What is a Child's Optimal Learning Zone?
Let me introduce you to what I call the “Sensory Processing Seesaw”.
Think of a child’s sensory processing as a seesaw. When something negative happens to the child, there is so much weight put on one side of the seesaw that it tips. A tipped seesaw represents a dysregulated child.
There are three things to know about the seesaw: 1) We don’t always know what’s going to make a child’s seesaw tip, 2) What makes one child’s seesaw tip does not always make another child’s seesaw tip, and 3) We don’t know how easy (or hard) it’s going to be to bring the seesaw back to center.
This sounds incredibly unpredictable, right? Right - just like most kids on the spectrum.
Why does this matter to us?
When a child’s seesaw is tipped (in other words, the child is dysregulated), is that the time to be working on language? No. Why not? Because when a child is dysregulated, he is not ready to learn.
When the seesaw is balanced, that means the child is regulated and is in, what I call, his optimal learning zone. In order for a child to be ready to work on language he needs to be in his optimal learning zone.
What does a child look like when he is in his optimal learning zone? He is calm, attentive, and regulated.
Does that sound like the typical state of regulation of our kids on the spectrum when they enter our sessions? Most likely not.
Let’s talk about the three things you need to know about the Sensory Processing Seesaw.
1. We don’t always know what’s going to make a child’s seesaw tip, meaning, we don’t always know what’s causing the child to be dysregulated. A child might be happy and enjoying an activity one day, but the next day you might bring out the activity and it leads the child to spiral into a tantrum.
2. What makes one child’s seesaw tip does not always make another child’s seesaw tip, meaning, children have different reasons behind being dysregulated. Children have varying sensory preferences. One child may love spinning in your office chair, but spinning may completely dysregulate the next child.
3. We don’t know how easy (or hard) it’s going to be to bring the seesaw back to center. Kids on the spectrum often have trouble recovering from distress. When upset, they may be dysregulated longer than a neuro-typical child of the same age.
So what does this mean for us? This means, that the first thing we do in our session, should be to try to bring kids into their optimal learning zone. If we are trying to work on language when a child is not in his optimal learning zone, we are not going to be as efficient or make as much progress in our sessions.
A child being able to be regulated is a foundational step in developing language, social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Without a regulated sensory system, the child will lack attention and engagement, leading to difficulties with developing flexible, novel language.
So when your therapy sessions begin, ask yourself, is this child in his optimal learning zone? And if he’s not, how can you get him there?
If you would like a visual to share with parents to explain the optimal learning zone and the sensory processing seesaw, make sure to grab my free downloadable handout here.
Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and founder of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.