Sensory strategies for ADHD

Posted: 12 May, 2016

By: Annabella Sequeira

Section: Education, Parenting


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a chronic condition where persistent inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity are present. It is generally diagnosed during the childhood years, and it can last into adulthood. According to research, 2 out of every 3 children with ADHD will still be showing signs of ADHD as adults. It affects 4 to 12% of school-aged children in the USA and it is diagnosed 3 times more in boys than girls.


There are 3 types of ADHD:

Inattentive (previously known as ADD): the children/adult tend to not be excessively hyperactive and they tend to not disrupt a classroom/learning setting, which is why they generally do not get diagnosed earlier. They are generally quiet, but usually, they are those that do not finish their work due to “daydreaming”. It is most commonly diagnosed in girls.


Hyperactive/Impulsive: signs include both hyperactive and impulsive behaviours, but despite this, these children/adults are still able to pay attention to a task. It is the least diagnosed type.


Combined inattentive/hyperactive/impulsive: children/adults diagnosed with this type show a number of signs consistently in all dimensions, it is the most commonly diagnosed type of ADHD and it is the type that most of us recognise and see.


It is a known fact that children/adults with ADHD have great difficulty paying attention and controlling impulsive behaviour (acting without thinking). They understand what is expected of them, but have trouble following through because they have difficulty sitting still, paying attention and focusing on the detail of the task at hand.

Children/adults with ADHD also have sensory processing difficulties, which in itself causes difficulty in the ability to focus and attend. This often leads to them seeking sensory input from the environment (e.g. movement touch or sound) which in turn can be seen as troublesome and disruptive behaviour at school/work. The inability to adapt adequately to normal sensory input results in a child/adult that is easily distracted by sounds and movements in the classroom, leading to the inability to focus and follow instructions.

In a study conducted at Temple University, the researchers found that sensory intervention and sensory strategies can significantly improve problematic behaviours such as restlessness, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Sensory activities or ”snacks”


Sensory activities are wonderful strategies to use in helping children/adults with ADHD in order to get rid of excess energy and to help direct attention to the tasks at hand. Otherwise known as sensory snacks, these activities are commonly used in helping children/adults with ADHD, and they are also the least invasive strategies available. Sensory snacks also meet the need for adequate sensory input.

It gives the body something else to focus nervous energy on so that the brain can concentrate on the learning task at hand, and it helps to calm and organise the nervous system for focused and optimal output during learning.

General tips for helping children/adults with ADHD in the classroom

  • Seat the child close to your desk and in front of the classroom to reduce the effect of distractions. This will also allow for discreet communication with the child and to help keep him/her focused on the activity at hand. Seating for adults in the workplace should be in distraction-free zones.
  • Keep the child/adult away from doors and windows to minimise distractions.
  • Always give clear rules and expectations to the class on a regular basis. Use visual displays for timetables and class rules.
  • To curb talking, use a traffic light as your guide. This can be incorporated with the entire class, or you can place a small reminder on the child’s desk:
    • Red = no talking
    • Orange = a little talking
    • Green = talk openly
  • Giving strategic praise for even the simplest things will lead to the child trying harder. Positive attention is a very powerful tool. Catch the child being good. Adults need more structure and routine within their daily work schedules.
  • Corrective feedback must also be given immediately after the negative behaviour is noted, followed with a brief and clear indication of the consequences.
  • Allow opportunities for verbal expression (sticky notes or pictures if you are afraid they’ll forget)
  • Allow for movement breaks. Intense and heavy-duty movements like wall or chair push-ups or jumping jacks allow for alerting and organising the nervous system. These are fun ways to include all the children in your classroom. Other ways to incorporate movement is to allow the child to be the teacher’s helper by sharpening pencils, handing out or collecting books and material or asking the child to run an errand right before giving directions or a test. Regular movement breaks for adult while working is critical to keep their focus and attention for longer periods of time.
  • Allow for the use of fidget toys (e.g. stress balls, aquarium tubing on pencils, Theraband or Theraputty and use mousepads for pencil tappers) – give instructions on how to use fidget toys appropriately and check to make sure that the child understands the instruction while using fidget toys. Fidget toys are a useful outlet for their restlessness and they allow the child/adult to quietly play at the desk.
  • Gum is often not allowed. Oral motor input is however often craved by children who need to fidget. You will find them chewing on their pencils and clothing. By chewing gum, the constant movement of the jaw acts as a grounding force for the muscles and joints in the face, resulting in improved attention and concentration. It is a great outlet for restlessness!

Other helpful sensory activities (sensory breaks)

  • Bouncing on a trampoline
  • Playing tug of war
  • Bear hugs
  • Walking on hands (wheelbarrows)
  • Wearing a loaded backpack or weighted vest
  • Sitting on a chair ball
  • Swinging
  • Chew gum or eat something chewy or crunchy
  • Drinking through a straw (even ice water, but thick drinks like smoothies are best)
  • Carrying heavy objects
  • Use a “sit and move” cushion
  • Pushing heavy boxes across the floor
  • Taking turns for laundry basket rides with another child (push/pull the basket with the child in it)
  • Sitting under a weighted blanket
  • Holding a weighted toy (such as a stuffed animal filled with aquarium gravel or dried beans)
  • Jumping onto a “crash pad” (use a mattress on the floor or make a crash pad by filling a duvet cover with pillows and setting it up in a safe place)
  • Climbing on playground equipment (seesaws, monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, etc.)

Remember to breathe

It takes a lot of patience, creativity and consistency to teach a child with ADHD. Your most effective tool is your positive attitude. Remember that is mostly not about inability, but all about the way the brain is not able to process the information to allow an action to follow (at least not without a little bit of facilitation from the teacher).


Who has benefited

Sensory Quiz™
Sensory Matrix™
Senses on Call™
Social media
Sensory Intelligence®