There are many techniques out there to help kids calm down. But my “go to” calming technique—especially for kids who are overstimulated or overwhelmed—is something called heavy work.
Heavy work is when kids push or pull on an object, or compress or stretch a body joint. Think body resistance—slow, steady resistance that requires a child to exert effort against her muscles. (This is called proprioceptive input in occupational therapy lingo.) It’s helpful for kids of all ages, and especially those with sensory processing issues.
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, if your child is worked up and upset, have her do a few heavy work exercises to help her calm down.
Have her push her 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 your child lift it over her head, stretching up to touch the sky. Repeat the exercises slowly, deliberately stretching.
Second, you can have your child do exercises right before starting a task that requires sustained focus.
For instance, before homework time, offer her a snack and have her 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 your child 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 child’s day. And if you can, chart her success. She’ll 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.
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