OT Corner: The Vestibular System Goes To School

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By: Mary J Kawar, MS, OT/L

go to school

In addition to our 5 basic senses, we have a special sense known as our vestibular system, which is so important that it is protected inside of bone in our inner ear. It consists of gravity receptors that detect linear movement of our body in the gravitational field and semicircular canals that detect rotary movement of our head in space. It operates similar to a gyroscope on a space ship, keeping us informed at all times regarding where we are in time and space. Our body balance and our very survival depends on accurate movement detection. The vestibular system is also responsible for balancing or modulating all of the various types of sensory input, including vision and hearing, so as to enhance learning and memory.

Our muscle sensors (proprioceptors) respond to information from our vestibular system so that we can coordinate our movements in order to maintain balance and alignment in space. Any movement of our head in the course of running, rolling, tumbling, swinging, jumping, twirling, and gesturing “yes” or “no” is registered by our vestibular system so as to signal the muscles in our body to make an adaptive response, moment by moment, and thereby keep ourselves safe and secure in our complex, ever changing world.

Our vestibular system tells us which way is up, even when we are upside down and the world looks upside down. It tells us if we are moving in a circle or in a straight line, if we are losing our balance, or if we are falling or flying through the air. It tells us how far, how fast, and in which direction we are moving so that we get to the right place at the perfect time. It tells us whether one of our body parts is moving relative to another body part or whether we are being moved by something in our world. When our movement detectors are not working properly we literally become lost in space and may fall off our chair, be afraid to climb a tree, trip and fall, bump into people and walls, be fearful of crowded places, resist change, avoid playing sports or riding a bicycle.

The vestibular system works like a tripod for a camera, helping us to keep our eyes steady on a target even when our head or body is in motion. When our vestibular system is not working properly to provide stability for eye movement control, our eyes cannot participate efficiently in school tasks such as copying from the blackboard, reading, writing, and catching or kicking a ball.

The vestibular system is sometimes referred to as the “ear” of our body because it registers and interprets low frequency sound. That is why you can feel some sounds such as drums or thunder through your body before you hear them with your ears. Therefore, when our vestibular system is not functioning properly, we often have auditory processing problems in addition to difficulty with balance, coordination, and eye muscle control.

One of the primary reasons why our vestibular system is unable do its job effectively is because it has become “shut down” from ear infections, high fevers, allergies, restricted movement, etc. The vestibular system can regain ability to carry out many important functions related to movement detection, balance, eye muscle control, and auditory processing by specific movement stimulation of the 2 types of vestibular receptors. Therefore, we must make certain that our vestibular system is functioning effectively for safety, emotional security, wholesome interpersonal relationships, and for optimal learning. Most importantly, we must have frequent opportunities to move throughout the day in the classroom and on the playground because movement enhances learning and memory. When there is no movement, the brain literally goes to sleep.

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Our Author Mary Kawar, MS, OT/L is a private practitioner in El Cerrito, CA, Mary specializes in therapeutic programs for children and adults with sensory processing and motor control issues. She also lectures throughout the US and abroad on various topics, including vestibular processing and its support for vision. Mary is co-author of two recently published book/CD combinations entitled Core Concepts in Action and Astronaut Training: Sound Activated Vestibular Visual Protocol for Moving, Looking, and Listening. She has been particularly successful at designing innovative, fun treatment strategies which entice children to fully engage in activities previously perceived to be beyond their reach, thereby providing a scaffold for them to reach their full potential.

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2 Responses to OT Corner: The Vestibular System Goes To School

  1. Mary, This is such a parent- and teacher-friendly article! The Vestibular System is so important for body awareness and the foundational skills for learning, as you’ve so eloquently stated here. This will be a good article to share to help illustrate the need for movement activities for children. I will definitely share this! Thanks!

  2. marina bessinger says:

    Thank you very much from South Africa for the useful information. Please keep the good work up. EX Remedial and Special class teacher