48 Quick & Easy Alerting Sensory Strategies to Get Kids’ Attention

Movement Activities for the Classroom

There are times when it can be a challenge to get kids’ attention… and sometimes it’s even harder keeping their attention! These various alerting sensory strategies are quick and easy to use, anywhere!

The key to learning is engaging a child’s attention.  Additionally, making learning fun enhances memory and captures attention! 

Several OT sensory activities alert the nervous system in order to wake up the brain for learning.

Gaining full attention from kiddos can be a challenge for teachers in a school setting.  Especially at the beginning of the year, after a break / holiday, or even in the afternoon when they start to get sleepy!

With the added pandemic, we have significant changes in how kids are learning. In school, virtually at home, or combinations of both!

And too much screen time can make attending to a person difficult!

I’m a huge fan of brain breaks.  Not only are they backed by research but they’re so essential for kids!  Especially now!

This post includes a summary of general OT sensory strategies to increase alertness and attention in kids.

Keep this post handy for when your kids need to wake up their brains!

Alerting the Brain for Learning – Increase Attention using the Sensory Strategies

Even though our nervous systems are more mature as adults, it can be hard for us to sit in one spot for a long period of time.

Kids’ nervous systems are less mature.  Their brains need even more input from a variety of sources in order to attend and learn.

A child learns best and retains information when they are using many parts of the brain, which means using more parts of the body. 

Different sensory systems need specific types of input. 

Alerting sensory strategies stimulate the body’s sensory systems to wake up the brain.  The correct ones have to be chosen to be effective.

These quick and easy strategies can be used anywhere.  They help in any setting, whether kids are learning in school or at home.

There are 6 sensory categories in this post (movement, proprioception, tactile, oral, auditory and visual strategies.)

I’ll share movement strategies to alert the brain, proprioceptive input for the muscles and joints, and tricks for the tactile system.  Additionally, I’ll share ways to increase attention using the mouth, the auditory system and the visual system. 

Each category has 8 strategies that increase alertness in your kids.

Sensory Activities for the Classroom
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Quick and Easy Alerting Sensory Strategies to Increase Attention

The 6 sensory categories are listed below to help increase attention. If you want to also start with a few core exercises, they also increase attention in kids. Check out 40 Core Exercises for Kids.

Specific Movement Strategies that Increase Attention in Kids:

The movement system, or vestibular system, is very powerful when it comes to waking the brain for learning… if the right types of movements are used!

The key is to encourage head movements in a variety of directions. This gets the fluid moving in the little canals that are part of the vestibular system.  Moving the fluid quickly alerts the brain and increases attention in kids. 

If you have some kiddos who need more movement than their peers, be sure to check out Movement Activities to Enhance Learning or Best Brain Break Exercises – FREE Printable.

Additionally, 17 Special Movement Activities to Improve Visual Skills contains more balance activities.

Examples of movement strategies that increase attention:

  • Toe touches
  • Windmills
  • Fast side bends
  • Spinning around
  • Downward dog
  • Log rolling
  • Somersaults
  • Cartwheels

Proprioceptive Activities for the Muscles / Joints – Alerting Sensory Strategies:

My favorite type of sensory input as an OT, is definitely proprioception!  Giving input to the muscles and joints can both alert/wake up the brain… but it also calms and organizes the nervous system.

Perfect for learning!

I tell parents, teachers and therapists, when in doubt, use proprioceptive input

If you have a kiddo who responds well to pushing / pulling or heavy work, or one who loves deep pressure, check out:

25 Brain Breaks for Kids – Improve Focus & Attention (FREE printable available, all activities use proprioceptive input), or

Calming Deep Pressure Weighted Tools and Activities that Increase Focus

Quick examples of proprioceptive input activities that increase attention in kids:

  • Jump in place
  • Yoga positions
  • Chair push-ups
  • Army crawls
  • Bear walks
  • Donkey kicks
  • Push or move furniture
  • Carry heavy objects such as a stack of books

Tactile Activities that Increase Attention:

How many kids and adults do you know that constantly fidget with their hands?  They play with hair, click a pen, hold a paperclip, or pick at objects. 

Maybe they always need to touch everything.  Do you ever find yourself needing to feel a soft shirt or blanket when you’re out shopping?  Or do you find it hard to resist petting a soft, fluffy puppy?

Increase Focus Tactile Activities

We gain so much info through our hands.  Fidgeting or exploring hands are a simple and natural way to feel and self-regulate.

In addition to tactile input to our hands, think of how alerting the cold, crisp winter air is on our face and neck.  A sharp breeze can wake you in a second! 

