Sensory Overload? Learning What Your Kid Needs to Succeed

Jed Applerouth, PhD
December 7, 2021
min read
Sensory Overload? Learning What Your Kid Needs to Succeed

Know Thyself. And build a life that integrates that knowledge of self. When I work as an executive function coach, it’s important that I help students increase their awareness of how they operate, how they think, and what they need to be successful. Self-awareness is one of the keys to helping a student move from struggling to thriving. One of the first areas I help my students explore is their sensory profile — what type of work environment do they need, given their sensory profile, in order to be successful?

How quiet should the space be? How loud? Is it better to study alone or with other people around? What kind of visual stimulation is helpful or hurtful?

At the root of this conversation is how is the student’s brain structured? How are they wired up for sensory input? How sensitive are they to stimuli from their environment? What do they need to feel comfortable and be able to focus?

A helpful metaphor I’ve been using to help my students conceptualize their unique needs for more or less stimulation comes from Wendy Bertganole, author and sensory processing expert. She speaks in terms of the relative size of a student’s sensory processing “cup” which determines how much stimulation we need or can tolerate in order to think clearly and function optimally. Each of us has a unique configuration of how much sensory input is optimal in terms of sight, smell, taste, touch, feel and more.

If a student has a big “cup” for their auditory system, they may need some background noise in order to focus. However, for a student with a smaller auditory cup, even a small repetitive sound might overwhelm them and eat up their cognitive resources. Some students can handle a wide variety of smells and could do their homework in a kitchen brimming with activity, while others would be really distracted by particular smells. Some students can work in an environment full of visual stimulation, while others need a more “quiet” visual space. Some students have a big cup for proprioceptive/kinesthetic sensory input, and they will need some movement in order to optimally focus. Tell these students they cannot move, wiggle, or fidget, and they’ll have to use up great resources to inhibit those innate impulses to move.

I always help my students examine their systems, habits, and strategies for academic success. Finding the right environment is almost always the first thing I help them tackle. If the environment is not conducive for academic success, even the best digital planner and system of organization and timers are not going to solve the student’s issues.

Some of my students work well in the quiet of their rooms. Other students struggle if they are by themselves in their room, and they do much better in a library or social setting in the presence of others. Some of my students need to bounce a ball against a wall while they are learning, to satisfy a need for proprioceptive input, to feel their bodies in motion, (sometimes, even a motion as subtle as clicking a pen or a tiny fidget can meet this need). Some of my students always play music while studying; others need complete silence.

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There is no answer to the question, “what is the optimal study/learning environment?” without taking into account the individual needs of a student. There’s no universally “right” or “wrong” way to set up your study environment.

In my own life, I know how excessive visual input overwhelms my cognitive processes. Put me in a sports bar with televisions in all directions, and my IQ drops by 30 points. When it comes to auditory processing, put me in a room with many conversations taking place simultaneously or in a room with a loud ticking clock, and I have to work extra hard to focus on any other cognitive task. It may come as no surprise that just as I have some auditory processing challenges, my father did too: genetic inheritance influences so many of our sensory systems.

What matters is that you take what you know about how your brain works, and craft a study environment accordingly. I need a study space relatively free from distractions, and I need a little movement to keep my brain happy. I’m writing this article in the relative quiet of my office, playing my instrumental Pandora station, chewing Epic cinnamon gum, and intermittently drinking tea. I’ve been using the same music, gum, and tea routine for decades. And it works for me.

Every student needs to understand what they need in order to thrive. Does your student focus better while playing music with lyrics? Music without lyrics? Working in complete silence with noise cancelling headphones? Sitting in a loud coffee shop? What does their brain prefer? What is the right level of stimulation for their particular sensory cup?

It’s good to let them experiment, get to know their preferences, and then structure the environment accordingly. No shame, no judgement: just self-awareness. From this foundation, your student can begin to build better systems to help them become the best student they can be.

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