Category Archives: Sensory

Saturday Seminar: The Impact of Personalized Tool Kits on Adolescents with Mental Illness

Jean MacLachlan, PhD, OTR/L’s November 4th 2014 Saturday Seminar was entitled: The Impact of Personalized Tool Kits on Adolescents with Mental Illness: How to Assess, Develop and Integrate into Daily Routines. A specialist in mental health and sensory processing, Dr. MacLachlan teaches at Salem State University, conducts research, and consults throughout the US. Her focus has been on the integration of sensory-based interventions into “non-traditional settings.”

Jean’s thoughtful and thought-provoking seminar revealed some surprising documentation about adolescent mental health including the statistic that about 20% of children and adolescents in the US have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder that impairs their lives (NIMH, 2010; Perou, 2013). Jean provided a summary of supportive literature that indicates that a sensory-based approach to treatment promotes positive behaviors. Jean’s research using individualized sensory tool kits yielded statistically significant results in 6 areas, 3 of which affected all study participants including an increase in self perception of sense of occupational competence; an increase in daily number of hours in the classroom; and a decrease in the number of PRN medications.

Jean offered a rich array of ideas for creating individualized sensory tool kits that target all sensory areas, depending on the adolescent’s needs. She added cautions regarding some client-specific personal issues including: allergies to certain materials, olfactory experiences that may elicit negative memories in trauma victims, visual responses that may trigger seizures, and vibratory stimulation for hypersexualized adolescents. She advocated building the use of sensory toolkits into a client’s routine to help improve function, which means devising a way that the client has access to his/her toolkit whenever it is needed, i.e. during transition times that might cause an outburst, like going from school to a job. Some Therapro materials that she recommended included:

In addition to individualized sensory tools, Jean discussed some interesting examples of sensory-based coping skills groups. One example she gave involved playing “Sensory Hopscotch,” where the client throws a beanbag on a sensory square and then identifies the tool in their sensory tool kit they use in that sensory category and why they use it.

With our understanding of sensory processing, occupational therapists can have an important role in providing sensory-based treatment for young people diagnosed with mental illness. Jean provided us with a dynamic seminar including interactive times for participants to share thoughts and problem-solve about tools that may be useful and accessible in their particular setting. Many offered helpful ideas on how to acquire those tools through creative funding. This seminar fulfilled all expectations for attendees who learned how to create and use personalized sensory tool kits with the adolescent population in individual and group settings.

Take a look at just a few of the positive remarks attendees made about this seminar:

“Excellent material, engaging presentation. Thank you!!” – Katherine C., Occupational Therapist

“Great ideas; really liked the built in discussion time.” – Maura M., Teacher

“Lots of ideas, suggestions. Opportunities to collaborate. And free!!” – Anonymous, Occupational Therapist

“Specific and functional activities! Direct and to the point!” – Susan J., Physical Therapist Assistant

“Well organized, informative, and applicable to my work.” – Anonymous, Occupational Therapist

Thank you, Jean!

Filomena Connor, MS, OTR/L

Simple Hacks to Optimize Backpack Safety and Organization

by Cathy Collyer

One of the essential back-to-school items on every parent’s shopping list is a new backpack.  Beginning in preschool and progressing all the way through high school, kids use their backpacks every day.   As therapists, we are aware that how that backpack is filled and carried will either create problems for kids or solve them.   A pack that is too heavy, so full that it creates perceptual, sensory or cognitive roadblocks to organization, or missing essential tools for kids with special needs, is not doing it’s job.  With targeted education and the introduction of simple alternative strategies, we can improve the chances that backpacks end up helping every child perform well during this school year.

Here are some ways to help students manage their backpacks for optimal performance throughout the school year:

  • Lighten up. Kids tend to make their packs heavier than they need to be.  Hypermobile kids, kids with orthopedic issues and kids with low tone may be carrying packs that put them at significant risk for injury.  Make sure parents are aware of this issue, and help them by suggesting a review of backpack contents and downsizing the “essentials” whenever possible.  Small water bottles, travel sizes of toiletries, and a minimum number of pencils, pens or markers lighten the load.  For kids that aren’t aware of the sensory or cognitive overload of an overfilled pack, a backpack checklist or a smaller pack help them manage without an adult assuming responsibility for content management.

