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Fun Activities that Boost Focus and Performance at School

All material Copyright © 2012, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L
Duplication permitted ONLY with copyright line included

Introduction:  My coauthor, Nancy Peske, and I wrote a lot about working with schools and teachers in our book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child– including school-based sensory diet activities, accommodations, and tasks modifications for the classroom. There is also information on working with schools on the website, including a checklist for teachers you can download and print to help them recognize sensory issues in students.
Educators and occupational therapists make great partners; we have so much to teach each other! When I consult with schools, conduct staff trainings, or have meetings for individual students I am evaluating or treating, teachers almost always ask me for strategies they can use to help all students feel and function better. Here are some of the activities I frequently recommend.
Fun Activities that Boost Focus and Performance at School-By Lindsey Biel, OTR/L
Frequent movement breaks boost learning by stimulating sensory receptors, increasing oxygen intake, and getting excess energy out in a beneficial way. Having an opportunity to move is especially important in helping students get ready for classwork requiring sustained attention and at times of transition from one activity to another.
Breaks may consist of activities such as jumping jacks, wall push-ups, chair push-ups, “downward facing dog” and other yoga postures, stretching (“reach for the sky, reach for the earth”), marching around the room and more. Here are some additional ideas:

  • Heavy work using large, deep muscles: Pushing, pulling, and carrying tasks such as moving furniture, pulling a wagon full of books, carry a heavy bag, playing tug of war, catching a weighted ball, climbing stairs, wheelbarrow walking, and commando crawling.
  • Structured movement games including Footloose (on eBay), Move Your Body, Upper Body and Core Strength, and/or Yogarilla Fun Decks from
  • Brain Gym activities get wiggles out, reduce stress, and help stimulate brain function. Please read Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition or take a course listed at Some recommended Brain Gym activities include:
    • Brain Buttons – This activity relaxes the neck and shoulders, helps balance right and left sides of the body, and boosts energy and focus. “Brain buttons” are the soft connective tissue pockets beneath your right and left collarbones. Place one hand on your belly while you massage these points with the thumb and middle finger of an outstretched hand for 20 to 30 seconds. Reverse hand placement and repeat.
    • Cross Crawl – This activity increases communication between the left and right brain hemispheres and coordinates body sides. Start with “unilateral” (same side) movements (e.g., alternate right hand to right knee then left hand to left knee) and then do “contralateral” (opposite side) movements (e.g., alternate right hand to left knee/left hand to right knee, hand to foot in front of body, hand to foot behind body, and other variations).
    • Crazy 8s – This activity loosens up arm muscles while focusing the brain – especially helpful when preparing to write. Hold your arm out with a pointed index finger and draw the infinity sign, a sideways 8. Draw it in the air using large arm movements, and keep the midpoint at the midline of your body so that your arm has to cross your midline. Next, draw it on paper. First use your dominant hand, drawing it quickly and loosely. Then, use your non-dominant hand.
  • Use a high-quality mini-trampoline or rebounder such as ones from or a Bounce Pad (
  • Shoulder Shrugs– Standing tall, pull your shoulders up to your ears and then push them all the way down. Do this five times and keep them down at the end.
  • Painting Circles–Keeping shoulders down, bring arms straight out to the sides. Imagine you are holding two paintbrushes with your favorite color paint and paint circles on both sides of the room. Do this 5-10 times circling clockwise, and then 5-10 times circling counterclockwise.
  • Karate Finger Flicks–To strengthen hands and arms and build body awareness, hold arms straight out, palms down. Alternate between making a fist and fully extending fingers quickly 10 times. Then turn palms upward and repeat 10 times. Great as a pre-writing activity.
  • Pop strips of bubble wrap with fingertips or tape large pieces to the wall and have students pop bubbles by pushing it. Kids can also pop bubbles by stomping it on the floor.
  • Clay, Sculpey, Silly Putty, Theraputty, Play-Doh Fun Factory, and Alex’s Clay Pictures and other manipulatives offering resistance are all great for preparing fingers to write. Visit for clay craft ideas for older students.
  • Popbeads and snap-together toys are wonderful. I especially recommend Parents brand popbeads, the Bear,/Star/Heart beads from, Textured Popbeads from , and this DNA popbead activity for older students:

For Kids Who Need Extra Help Staying “Organized”

  • Oral motor work can be very organizing.
    • Have student drink water frequently throughout the day.
    • If possible, have students chew gum (Glee gum is gluten-free) and snack on chewy and crunchy foods like carrots and fruit leather.
    • Let students use blow toys and whistles.
      Set up bowls of soapy water and straws and have students exhale through the straws to make “bubble mountains.”
    • Teach deep, slow breathing, focusing on exhaling rather than inhaling.
  • Assign special errands such as carrying a note to the main office or distributing worksheets or supplies.
  • Provide reminders about upcoming transitions. Use a Time Timer to help students anticipate when the current activity will end.
  • Remember that “crisscross applesauce” is very difficult for a child with neuromuscular and/or sensory issues. It is essential to have appropriate seating options and to make these available to all students in the room so no one feels singled out.
  • For kids with low muscle tone who tend to fall into gravity (“slouching” due to posterior pelvic tilt and poor trunk strength): Movin’Fit Jr. on the chair and for floor sitting, a Back Jack Chair or camping seat with the Movin’ Fit. Remember to position the wide end toward the back and to not overinflate it. A good practice for these wedge-shaped cushions is to sit on it yourself. It should feel stabilizing instead of destabilizing.
  • W-sitting (sitting with internally rotated hips, bearing weight as well on knees and ankles on the floor) is notoriously difficult to eliminate in a child who can sit securely on the floor only with this very wide base of support. Kids who w-sit and others may sit more comfortably on yoga blocks. Using low chairs at circle time should also be an option for students.
  • For kids who need tactile and proprioceptive input and tend to lay down or roll around on the floor, try bean bag chairs or HowdaHug chairs.
  • For kids who need to wiggle to stay tuned in, use lightly inflated Disc o’Sit cushions or other round inflatable cushions. Fidget tools such as squishy balls, Koosh balls, Tangle Jr., Silly Putty, or even Unifix cubes may be useful too.

This Month’s Featured Author: Lindsey Biel OTR/L

Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L (left ) is an occupational therapist specializing in pediatrics and the co-author of the award winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Through her private practice in New York City and the NY State early intervention program, she works with infants, toddlers, and older children with sensory processing disorder, developmental delays, autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, and other challenges. She is a popular speaker, teaching workshops to parents, teachers, therapists, doctors, and other professionals across the country, and a contributing writer for Autism File Magazine.
Please support our contributing author.  Please visit the website of the Sensory Smart Child,

PediaStaff hires pediatric and school-based professionals nationwide for contract assignments of 2 to 12 months. We also help clinics, hospitals, schools, and home health agencies to find and hire these professionals directly. We work with Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational and Physical Therapists, School Psychologists, and others in pediatric therapy and education.


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