Sensory Tools for Engaging Children in Speech Therapy Sessions

As a speech-language pathologist, you know what it means to work for a kid’s attention. Your office is stocked with board games organized by phoneme. Stickers and colorful toys are kept handy for bribes. Even your worksheets have bells and whistles.

Why put so much time into gamifying sibilant sound production? For one thing, interventions are more effective when they’re fun for everyone involved. It’s also essential to catch your client’s interest and keep them participating in therapy.

Children tend to balk at the cognitive and physical demands of a speech session. When a child faces sensory challenges as well as language deficits, the avoidance behaviors really start ramping up. Keep your sessions running smoothly by taking a proactive approach to addressing sensory needs.

Use REST® to provide continuous sensory input

Responsive Equine Simulator Therapy ® delivers the proven benefits of equine therapy without turning your office into a stable. This chair simulates the gentle gait of a slowly walking horse. Children can easily perform table work while seated on REST®, and the constant vestibular input calms their nervous systems to increase their attention to the task.

Help For Autism/ADHD

Motor development, including oral motor development, is intrinsically tied to the vestibular system. Hippotherapy is widely acknowledged as a treatment tool used by SLPs to facilitate the neuromuscular system in speech production. ASHA is careful to point out that SLPs who wish to provide hippotherapy must seek additional certification and training. If a hippotherapist certification is not a part of your continuing education plan this year, you can invest in REST® and still bring the vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive benefits of horseback riding to a therapy session.

What if hippotherapy is already a major component of your practice? This makes you uniquely qualified to use REST® as a sensory tool during your indoor sessions. You already know the benefits of equine therapy and have access to all the accessories. Bring in scratchy saddle blankets, smooth leather saddles, and pictures of horses and horseback riding equipment. Being able to “ride” a horse indoors is a novelty few children can resist.

Create a sensory landscape

Tactile stimulation helps children organize sensory and motor input. Babies form an understanding of the world by touching and tasting their surroundings. Young children use their hands to explore novel foods before taking the first bite. Speech production and the tactile system go hand-in-hand (or, more commonly, hand-in-mouth.)

Incorporating different textures into your manipulatives not only sparks conversations about bumpiness, fuzziness, and smoothness — it also gives your clients tactile landmarks for the spatial and kinesthetic organization. Create more opportunities for touch exploration by varying the surface materials in your therapy room.

Looking to boost the sensory input by combining tactile stimulation with another sensory system? Use a horsehair blanket in conjunction with an equine therapy-emulating intervention like REST® to further facilitate neuromuscular integration. Carpet squares with rough, squishy, or fluffy textures can also be used to stimulate the senses during vestibular activity.

Warm up with “heavy work”

Spending five to fifteen minutes warming up the oral motor system is key to the successful production of difficult sounds. Working small muscles in the face, mouth, and throat is a difficult task, and can be hard for energetic children to focus on right away. Waking up the mouth and tongue with a vibrating chewie is a common preparatory activity for these exercises.

Sometimes, a chewie just isn’t enough. For a child who seeks a high level of sensory stimulation, whole-body proprioceptive input can be the missing piece for engagement in a therapy session. Exercises like bear crawling and frog jumping provide weight-bearing input through the joints to calm a child’s nervous system.

What if the child struggles with divided attention? Doing two things at once, like vocalizing while bear crawling, maybe frustrating or impossible. Breaking your session down into more manageable chunks for this child is already a necessity. If you want to address as many objectives on your intervention plan as possible for that session, the best solution is providing passive proprioceptive input. This can be as simple as having the child hold a weighted blanket on his or her lap.

Weighted lap blankets can also be used with REST® or a ceiling-mounted swing. A highly active child may need the double-pronged calming approach of linear vestibular stimulation and proprioceptive input. However, if your client is always off in his or her own world, you may risk putting the kid to sleep by accident. Adjust sensory stimulation appropriately to the specific needs of the child.

Wrapping up

Speech production is closely linked to the vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile systems. Neuromuscular facilitation of the oral motor system shouldn’t just target the mouth and speech organs. In a comprehensive therapeutic intervention, all body systems should come into play.

REST Chair

Fidgets, textured manipulatives, and movement breaks are time-tested methods for engaging children in speech and language interventions. Expanding your repertoire with emerging technologies like REST® will bring even more therapeutic benefits to the table.

Click here to learn more about what REST can do for your pediatric clients.

REST: Because it works

It’s time to put REST into your life. And take advantage of all of the benefits equine therapy has to offer any time, any place. At Gait, we firmly believe it will be a powerful, rewarding, and effective tool for helping treat your special needs child, children, or adult.


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Phone: 844-264-REST