success with Teens

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

2. Reward their efforts!  No one ever gets too old for rewards! Typically, after completing one of the above programs with a teen, I have provided them with a “contract” to fill in. In the top section, I list as many strategies as possible that I feel would be beneficial for the teen. Then in the bottom section I have the teen list the strategies they are willing to use. I transfer these to an index card for the teen to keep with him/her and put a checkmark next to the strategy each time it is used. I pop in at random times to check the index card. If they have been using their chosen strategies I 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!

3. Offer lots of “invisible” strategies. Stability balls and weighted vests won’t stand a chance in a general education 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.

4. Assist with setting up next semester’s schedule. Kids who are mostly over-responsive to sensory input usually do best 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 P.E. first thing in the morning and the core academics later in the day. Sensory-seekers (kids always in motion) typically do best when allowed to alternate between core academic courses and courses that provide more sensory input (gym, music, art, workshop).

5. Enlist the teachers’ help.  Most teens wouldn’t want to be the only one sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, but 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, or simple stretches, therabands tied to the front legs of all the chairs in the classroom for the kids to push and pull their feet against, and 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 always to 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.


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Gwen Wild, OTR/L About Gwen Wild, OTR/L

Gwen Wild is the owner of Sensational Brain Co. She is also on the faculty of Summit Professional Education and travels nationwide speaking on the topic of “Creating and Implementing Effective Sensory Diets for Children and Teens.”

  • Martianne Stanger

    SO happy to see some tips for teens. All too often, I know, I concentrate on the younger ages b/c that is what I have at home and in tutoring. Having some key resources to offer older children is helpful.

  • Anna

    This is so neat! I really like what you do.
    I Sometimes buy cool figit items for myself or with one of my children in mind. I’m a 2-E so I know I get the figits sometimes. So In my purse I have three kinds of figit toys. One for me to play with and whichever children want to play with them. I just bought this stuff called thinking putty and it changes color with the heat of your hands. So my youngest (he’s 8) and I tried it out and its pretty cool! That Book on Sensory Smarts for Kids is cool. I think I loaned it out so I don’t have the title perfectly, but you get the idea. Yeah so having little toys in my purse helps with church a bit, and if were waiting somewhere. I usually have pens and pencils on me and those help for like waiting for the Dr. in the Dr’s office. That paper they have on the bedthing pokes easily but if using a light touch its pretty large paper to work on. We tried markers once, good color- but they tended to seep through, and then there’s cleaning up. :D So yeah my purse is sort of a sensory basket. :D
    Sincerely, Anna

  • dj

    I have a sensory seeking high functioning 13 going on 19 year old daughter. She is gifted in some areas and is mostly sensory seeking, but I have noticed in her last couple years becoming more underesponsive. We have known something was different about her all her life, but figured things out more specifically about 4-5 years ago. She is very smart in knowing what she needs. She has music inputs immediately in the morning, craves sweets, strong foods, cold and hot, loves perfumes, scented items. She takes hot baths to calm herself in the evenings. She is a happier kid when busy with her activities. She has learned to be a very skilled volleyball player. She takes longer to gain motor control, but when she does, she is very very skilled and super committed and intense. She takes longer to motor plan than average kids, but once she has spent some extra time, she can really feel comfortable. Our struggle especially of late is her ability to self-regulate what comes out her mouth. When things set her off, she goes in to complete verbal fits and struggles to calm herself. In front of me and in public. I struggle to know how much to expect of her and how much room to give her. I know that her diet doesn’t help as she is a sugar craver and the more sugar/starch she has, the more flagrant her mouth becomes. We’re considering finding an OT to help us….we did seek out someone about 5 years ago to get some feedback. She confirmed that she was a Sensory Seeker, high functioning. Any help you can provide specific to teens would be so appreciated. I have been searching the web for ideas for Sensory Diet related to teens as well as expectations vs. needs. Her public verbal behaviors over things that seem so trivial to other teens are what I worry about most and how to help her know how to handle herself and I think we need to find a way to help her better self-regulate. Thanks for your post regarding teens, I find so little info on how different SPD looks in teenagers.

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