  • Teach kids how to pack and wear their pack. The heaviest items should be carried close to the body and content weight should be distributed equally across the back. Kids should use both straps when wearing their backpack.  The one-shoulder carry can be preferred by middle-schoolers wishing to look “cool”.  This overweighting of one side of the body puts them off balance and at-risk for injury.  It may be hard to change habitual behavior in children at this age.  Try identifying the child or children who seem to be admired and copied by their peers.  Influencing the kids who are acknowledged social leaders can change class culture quickly.   Don’t wait until children report neck and shoulder pain, but remind parents and teachers that the risk of strains, sprains and exacerbations of issues seen in tweens and teens like scoliosis are real.
  • Frequently used items should be quickly accessible in surface pockets, and items they need for their first class are reachable when they open their pack, not packed under other materials. Laminated photos of pocket contents can help children learn the habits of efficient storage.

  • Help kids remember to use their sensory tools by having them handy. Tools like Highlighter Strips and the Desk Buddy Multi-Textured Ruler are slim and can be left between pages of a book or workbook, ready to be used.  Calming tools like the Wristful Fidget can be worn, not shoved into a pack.  Since it looks like a sport wrap, kids aren’t as eager to toss it away when they pack up and go!  Kids may need more than one set of tools so that they can leave a set at school and another one at home. Items that do more than one job, like the Desk Buddy Ruler, have an advantage over carrying a bunch of fidgets and then an equal number of classroom tools.

  • Accept that altering behavior is a long game. Don’t get discouraged if kids only use some of these strategies to improve how they manage their backpacks.  Habits change slowly, and as the demands of the school year mount, it may take periodic reviews and revisions to find the right combination of equipment, organization and carrying strategies to make a difference!

Cathy Collyer, OTR, LMT, PLLC

Cathy Collyer, OTR, LMT has treated children with neurological, orthopedic and sensory processing disorders for over 20 years.  She is the author of The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone.  Learn more about her work at

Saturday Seminar: Ready, Set, Learn: Tools to Build Self Regulation

A captive audience representing a broad range of disciplines attended Therapro’s September Saturday Seminar featuring Lise Gerard Faulise, MS, OTR/L, BCP. Lise is the founder of Rehab New England, a private sensory integration-oriented practice in Rhode Island, and co-founder of the Wolf School in East Providence, Rhode Island, designed for K-8 children with learning differences. Her presentation, Ready, Set, Learn: Tools to Build Self Regulation, provided a clear view of how self regulation develops from in utero and beyond, how dysregulation might occur, and how treatment can affect function.

Lise’s discussion of foundational skills that impact somatosensory experiences of a child before, during, and after birth was comprehensive. She led us through the developmental process where sensory and motor development are intimately linked, and showed how they help develop cognitive skills efficiently from the “bottom up.” She referred to the “Pyramid of Learning,” developed by Occupational Therapists MarySue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger, authors of the Alert Program – How Does Your Engine Run?, which teaches children how to identify and change self regulation using the analogy of an engine.

When there is a problem with self regulation, where the child either seeks or avoids sensory input, we may see behavioral changes in the child, which should raise red flags and further questions. Lise recommended the book, Is It Sensory or Is It Behavior? to help us examine if the behavior is intentional or whether it is a by-product. She suggested observing the timing of the behavior and whether it is limited to specific environments. For a child who experiences sensory modulation issues, Lise suggested providing the child with a large dose of sensory input activities so that behaviors don’t escalate and/or the child doesn’t feel threatened. For a child who experiences sensory overload, she suggested a quiet area or space at home and in the classroom that has things available that comfort the child, like a Cozy Caterpillar Sock, and comfortable clothing like Compression Clothing. She noted that oral or hand fidgets can help with self regulation as well. In addition, Lise identified somatosensory activities that involve deep tactile pressure, heavy work, rhythmical movement, music, breathing, and mindfulness as research-supported activities that are calming. Treatment materials to use may include scooter boardsDeluxe Peanut BallsRainy Day Playground: 2 in 1 Rotary Platform SwingHeavy Work Bands, to name a few. When a child is self regulated he/she is ready to tackle higher level function.

We were engaged fully in Lise’s seminar and wanted to hear more as the two hours of her presentation evaporated. Her skills as a clinician, researcher, and lecturer in the area of sensory processing disorders were evident from her solid and inspiring presentation.

Attendees offered these positive remarks:

“What a pleasure! Great presenter and excellent information.” – Beth B., Occupational Therapist

“So much information that I can really use in my classroom. Clarified a lot! Could have been 2-3 classes!” – R. B., Teacher

“All educators should be equipped with tools to help children with self-regulation.” – Anonymous, Teacher

“Very informative and relatable to all disciplines.” – Amanda S., Behavior Analyst (ABA)

“Great seminar – loved the specific examples, backed by evidence-based practice.” – Marianne T., Occupational Therapist

Thank you, Lise!

Filomena Connor, MS, OTR/L
September 9, 2017