Sensory Strategies in Action: How to Alert or Calm Yourself or Your Child

Occupational Therapy Staff
December 9, 2016

You may have heard of relaxation techniques to calm oneself by using soothing music or deep breathing. What about techniques to alert oneself when experiencing low energy? When addressing sensory strategies we often think of the sense of smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste.  From a sensory integration perspective, we also have the vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (body awareness) systems. Based on personal responses and preferences, we can change or “regulate” the level of arousal through the use of these sensory systems.

Alerting and calming activities

There are some activities that tend to be calming in nature and some activities that tend to be alerting. You may notice that you have already used these strategies without realizing. For example, you may have used calming strategies with a young baby by dimming lights, playing soft music, swaddling and gently rocking him/her. These strategies address the vestibular, tactile, visual, and auditory input.

Or you may have used alerting strategies when staying up late working or studying by removing clutter from your desk beforehand to prevent distractions, talking to yourself or reading aloud, fidgeting with your pencil, tapping your foot and eating a crunchy snack. These strategies address the visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular, and oral motor input.

Think about what you do or what your child does in a small subtle manner in order to maintain appropriate levels of arousal. This may help you select appropriate types of sensory input.

Remember that each individual responds differently to different types of sensory input. Individuals need to reflect on their response to different types of input.

Alerting and calming qualities


Definition: Movement of head through space, contributes to balance

Alerting qualities: fast, jerky, changes directions, moving in suspended equipment

Calming qualities: slow, rhythmic, movement in one direction, using grounded equipment


Definition: On joints,contributes to body awareness and coordination

Alerting qualities: fast paced, quick changes, jarring, jerking, starts or stops abruptly

Calming qualities: joint compression, slow stretch, heavy resistance (e.g. push ups, heavy work, weighted blankets, backpacks, vests, or lap pad)


Definition: Sense of touch

Alerting qualities: light touch, unexpected touch, cold, rough, cool environment

Calming qualities: pressure touch, tight wrap, firm stroking over large area, predicted touch, warm environment


Definition: Sight

Alerting qualities: bright colors, unexpected visual stimuli, bright lights, red-yellow shades, changing/moving stimulus

Calming qualities: dark colors, predictable rhythmic pattern, dim lights, blue-green shades, stimulus remaining constant


Definition: Sound

Alerting qualities: unexpected, loud, complex or missed, pronounced

Calming qualities: expected, quiet, gentle rhythm, simple, melodic or sing-song


Definition: Smell

Alerting qualities: all odors tend to be alerting

Calming qualities: familiar odors associated with pleasurable and comforting experiences, interactions, or people


Definition: Movement of the mouth

Alerting qualities: crunchy textures (e.g. pretzels, chips, raw veggies), cold temperatures (ice chips, ice-cold drinks)

Calming qualities: deep breathing, resistive biting and chewing (e.g. fruit leather, non-food items like Chewelry or Chewy Tubes), sucking on hard candy, thumb, or pacifier

If you have any questions, please contact an occupational therapist who can assist you with using environmental/sensory strategies to support you or your child.


ALERT program from Therapy Works, Inc.

Ayres, J. (2005). Sensory Integration and the Child. Western Psychological Services.

Biel, L. & Peske, N. (2009). Raising a sensory smart child. London, England: Penguin Books.

Cohn, E., Miller, L. J., & Tickle-Degnen, L. (2000). Parental hopes for therapy outcomes: Children with sensory modulation disorders. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 54, 36–43.

Kranowitz, C. (2006). The out of sync child: Recognizing and coping with sensory processing disorder. New York, NY: Perigree Trade.

Sensational Brain


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