I have a 4-year-old in my pre-k class who does well socially, but he avoids things like digging in sand or working at the water table. He's also very uncomfortable with swinging on swings and other kinds of outdoor play. I'm not sure how to address his squeamishness about these activities.

Many children show differences in the way they react to different sensations. There is great variation in the way children react to touch. For example, some enjoy all kinds of touch-playing in sand, squishing up mud, getting their hands into clay and paint-while other children find these experiences unpleasant.

Such reactivity often reaches its height in the preschool years. This is a time when children are expected to get involved with all kinds of activities involving light touch (finger painting, sculpting with clay, making sandcastles). Also, in preschool settings, children are often interacting in larger groups. There's a much greater likelihood of someone bumping or rubbing up against them in line or in a circle. If a child happens to be very sensitive to touch, this can lead to tantrums, irritability, withdrawal, or even aggression toward others. A child who doesn't enjoy these activities will often appear to the teacher or parent to have a major problem. However, the challenge may be quite a small one which can be easily worked around.

We need to appreciate the way each child's sensory system is working. At the beginning of the year, consider how each child in your classroom reacts to each of the senses' pathways. In each sensory pathway, from touch to sound to movement, any child can be highly sensitive. Some children find high-frequency sounds like opera singing very aversive. Others find low-frequency sounds like the vacuum or the boiler in the school very difficult to tolerate.

The level of light can also bother some children. Some find bright light, even sunlight, difficult to tolerate and do better with subdued lighting. And sudden movement in space, as in swinging, can be overwhelming for some children. While some crave the experience of swinging, others can be very upset by this kind of movement.

Smell, as well as responses to the textures of foods, should be examined. Some children get upset from the smell of perfumes or flowers, while others love them. Some children are finicky eaters because they are very sensitive to the smell or the texture of food.

It's also important to understand that some children have the opposite tendency. Instead of being overreactive to such sensations, they are underreactive. The sensation will hardly register, so they'll seek it out. A child who's underreactive to touch may want to bang into everything. The one who's underreactive to sound may seek out or create loud noises. A child may be running around all the time to create movement or get you to swing him.

Understanding that all the sensory pathways can be either relatively sensitive or insensitive can help us know how to approach each child. It will lead to creating an environment that will be helpful and adaptive. We can work around these differences so they don't become big differences. If we don't work around them, often a child who is sensitive to one modality or the other may begin pulling away, or shutting down and withdrawing. The possibility for this is heightened in a busy program, which these children can experience as too overwhelming. And the child who craves a lot of sensation because he is underreactive may begin running around, looking impulsive or aggressive. So what starts off as a small difference becomes a big problem.

If we recognize these differences, we can work with children in the following ways:

For the child who is oversensitive to touch, we can introduce firm pressure, gradually combining light touch with firm pressure. Similarly with sound, we can help to protect a child from high-pitched sound if he's sensitive to that and gradually expose him to a greater range of sound, over a long period of time, with a lot of comfort and careful regulation. The same goes for movement and smell.

For a child who is underreactive and craving more sensation, we can provide what I call modulation and regulation games. We can teach such a child to interact with his world gradually-moving from super fast to fast, from making loud sounds to softer sounds to very soft sounds. This allows the child to feel he controls the level, and gets what he wants, while he is adapting.