Play It Forward Therapy

How to help your students focus in the virtual classroom

Sensory Strategies to Help Kids Focus In The Online Classroom

How is online school going?  How is your child handling distance learning?

Going “back to school”, while remaining at home for distance learning, is proving to be a challenging experience for the majority of students and parents.

As a pediatric occupational therapist and a parent of school age children, I understand the challenges of distance learning firsthand. In other words, if you’re struggling to keep your child focused and calm for online school, you are not alone. Nevertheless, we all must deal as best we can under the current circumstances that require social distancing.

There are specific, yet simple adjustments you can make in your child’s environment to help improve their endurance for online learning.  Certain sensory strategies and environmental adaptations can be made to support your child’s overall attention and focus.

The goal is to find out what sensory inputs and modifications to the environment will best support your child’s sensory learning profile and overall well being at school.  You can review all of the sensory systems explained in this blog post. Click Here.

Your child’s ability to process sensory information efficiently, directly impacts his or her ability to focus, attend and learn.

Keep in mind that every child is different, and everyone has different sensory preferences… but the common goal is to discover which strategies best support your student in achieving a calm body and a mind that’s ready to focus and learn.


A Sensory Guide for Student

How does auditory processing affect my child’s ability to focus and learn?

Auditory processing involves not just hearing sounds, it also includes your child’s level of responsiveness to auditory input.  Some kids are particularly sensitive to noise and easily distracted, whereas other children may not seem to notice sounds in the environment. A child’s ability to listen in the regular and virtual classroom is impacted by his/her ability to localize where the sound is coming from as well as being able to discriminate sounds (e.g. filtering out speech sounds when the teacher is talking from a noisy background).

Think about when you were a student… Which type of setting helps you focus? Would you prefer to study in a busy coffee shop surrounded by continuous background noise? Or did you prefer to study in a quiet environment such as the library?

Auditory Strategies to Support Attention

Reduce competing distractions: Find a quiet place in the home, turn off the TV. Use high quality headphones or consider noise cancelling headphones for quiet study or reading time if your child is easily distracted or bothered by sounds.

Following directions: Too much noise can make it difficult for kids to focus and attend. Some kids have difficulty filtering out the teacher’s voice from all the background noise which makes it more difficult to listen and directly impacts their ability to follow directions. Teach your child how to mute the microphone or adjust the volume on their device to help prevent extraneous noise and chatter from the online classroom.

Stay alert: If your child benefits from music to stay alert, try out different types of study music during homework sessions.

How Does Visual Processing Impact My Student’s Learning?

Visual processing skills go beyond how clearly your child can see the screen or the black board. However, problems with visual acuity are the first thing to rule out because reading and academic work rely entirely upon how clearly your child can see the worksheet, text, or the whiteboard. Some children may be more sensitive to visual input when it comes to lighting or they may be easily distracted in busy visual environments or overly crowded work sheets, which can make it hard to focus.

Visual processing involves how well the eyes work together, such as eye teaming, scanning and binocular vision which directly impacts reading skills and other academic work.

Visual Strategies to Support Attention

Limit distractions in the environment: Position the desk or table facing a blank wall or away from the action. Reduce clutter to help kids focus by clearing everything off the desk except the essentials needed for classroom work.

The right lighting for learning:  Experiment with the level of lighting in the room and adjust the brightness level on your child’s computer screen to prevent eye strain.

Visual contrast to support reading: Often times children with visual tracking challenges, difficulty reading or a history of dyslexia, will benefit from altering the visual appearance of the text. Experiment with changing the font, size, spacing or the color contrast of the text on the screen to make it easier to read.  I recommend checking out Microsoft Learning Tools Immersive Reader.

Prevent visual overwhelm:  Some children become “visually overwhelmed” and may even refuse to start a worksheet if they perceive there’s too much visual information or text presented.   Cover up parts of the worksheet not currently being worked on with a sticky note or a blank piece of paper.

How Can Whole Body Movement Support My Child’s Learning and Focus?

The brain-body connection is powerful when it comes to a child’ ability to regulate their level of alertness, activity and engagement. Movement breaks or brain breaks can help your child re-energize and re-focus.  Movement breaks are an effective way to minimize the negative effects of prolonged sitting (e.g. neck, shoulder and back strain). Additionally, movement breaks are also an essential strategy to prevent mental fatigue.

And just because school is taking place at home, doesn’t mean that recess should be skipped!  Here’s a great fact sheet about the importance and benefits of recess from AOTA. Click Here 

As a matter of fact, recess is an essential part of a child’s daily routine, when it comes to overall fitness, managing activity levels and the development of gross motor skills.

