Handwriting, Coloring, and other Calming Techniques for Students, from an Occupational Therapist
We often want to challenge the children, while also providing a safe and comfortable place to play and learn new skills. This is the balance OTs are constantly challenged with during therapy sessions.
When a child is preoccupied with any feelings of uneasiness, it can disrupt the therapy session. These feelings can stem from many sources, including having a difficult morning, a tough day at school, or even from being hungry or not feeling well. When a child struggles with these feelings it impacts their ability to focus their attention on a task.
Children who are unable to communicate these feelings often struggle because it leaves the OT to investigate what is causing the child to seem “off” during the therapy sessions. The therapist will sometimes spend a large chunk of time helping the child regulate their feelings taking away from time spent addressing therapy goals. Stress and anxiety can sometimes cause children to avoid new tasks out of fear and uncertainness. This can be challenging for occupational therapists when they are needing to introduce a new skill or activity.
While the OT would not have planned for the disruption in a therapy session, it is vital they address it to provide the most benefit to the child. Helping children learn coping skills is a significant responsibility for OTs when addressing independence with daily roles and routines.
Why Coloring and Handwriting Calm Our Minds
Handwriting can be a calming activity for school-aged children, and coloring and drawing can calm younger children. Coloring allows children to shift their focus and attention, gain a sense of completion, and use rhythmic movements with their hands and arms. Materials needed for coloring are easily accessible to parents and portable to carry along to outings that might cause stress or anxiety for children. Coloring can also take place in a quiet environment. Drawing, like coloring, can help shift their focus from a stressful event to something more pleasurable and fun.
Giving the child a topic to draw about can encourage them to think about something else and form a plan in their brain to execute on paper. As the child collects their thoughts for what to draw and color, their mind is taken somewhere else that can be enjoyable and exciting. The resistance the child gets from the crayon and paper provides calming proprioceptive input that can be graded by the amount of pressure being placed on the paper with the crayon. If possible, having the child listen to soft rhythmic music while coloring can enhance the relaxing benefits to the child. Children crave structure and rhythm. Coloring can be the perfect fit for an on-the-go activity, providing many benefits to soothing a child’s mind.
School-aged children can get similar benefits from handwriting. Having the child jot down “happy” thoughts can be a great mood changer. Topics like favorite foods, favorite activities, favorite things to read about are examples of simple topics children can write about. Getting the similar sensory feedback from the pencil on the paper as we get from the crayon with younger children can provide great sensory feedback. Using cursive writing can have added benefits to using handwriting as a relaxation technique. Science tells us the brain is better organized and stimulated with cursive writing adding to the vast benefits of using handwriting activities to organize the brain and body. When compiling goals for therapy with older children, have them write them down and discover ways to achieve them by keeping written track of their own progress. Maybe starting each therapy session off by having them write down what they want to work on that day can provide them a short but predictable activity to begin their therapy session. The power of writing can be both organizing and motivating for children to reach their therapy goals through a mindful process.
Here are three accessible techniques used by occupational therapists to settle people’s minds:
1. Focus on Sensory-Motor Skills
Providing children the opportunity to organize their bodies and brains through sensory-motor play can help reduce stress during therapy sessions. Giving them the opportunity for heavy work or deep pressure can help their bodies feel better organized, which in turn helps settle their brain and prepare them for a productive therapy session. Vestibular activities can also help organize their brains and bodies to allow them to achieve the optimal state of arousal for attention during therapy. Vestibular activities including rhythmic swinging or jumping can help children modulate their arousal level and better prepare them for therapy.
2. Create a Quiet & Calm Environment
When stressed or overstimulated, children crave quiet, calm, and structured environments. Try turning down the lights and playing soft rhythmic music in the background. Use a soft voice with minimal facial expressions when trying to calm a stressed child. Predictable activities can also be calming for children. Using schedules so they can know what is coming next and avoid surprises can help a child feel comforted. Familiar tasks can be reassuring and provide a calming effect.
3. Routine Can Be a Warm Blanket for Stress
One of the best solutions to reducing stress in children is making life as predictable as possible. Children have very little control in their lives. Providing a schedule with structure helps provide them with the sense of control they crave. Objects like weighted blankets and bean bag chairs are easy to access and can provide easy proprioceptive input at home. Activities like yoga or karate are both organizing and structured for children while providing beneficial physical work. When appropriate, letting the child interact with animals can also be soothing for children. Going on a walk with a family and the family dog can be a nice movement break that can help organize their emotions and provide opportunities for sensory input.
How Learning Without Tears Can Help!
Handwriting Without Tears offers opportunities for children to help with calming and reducing stress. Our flip crayons and coloring activities are great for the younger learners. Resistive activities like the Roll-A Dough can provide their hands with heavy work. The Wood Pieces are fun for letter building and provide a predictable and structured activity.