Teacher tip: My “go to” calming technique for overstimulated kids

Body resistance exercise, or “heavy work,” can help kids feel calm. It’s especially helpful for kids with sensory processing challenges.

There are many ways to help kids calm down. But my “go to” calming technique is something called heavy work. It’s especially useful for kids who are overstimulated or overwhelmed.

Heavy work is when kids push or pull on an object. Or they compress or stretch a body joint. Think body resistance. Slow, steady resistance requires kids to exert effort against their muscles. (This is called proprioceptive input in occupational therapy lingo.)

This kind of activity is helpful for kids of all ages. And it’s especially helpful for kids with sensory processing challenges.

In my classroom, I often have my students do chair push-ups and push against a wall with their hands. I also give them resistance bands to stretch. Importantly, I explain to them why we do this. “These exercises help calm your body and clear your mind. It’s a strategy you can use.”

Parents can use simple heavy work exercises in two ways.

First, when kids are worked up and upset, have them do a few heavy work exercises to help them calm down.

They can push their belly over a weighted exercise ball and slowly roll back and forth. (You can find an exercise ball in the exercise section of most big stores.) Use the same ball and have kids lift it over their head, stretching up to touch the sky. Repeat the exercises slowly, deliberately stretching.

Second, you can have kids do exercises right before starting a task that requires sustained focus.

For instance, before homework time, offer a snack. Then play the game Simon Says with heavy work activities:

  • “Simon says march in place while stomping.”

  • “Simon says walk like a crab.” (Sit with hands and feet on the floor, then pull the belly up.)

  • “Simon says give yourself a big bear hug.”

An older child may prefer an old-school calisthenics routine with push-ups, jumping jacks, sit-ups, and other exercises. To experience the benefits of heavy work, try to have kids do the exercises for between 5 and 15 minutes. Try a circuit, with 10 to 12 repetitions of each movement. Cool down with slow stretching.

You can be very creative with these exercises and incorporate them into your day. And if you can, chart your child’s success. Your child will be calmer (and healthier) as a result!

—Nancy Hammill is the 2016 National Learning Disabilities Educator of the Year, awarded by Understood founding partner the Learning Disabilities Association of America. She has 20 years of experience as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, and learning therapist.

Learn how heavy work can be part of a sensory diet. Check out self-soothing techniques for young kids. And get tips to help kids with noise sensitivity, tactile sensitivity, and visual sensitivity.


Explore related topics

Next steps