Sensory-Motor Movement Strategies To Support Learning

Movement breaks and indoor recess ideas: Build in breaks throughout the day. Search for “brain breaks for kids” on YouTube. One of my favorite channels for short bursts of fitness are Go Noodle, Go with YOYO and Cosmic Kids Yoga. Do animal walks or races down the hallway (Jump like a kangaroo, slither like a snake, crawl like a crab etc.)

Move to learn: Learn information while moving.  Jump or sit and bounce on a large exercise ball while reciting math facts or spelling words.

Walk and talk: Get some fresh air and go for a walk while brainstorming pre-writing topics out loud.

Spell to the rhythm: Practice spelling words out loud while clapping your hands or patting your knees.

Fidgets: If you’re child is constantly touching things or has extra nervous energy, consider a quiet fidget or doodling to keep the fingers busy while listening. A common challenge for kids is when their online connection is disrupted.  Or, if they have to wait to be let back into the classroom.  Prepare for this and print out some coloring sheets of their favorite character or have some books close by to give them something to do while waiting.

Alternative seating: For kids that have trouble staying seated, try alternative seating such as a ball chair, child size rocking chair, move n sit cushion, disc o sit or even a semi-inflated beach ball as a cushion to allow for movement while remaining seated.

Allow alternate positions for studying: Some children who have a difficult time sitting still, will find it easier to focus when standing at the desk or table. (Think about adults who have standing desks at work and ask them why they like it and how it affects their productivity!)

Other positioning ideas: Turn the chair around and let your child stand on one leg while putting the other foot up. Lying on your stomach and propping up on elbows is a good work out for core strength, shoulders and the upper back.  This is a great alternate study position while looking at books or reading.

Ergonomics: Avoid eye, neck, back and shoulder strain with proper positioning and ergonomics. When seated, feet should be flat on the floor with hips, knees, and ankles at 90-degree angles. The tabletop should be about 8 inches above the chair seat to promote good posture.

How a “Motor Mouth” Can Support Attention and Focus

Typically a “motor mouth” in the classroom refers to talking too much, however I’m talking about a different kind of motor mouth!  From an occupational therapy  perspective, OTs have come to appreciate the effects of oral motor movements on sensory processing and modulation.  The mouth is a powerful receptor and conductor of sensory input.  Deep pressure input can have a calming effect.  Sucking, chewing, biting and deep breathing techniques are all powerful mouth tools that use oral motor movements that contribute to supporting a child’s ability to calm and focus.

For example, think about how sucking a pacifier or drinking from a bottle has a calming effect on an infant or toddler.  Baseball players may chew wads of “gum” to help relieve tension and improve focus on the game.  Deep breathing, such as in yoga, promotes respiration to calm and relax the body and mind.

The Role of Mouth Tools In The Classroom

Taking deep breaths supports mental alertness, reduces stress, and promotes calmness: Take deep breaths to oxygenate the brain and promote a calm body.  Inhale through the nose for a count of 3 seconds, hold, exhale for 3 seconds. Pretend to smell a flower then blow out an imaginary birthday candle.

Chewing gum is not a bad habit: Studies have shown that chewing gum helps increase blood flow to the brain which impacts overall alertness for learning.  Click Here to read the article. Proprioception, or deep pressure input is calming to the nervous system. The jaw is one of the strongest muscles in the body, plus a place where tension is often held. Chewing gum is a simple way to help relieve tension and promote alertness.

Sensory snacks: Providing chewy snacks such as dried fruit or jerky or fruit leather or crunchy foods such as apple slices, carrot sticks and pretzel sticks for example, are good snack alternatives to provide nutrition and oral motor sensory input.

Keep your body and brain hydrated:   Keep a water bottle on the desk, cold ice water has an alerting effect whereas warm drinks tend to have a calming effect. Plus, staying hydrated is a must for energy levels and optimal brain and body function.

Which strategies will you try first?

I encourage you to think about your child’s sensory preferences because they have a direct impact on learning, focus and attention. Start by choosing a few of these sensory strategies to help your child achieve a calm body and a calm mind that’s ready to learn and reach its potential.

When distance learning is over and children return to in person classrooms, these sensory strategies may continue to be a part of your student’s Sensory Toolbox to support ongoing learning and academic success!

Author note: Jessica McMurdie OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 20 years of experience and additional sensory integration certification (SIPT Certified) and training from the University of Southern California and the STAR Institute For Sensory Processing. She is an AOTA approved provider of continuing education courses for occupational therapists.

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