Sensory and Motor Strategies to Support Online Learning

By September 29, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

By: Julie Robinson, OT

Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

For many families, this spring’s experience of remote learning and receiving integrated services was challenging, to say the least. As parents begin to think about their children returning to school this fall questions and concerns arise, not only about regression, but also how they will keep their children engaged in online learning.

For children with sensory processing difficulties and/or motor delays, there may be additional challenges in participating in Zoom classes and remote group learning. Some may have difficulty sustaining their attention, settling their body down to sit in front of a screen, managing the visual challenges of a screen, engaging socially or transitioning from a desired task to an academic one. Below are some suggested strategies, from an OT perspective, that may help your child participate in academics with less stress.

Regulation Strategies

The term “regulation” refers to someone’s ability to match their level of alertness (or arousal) to the environment and an activity. Throughout the day, our brain and our bodies are working to either increase or decrease our arousal levels for us to feel regulated and feel “just right” for the situation.

Sometimes children may have trouble with regulating themselves, causing them to experience dysregulation. Dysregulation can look very different depending on the child and can present as low levels of arousal or high level of arousal. This state may make it challenging for the child to be engaged and participate in certain activities, such as online learning. Sensory strategies are ways to help a child either increase arousal or lower arousal to match the needs of the task of online learning.

If a child is experiencing a low level of arousal, or their engine is running low, they should use a sensory strategy to help feel more alert. These include activities that have fast movement and increase heart rate. Taking movement breaks throughout the day is key! This could mean:

  • Jumping Jacks
  • Frog jumps or jumping on a trampoline
  • Playing at an outdoor playground
  • Creating an obstacle course
  • Doing something as simple as taking a walk around the house
  • Using a sit and spin or bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Hanging from a chin-up bar

If a child is experiencing a high level of arousal and their engine is running high, a sensory strategy to help them feel calm is beneficial. Calming strategies tend to be slower and more rhythmic. Ways to help slow down a child’s engine include:

  • “Heavy work,” such as wall push-ups, carrying books, laundry or groceries, wheelbarrow walk or crab walk can do the trick.
  • Yoga poses. Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube has some good videos with stories to encourage young children.
  • Creating a “sensory space” that is quiet and free from distractions. This could be a beanbag chair in the corner, a pop-up tent or a space behind a piece of furniture.
  • Using a weighted/heavy blanket or doing work on the ground with pillows underneath while spending time online may help your child to settle his or her body down. Explore the use of a therapy ball, T-stool, Move and Sit cushion or bike pedals that go under a chair to help kids who have difficulty sitting still.
  • Tactile play can be very calming for some children. Make a bucket of beans and hide small objects in it. Working with Playdough, shaving cream or water play can also help.
  • Encourage deep breathing to promote relaxation. Blow soap bubbles with a straw, pretend to blow out candles or blow a pinwheel.
  • An icy drink or popsicle can prove calming for many children. Or allow them to chew gum while learning to facilitate attention.

Strategies for Transition into Online Learning

As the new school year approaches, the change of routine into online learning may be a challenge for some kids. Here are some strategies to help your child adjust:

  • Create a clear schedule for your child that they can follow throughout the day (and make sure to schedule in plenty of breaks!). It may be helpful to use visuals or pictures, similar to a preschool schedule to help structure the time.
  • Make time for movement breaks around the house or outside. It may help to engage in a movement activity for 10-15 minutes before settling into an online class.
  • Use timers when needed (apps that have a visual timer, such as “Time Timer,” can be beneficial).
  • Create a designated space for the child to do their learning and make it their own.
  • Factor in a reward for good participation at the end of a virtual learning session, particularly for a child who seems resistant to remote learning.
  • Practice some brief online learning opportunities before school begins and slowly increase the time incrementally. Conduct Zoom calls with grandparents or other relatives where they read to the child to help maintain their attention. Search on YouTube together for some craft activities to follow along with. Khan Academy and Outschool have all kinds of online lessons for kids of all ages.

 Preventing Visual Fatigue in Online Learning

Along with the many challenges that come with online learning, the constant staring at electronics can cause strain or fatigue on the eyes. Eye strain can present as headaches, blurry vision, tired eyes and neck aches. In this world of virtual learning, it is more important than ever to help kids with strategies to prevent digital eye strain. Here are some strategies:

  • Turn down the screen brightness and turn up the contrast on screen settings.
  • Every 15-20 minutes, make sure to take a break from looking at the screen; set timers if needed. Sometimes placing your hands over your eyes and staring into them with open eyes can help. No matter what the day’s schedule is, always encourage a break from looking at the screen when needed.
  • Zoom in when text is too small.
  • Set limits for recreational use of electronics and avoid electronics before bed.
  • Sit in an ergonomically proper position when using the computer. This means keeping feet flat on the floor, lower back supported and shoulders related, and arms at a right angle.
  • Position the screen to avoid glare and use natural lighting as much as possible.
  • For a child who may have difficulty looking back and forth from a screen to paper, it may help to place the paper on a contrasting background of red or yellow.


About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.