Sensory-motor feedback loops operate constantly in our bodies. A loop occurs when:

  • Information comes in through the senses and is sent to the brain.
  • The brain evaluates the information and dictates a response or action.
  • The sensory system observes the action and sends the information back to the brain.
  • The brain then evaluates the accuracy of the action, then dictates a new response or action adjusted to improve accuracy.

In most cases, this occurs at the sub-conscious level. We usually aren’t aware of the adjustments we are making as we go through our day. This is true for those whose sensory-motor feedback loops are working properly.

In this article, I discuss sensory-motor feedback loops and what you can do if they aren’t working as they should.

A sensory-motor feedback loop is how we think. It is how we reason, and it is how we make good decisions. Deciding to do something isn’t enough. We must act, and when we do, the sensory-motor feedback loop begins.

The human brain assesses the value and quality of our action with constant adjustments that happen at the subconscious level. Our brain acts as a central operating station and considers all the incoming information. This leads toward an outgoing (or motor) response.

When your hand touches a hot stove, information is sent to your brain which results in an immediate outgoing motor response and you jerk your hand away.

Incoming information from a noisy fire truck behind you leads to an outgoing response of knowing how to control the car and move to the side of the road and stop the vehicle. Incoming data leading toward an outgoing adaptive response.

An enthusiastic and excited child jumps on the trampoline and almost bounces right off. Now, a learning opportunity is made available. The child thinks that to prevent this from happening again, there must be a recall of the incoming information. How much effort did they put into the jump? How high did that effort, along with the tension of the trampoline surface cause them to fly into the air? Most importantly, their brain decides how to use this data to adjust their response.

Scolding the child may derail this natural response. The child only remembers that an action on the trampoline resulted in their parents’ admonishment. Confusion exists regarding whether or not the “note to self” tip is:
1. avoid trampolines, or
2. avoid bouncing on trampolines after five minutes (when they almost bounced off), or
3. only bounce very, very gently.

None of these responses is the correct answer. The child needs to understand the movements of their body impacting the tension of the trampoline’s surface and how that resulted in the favorable or unfavorable result.

We can key up our muscles and our muscle response. We know how to do this in sports, such as when a tennis player jumps, hops, and rocks in order to get the nerves that go to the muscle, ready to operate in a keyed-up and ready-to-work manner.

We can also create a more calming influence for our muscles. Think of slow movements, lower lights, quieter voices, in addition to a constant and gentle pressure on the body (such as heavy blankets) as well as an unvarying experience of comfortable warmth. These sensory experiences are naturally calming.

The brain is an amazing thing. We can even excite or calm our nerve’s responses through mental (brain) imagery. Visualize a walk in the forest. It’s early in the morning with birdsong, fresh air, gentle shadows, and soothing greenery all around us. Even though this is entirely in your imagination, messages are still sent to the brain which then sends messages to create a calmed down and a slowed down response.

So what can you do to improve these feedback loops when they aren’t working well? Try these strategies:

Improving Loops: Sensory-Motor Alive and Well

Sensory-motor feedback loops happen constantly. The information going into the brain results in a response that results in causing another response. Thus, the actions we take become more accurate and coordinated. Sensory-motor feedback loops are the method by which children develop physically. They can refine skills such as printing, use of scissors and cooperative play through the feedback loops within the sensory-motor system.

Our nerves transport the information to and from the brain. Someone yells, “Throw it here!” My brain hears the invitation and I throw the ball in the direction of the caller. But did I reach the target? My sensory system, in this case, my visual system, will judge how well I tossed the ball. If I miss my target, I rethrow the ball until accuracy can be achieved.

I heard the request, I responded by throwing, I observed my results, and I responded by rethrowing. Sensory information in, motor response out, sensory information in, adjustment of motor response, and motor response out. With repeated experience, I can recall what my muscles and joints must do in order to toss the ball the distance to the caller.

The next time I hear someone calling for the ball, the auditory information goes into my brain and mixes with visual information that I discovered to be very important the last time I threw the ball. It then mixes with past experience, intelligence, and the memory and recall of how exactly I preset my muscles and joints in order to lead to a more accurate toss. This is how sensory-motor feedback loops help us develop and mature.

When your child doesn’t seem to be able to adjust their actions to develop better accuracy, a sensory-motor/sensory regulation program may help.

For example, let’s return to my example of throwing a ball. You are playing catch with your child. You tell them to throw you the ball. When they do, the ball falls short. “Throw it harder this time,” you tell them. They throw the ball again, with the same result, even though they appear to be trying to throw harder. This does not indicate a strength problem. This indicates that the sensory-motor feedback loop isn’t operating smoothly. Because that loop isn’t working well, your child is unable to adjust their actions to develop better accuracy.

IMPROVING LOOPS: Sensory-Motor Activities

Work on Body Image

Children need to understand that their body is separate from the world around them. They need to know how much space they occupy and have a sense of their height, length, and width.

Have the child stand and perform gentle co-contraction (learn more about how to do squeezes at my website) through the head, shoulders, and hips. The S’cool Moves method of performing dots and squeezies can also be helpful.

In addition, body image/body schema games such as “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” as well as “Simon says” and even “peek-a-boo” are all activities that promote a sense of self.

Work on Motor Planning

As your child’s body image or perception improves, helping them understand the space around them is the next priority. Knowing how to move and how to “occupy space” is a basic skill a child needs to function in the classroom and home settings.

Introduce concepts such as “in,” “over,” “beside,” and “under” by playing games such as zoo animal. Pretend to be a lion and wander around. Have the lion go under and through things. Have the lion go beside an object and climb over another. Navigating through an obstacle course either in standing and/or in crawling would also be of benefit. This will help develop a better understanding of spacial arrangements.

Planning these movements may require better muscle tone in the trunk and extremities. Cocoons and airplanes can help with this activity. (Learn how HERE.)

Work on Rhythm and Timing

Rhythm and timing are essential for a student to learn the subtle nuances of existing in our school environment and our society at large.

Have the child lie on their tummy on a therapy ball. Introduce a rhythm while saying the alphabet so that the child’s hands touch the ground alternately with their feet touching the ground. This will work to the rhythm of the letters of the alphabet, spelling of their name, counting, or any rhythmical nursery rhyme or song.

Use of a therapy ball can be introduced at any time, such as when attempting to promote body image and motor planning.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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