#121: A Crash Course in Sensory Strategies for the SLP: The Optimal Learning Zone

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This Week’s Episode: How to Find the Optimal Learning Zone

This month I have had the pleasure of chatting with Jessie Ginsburg. Jessie is the founder of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles. She has shared so many good tips on a topic that she is so passionate about: Sensory Strategies for SLPs.

Jessie set us up with the importance of why SLPs should understand sensory processing in the speech room. Then we dove into the importance of the SLP’s role in sensory processing in the speech room and how we can help regulate our students and make them comfortable with us. Last week we discussed the different levels of arousals.

Today our crash course in sensory strategies for SLPs comes to an end. As we wrap up, Jessie will talk to us about the optimal learning zone and then we will recap our month’s discussion.

In Jessie’s recap, everything comes together nicely and we hope that some of these tips inspire you to implement sensory strategies in your therapy sessions.

Let’s dive in!

Key Takeaways + Topics Covered

Strategies for bringing your clients into their optimal learning zone (37m)

✓Identify the child’s level of arousal
✓ Identify your own level of arousal
✓ Co-regulation is important – put out your own energy (the opposite of where your student is)

Touch – tickling is more alerting than rubbing back softly
Vestibular – moving slowly/rhythmically (calm) vs. spinning
Auditory – sing hello (quietly/slow if high arousal with deep hug, sing fun and loud and silly with spaghetti arms)
Lights – sensitivity to light can cause dysregulation

Additional Links

Jessie Ginsburg on Instagram: @jessieginsburg.slp
STAR institute (sensory-related trainings)
Jessie’s Sensory Certificate Program

Next Up in this Pod Series

5/3/22: A Crash Course in Sensory Strategies for the SLP: The Why
5/10/22: A Crash Course in Sensory Strategies for the SLP: Our Role
5/17/22: A Crash Course in Sensory Strategies for the SLP: Levels of Arousal
5/24/22: Crash Course in Sensory Strategies for the SLP: The Optimal Learning Zone

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Speaker 1: Hello there and welcome to the SLP Now Podcast, where we share practical therapy, tips and ideas for busy speech language pathologists. Grab your favorite beverage and sit back as we dive into this week's episode. So let's dive into some strategies that we can use to bring our clients into the optimal learning zone. And I assume it'll be a combination of noticing their level of arousal and reacting accordingly. But you're the expert here. So what do we think about when we start looking into strategies?

Speaker 2: I think that some of the most important things to think about are of course, like you said, identifying the child's level of arousal and where they are. And the step after that is identifying your own level of arousal. Because as we know, co-regulation is so important. We always expect the kids are going to be able to self-regulate. Like, "You go take care of that problem on your own and come back when you're calm." The world doesn't work like that. We need people to help us regulate.

Speaker 2: So when we come into a session and we are already stressed, or we already have a high level of arousal, and we're overwhelmed, we cannot regulate a child when we are not regulated. This is true in all situations. It could just be at parenting. If you're a parent you've been there, where you're so frustrated with your kids and you know that you need to go take a breath before you go and you talk to them any further because you need to regulate yourself.

Speaker 2: So if we have a kid who comes in with a high level of arousal, we're overwhelmed and anxious and our level of arousal is high, we really need to get ourselves in check, figure out what you can do. And for me, I think what works best is just figuring out how to take the pressure off. Because I think a lot of our heightened anxiety, I guess you could say, comes from putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to have the perfect session or do the perfect thing, or have all the answers or get everything done we wanted to get done. So I think for me, if there's times where I'm really stressed in a session, I just have to tell myself, "My goal here and getting back to what we talked about initially is how can I connect with this kid? How can I get this kid see-saw balanced?" And once you really put that in the forefront of your mind and as your primary goal in therapy, I think that helps us regulate. At least that's something that would help me.

Speaker 1: Yeah. I love that as a strategy to help us regulate, because I think that's so true that if we're stressed and if we're dysregulated, we won't be able to help our students regulate.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And energy's contagious. It's like... I don't know, are you into sports?

