In the past several decades, child development specialists have discovered a lot about how the brain and body develop. Due to increase study in this field, there's a new phrase that's fast becoming a household name: sensory integration.

Occupational therapist Lynn Horowitz, MHS, OT, and physical therapy Cecile Rost have dedicated their careers to the practice of pediatric sensory integration. Their book Helping Hyperactive Kids—A Sensory Integration Approach (Hunter House, 2004) discusses sensory integration as it relates to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other similar conditions.

What does sensory integration mean? Sensory integration, or SI, refers to the processing of information that our eyes, ears, skin, muscles, joints, mouth, nose and sense of balance deliver to the brain. The processing takes place in various sensory systems. Sensory integration therapy, then, is a way of treating children who have problems processing sensory stimuli, called sensory integration disorders. Horowitz and Rost provide the 411 on each of the main sensory systems:

The Vestibular System: The Sense of Balance and Orientation

Thanks to our vestibular system, our bodies can adjust during a physical change, such as shifting our balance forward, backward, to the side, up, or down. The vestibular system answers three of life's most important questions:

  1. Where is up?
  2. Where is down?
  3. Where am I?

Tip: After your elementary-aged child comes home from school, it is better to let him first go outside to play, bike, or take part in a sports activity. In this way, your child gets enough equilibrium stimulation to be able to sit quietly and concentrate on homework later.

Between twelve and eighteen years, teenagers pursue means of inducing dizziness or thrill seeking, such as sports or roller coaster rides. All of these activities are normal for teenagers. Music and dancing are especially important to teenagers. When they dance to loud music, they may move their bodies and heads in a certain manner that helps develop a finer sense of equilibrium.

The Touch System: The Sense of Feeling with the Skin

Thanks to the touch system, it is possible to feel people, animals, objects, and materials in our environment.

Tip: Children with problems processing tactile information can become calm when deep pressure is used. For example, deep pressure can be experienced by the children by holding the child against you in a firm but friendly way. Placing a full hand firmly on a child's diaphragm, in the middle of his body just below his ribs, and breathing slowly with the child can be very calming.

The Auditory System: The Sense of Hearing

We know that hearing sounds is different from understanding and processing words and turning them into meaningful information. Listening can be very difficult if your child is hyperactive.

Tip: Hyperactive children often become calmer as they listen to classical music, especially by Mozart. Other kinds of music can also be soothing.

If your child can hear a book being read aloud by a parent, caretaker, or teacher at the same time she is reading it, the child may find it easier to absorb and assimilate the words. If your child can first think about a text and then hears her voice repeat the information, the child's comprehension can improve. This works well with homework, too.

The Visual System: The Sense of Sight

Our visual system involves the functions of both looking and seeing. Looking and seeing mean different things. Looking uses the eyes to gather information. Seeing refers to forming an image in the brain. Hyperactive children can have problems “seeing the trees for the forest.”

Tip: Providing an organized room for you child at home can be very helpful. In an organized room, he can see the toy for which he was looking. Structure is, in general, good for these children. In school, the important math problem a child cannot solve can be easier to figure out if it is written on a blank sheet of paper or on a sheet with blocks for each problem.

The Proprioceptive System: The Sense of Feeling in the Muscles and Joints

Our proprioceptive system is sometimes called the hidden sensory system because it is embedded in our muscles, joints, and tendons and is not really obvious on the outside of the body. But if we did not have this extremely important sense, we would literally fall down. It provides a foundation for everything from posture, to how to put your arm in your sleeve behind your back.

Tip: Having a good sense of the muscles and joints can help prevent injuries later in life. Let your child play outside in the yard or on the playground as much as possible. This can help him or her develop properly and can boost self-confidence.

The Sense of Smell and Taste

Did you know that smell is 25,000 times stronger than taste? The sense of smell has four important functions:

  1. It offers protection.
  2. It offers an important component to emotional and sexual life.
  3. It helps jog memory because odors are stored in the memory.
  4. It helps acquire food and drink.

Tip: Essential oils can determine the mood in a room. Many types of these oils are available, each with its own effect. Lavender is well know for its calming effect.

Horowitz and Rost encourage parents to use each of the main sensory systems to help calm down a hyperactive child: by drinking through a straw (taste); sitting on a medicine ball (vestibular/proprioceptive); washing your face with cold or warm water (touch); watching fish in an aquarium (visual); or whispering (auditory).

Finding out what activities work best for your child is the cornerstone of sensory integration therapy.