Many kiddos are tactile learners and need manipulatives or hands on activities.  If you need more info, check out:

Simple DIY Math Manipulatives for Tactile and Kinesthetic Learners

Tactile Learning: A Unique Hands on Activity

Examples of tactile strategies that increase attention:

  • Hand fidgets, pencil grips or fidget toppers
  • Shaving cream, gel bags, sand / salt or finger paint
  • Tactile bins for learning activities
  • Incorporate hand gestures or sign language during learning lessons
  • Use manipulatives during learning
  • Allow doodling or coloring while listening
  • Brisk self-massage, tickle or rub to arms, face, hair, neck
  • Fan with paper (or stand in front of a fan!)

Activities for the Mouth that Increase Attention:

Oral sensory and oral motor input to the mouth is very powerful for the nervous system and brain.  It’s calming and alerting and really helps with concentration. 

Think of kids (and even adults for that matter!) that always chew on their shirt, pencil, or fingers.  

The biting input to the jaw gives so much feedback to the brain.  It’s great for relieving stress and helping increase attention!

If you know of an oral sensory kiddo and need more ideas, check out:

Wake the Brain with Proven Oral Sensory Activities.  It shares similar activities listed below, as well as specific toys and tools for the mouth.

Examples of mouth strategies (oral motor and oral sensory input) that increase focus:

  • Chew gum (2 pieces can be tried for some kids)
  • Offer chewy or crunchy (healthy) snacks
  • Chew on a straw or coffee stirrer
  • Give hard candies or lollipops to suck on
  • Drink ice water or chew on ice
  • Try sour foods (lemon in water or lemon-flavored snacks)
  • Use a think straw for liquids or smoothies
  • Try a straw to “drink” a puree such as yogurt or applesauce

Auditory Activities and Strategies that Increase Attention:

Think of how sounds make you feel.  Certain sounds and types of music can relax and calm you, while others can increase your energy. 

Fast paced, loud music helps with an intense workout or with cleaning for adults! 

It’s also an effective and fun way to energize kids. 

When using sounds, there are quick ways to get their attention, but you have to change it up… if you keep using the same noise, they’ll start to tune it out.

Also, some kids may be sensitive to certain sounds or noises, so try to avoid sounds that could be too annoying.  Choose sounds and songs that are pleasant and fun. 

Your auditory learners will love these activities!  If you’d like more info, check out:

How to Improve Reading Skills with Auditory Activities.

Examples of auditory strategies that increase attention:

  • Play fast paced music before learning
  • Use a metronome (50+ bpm) during a movement warm-up activity
  • Clap your hands (make it a game – you clap once, they clap twice)
  • Use timers or different alarm sounds
  • Ring bells, chimes, or rain sticks
  • Use instruments with different patterns / rhythms
  • Play mystery sounds that each have a response
  • Use interactive chants

auditory, visual, oral strategies to increase focus
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Visual Strategies that Increase Attention:

How does a bright, sunny room make you feel versus a dark room? You’re certainly going to be more alert with the bright light!

When you search online, certain photos or bright colors are more likely to capture your attention than dark and dull ones. 

For kids, adding a visual cue or altering the visual environment can help with focus and attention.  Too much visual input can be distracting for some kids. 

Examples of visual strategies that increase attention:

  • Turn on lights or keep blinds open
  • Minimize visual clutter on workspace
  • Decrease visual clutter in the room
  • Use bright and bold colors for lessons
  • Use a highlighter for important info
  • Create a work space with brighter lights and colored mats
  • Use a piece of paper to block out words / work that’s not necessary
  • Incorporate visual motor integration activities into learning

For more visual strategies to add to learning activities, check out:

Easy Visual Tracking Activities Using Flashcards and the Infinity Loop

How to Improve Reading with 15+ Visual Skills Activities

An Easy Visual Motor Activity Using Magnets

Additional Tips When Using Alerting Sensory Strategies

These are ways to get kids’ attention using six of the sensory systems. They’re intended to be used to increase alertness and attention in kids.  Some students may need alerted even more, depending on the time of day.

You may need to try a couple of different activities from different systems.  See which alerting sensory strategies your kids respond to the best.

Using flexible seating increases attention and focus. Setting up your room can give options for changes in position to keep kids engaged.

Also, it’s good to talk about environmental stimuli or the input and how it makes you feel.

“Wow, I feel so much more awake after opening the blinds!” Or, “I love that music, it gives me energy!” Then kids start paying attention to how it makes them feel.

If you need more activities or more information in each sensory systems area, be sure to click on the related posts!

Here they are again for your convenience:

Additional Articles on the Sensory Systems and Sensory Strategies

Pyramid of Learning Occupational Therapy
The Pyramid of Learning – the Taylor Trott Pyramid of Learning is a great visual representation. It shows the importance of the sensory systems as the foundation for learning, behaving and attending!  Be sure to check it out and share it!
Homeschooling Sensory Strategies
Sensory Diet Strategies to Help Kids Focus on Homework – this post gives ideas for ways to increase focus and attention using simple sensory strategies at home.
Sensory Strategies for the Classroom, School Based OT, Teacher Resources
Sensory Systems 101 – Understanding the Hidden Senses – this post discusses all the sensory systems, if you’d like more information!

School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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