Speaker 1: My fiance is, so I guess I am, by proxy, a little bit.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Okay. So I am not at all. I'll go to games so that I can get a soft pretzel. That's my level of enthusiasm.

Speaker 1: Yes. I love it.

Speaker 2: But it's like, you might go to a basketball game or a football game and the home team scores and everyone's on their feet cheering and all of a sudden I'm up cheering too. And I'm like, "Yeah, we got this." And it's not even that I care. It's just, energy's contagious. So when we go into those situations with that high level of energy, we end up there as well. And the opposite's true too. Like if you walk into work on a Monday morning and your coworkers are sitting around just like miserable talking about how horrible their weekend was, pretty soon you're going to feel pretty bad too. So I think just keeping in mind that the approach is very counterintuitive so that when we do have a kid who comes in with a high level of arousal, our job is to really calm them versus having a kid who comes in with a low level of arousal, our job is to give them more alerting input.

Speaker 2: And this could be done, like we've talked about, through the energy that we're putting out ourselves, but it can also be done through sensory activities. So just some really easy, I guess you could say rule of thumb for those of you who want to learn more about integrating sensory strategies, in general, when we're thinking about different sensory systems and we want to figure out, can this activity be calming or can it be alerting? You can think about the level of intensity of the sensation. So if we're looking at tactile input, which is touch, something that's going to be alerting is going to be a more intense tactile input. So whether that means like textures that are sticky or rough, or just have a higher degree of stimulation just by nature, or it could be something like tickling is going to be a more intense type of tactile input than rubbing someone's back softly.

Speaker 2: And you could really start to go through all of the different sensory system to think about, "How could I use this type of input in a calming way versus how can I use it in an alerting way?" So if we're looking at vestibular input and we're trying to use movement, if we are moving a child slowly and rhythmically, that is going to be a more calming and less intense type of vestibular movement than spinning the child with auditory input.

Speaker 2: If we are singing Hello, that's my favorite time to start working on either calming or learning input is just from the second the kid gets in the room, we've got the Hello song, that's the perfect time. So if we have a kid who's high arousal, we might sing the Hello song really quietly. We might even whisper it. We might sing it really slow and rhythmically while giving a child big, deep calming hugs or something like that, or squeezes on their arms.

Speaker 2: Versus if we have a kid who comes in, who has really low arousal, we might sing the song really fun and loud and silly. And I don't know if you know what spaghetti arms are, but that's like my go-to or you take the child's hands and you kind of give them a shake, like little spaghetti noodles. I think that's one of the easiest, but also trickiest things about sensory is that all the activities we do, they could almost all be done in a calming or in alerting way just by how they're done.

Speaker 1: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And do you ever do anything with lights or have you found that to be a helpful strategy?

Speaker 2: Absolutely. The funny thing about lights... I don't know funny is the right word, interesting thing I guess is that, if kids have sensitivity to light, that could be something that is causing them to be dysregulated, that is something that you may not even and have realized. They might come into the room and the lights might be so bright, but it's not something that you've even thought about. And it may not be something that they even realize is so dysregulating for them either. So they can't tell you.

Speaker 2: But in our office, we've got these magnetic light covers and it's like a cloth that you can put on top of the lights to soften them, which we really love. But we also will often turn off the lights completely in order to help kids calm. Or if kids really love lights and they love that visual input, then really using a lot of toys or activities that have lights in them. So it could be the opposite as well.

Speaker 1: It's such a cool way to think about this, because like you said, any activity can be modified. Like I love the example that you gave with a Hello song. We can easily modify that. And I feel like after practicing this a little bit over time, I'm sure you just automatically you start to make those adjustments without even thinking about it.

Speaker 2: Definitely. It's something that, I think with anything else... Like I've had a business coach tell me, "You can't always work in your business. You always have to make time to work on your business." Have you heard that?

Speaker 1: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yep.

Speaker 2: So it's the same thing as our therapy. It's like, we're always in the weeds of our therapy, but if we don't sit back and take time to really work on our therapy, then the, in our therapy part is never going to be easier or better. One of my favorite things, which I know probably most of us hate to do is videotape my sessions because that's where I get to see things that I would've never noticed. I love to watch them back and there's things that you will see when you video yourself that you just did not realize when you were in the moment. So being able to go back, review that, look at a child's sensory profile, go through each of the sensory system, make a plan for things you can try. And it's fun.

Speaker 1: Yeah, absolutely. And I think with video, modeling can be... it's a little different. Like I've used that with some social groups and just like letting them see themselves on video, they're like, "Oh, I do that?" And it's just like a huge light bulb moment and it changes a lot of things. But I feel like I've had that exact same experience, like seeing myself on video and even just seeing the session through a different lens because there's so much going on in this session. We might miss the little cues that clue us into, "Oh, maybe they are sensitive to lights and that's what's causing that dysregulation." There's those types of things that we start to see that we might otherwise miss.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And it's so funny, for those of us who work in early intervention, I think that that strategy is really common. Ask parents at least to take videos of themselves at home. I know in certain programs like [inaudible 00:10:23], it takes two to talk. That's a really big piece of it. It's funny because we go and we make these requests from parents and then many of us shy away from doing that ourselves.

Speaker 1: Yeah, definitely. If you're not used to doing it is a little bit being your own observer, I guess, getting an observation from an admin or something.

Speaker 2: And you know what's funny is I look back on videos where in the past long time ago I would've taken videos and if it wasn't demonstrating exactly what I wanted to demonstrate, I wouldn't even keep the video. I would just go, "Oh, I'll try next session to get that." But now going and presenting and trying to train SLPs, I'm like, "I wish I had all of those epic fail videos. Those are so valuable. There's so much to teach from them." In fact, I have a video I use when I present of me as an SLPA, just like the most embarrassing video of all time. I'm making a fool out of myself and just not able to get this little guy engaged at all. But I feel like it's those videos that are the ones that we truly learn from.

Speaker 1: Yeah, no, that's so powerful. I love that.

Speaker 2: Yeah. There's a lot to learn always.

Speaker 1: And we'll never be done learning. It'll be a lifelong journey.

Speaker 2: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Speaker 1: Let's do a quick recap of kind of where we went through this little series. So we started off talking about why SLPs need to understand sensory processing. And I love how you shared about The Whole-Brain Child. That book as a resource and the downstairs and upstairs brain and kind of setting the stage for helping our students feel safe and secure. And just taking the pressure off and helping them get regulated so that we can engage in all of the cool language stuff and all of that. So is there anything that you would add there or highlight?

Speaker 2: Yeah, I think that's the most important thing at the end is that really getting them in a place where they're regulated and just being able to explain that to parents and teachers and everyone that we're working with.

Speaker 1: Yeah. So that little summary kind of loops really nicely into the SLP's role because we can always make a referral to OT if we're seeing a student who is dysregulated, but if we have tools that allow student to access this session and participate and really engage with us, then I don't see why I would not do that. I feel like that's just a pretty clear reason. So yeah, I think that helped me to wrap my head around the SLP's role and you shared some really great resources that we can use to learn more. But I'm super excited about your sensory certificate program. I feel like that's such a cool way to guide SLPs into where we need to go for that.

Speaker 2: Yeah. I honestly had no idea if it was going to be a need for people. And I was just blown away by how many people wanted to learn more. And I felt like that's really what validated the idea for me is all these people coming out from literally all over the world we've had people trained in this program now. And it's really cool because it's so much greater than just how can we make a difference in our sessions and how can we better engage and help our kids learn language?

Speaker 2: This is so much more about how can we very slowly but greater changes in how therapists are doing therapy all over the world so that our autistic kids are not only getting the best services, but getting access to all these resources about how they can feel comfortable in their own body and know what their needs and how to get their needs met and be able to advocate for themselves and trying to open the world to more neurodiversity affirming therapy approaches.

Speaker 1: Yeah. There's a much bigger context than just participating in whatever book activity we have planned for the day. Yeah, I think that's super empowering and really exciting to get to be a part of.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah. There's a lot I think we can all do to do our part. Spread the word.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to the SLP Now Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please share with your SLP friends and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast to get the latest episode sent directly to you. See you next time.


Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

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