How’s it going? Comfortable at your computer or plagued by screen glare and a back ache? Good music in the background or nagging construction going on next door? Sipping a glass of iced tea or nursing a dry throat? Yeah, those small things can go a long way toward distracting you or keeping you alert. That’s alert, as in the Alert Program®. Chances are you’ve heard of it. It’s the best and easiest approach to helping people with learning and sensory processing challenges – people whose senses are in overdrive or underdrive – to regulate their levels of energy and concentration. The style is can-do and creative. Do what works. Find a way to take the focus off the sensory difficulties so the brain can do other things – like maybe read or socialize.
You know how it goes. At work, some clients and students fall between the tedious and the too-hard into that sweet space, that level of creativity and preparedness you’ve honed to make your job fun and rewarding. But when you work with children or adults with sensory and learning issues, you just may have a thesaurus full of words for frustration or fatigue or burn-out. Perhaps what you need are new ideas and strategies and a bunch of belly laughs to take you back to the joys and basics of self-regulating. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the term – keeping yourself ready and steady in body, mind and heart.
This is where the Alert Program® comes in. Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger, occupational therapists and authors, have been teaching their self-regulating methods in clever, never boring, jargon-free ways to thousands of people in more than 40 countries for more than 35 years. Their approach is simple: Find a way to say yes to every need, a solution to each problem. Find a way to work around this, fix that, empower this. Level the playing field for people with self-regulation and learning challenges. To date, they’ve written three books, developed three games and written several songs. Their work is featured in college textbooks as well. As traveling lecturers, they met therapists, teachers, administrators, parents and caregivers from around the country and beyond who contributed to their knowledge and stretched their imaginations. Their life’s work is sharing this compiled knowledge to make living in this world as comfortable and enjoyable as possible for as many people as they can.
Now is your chance to take their Alert Program® Online Course and breathe fresh air, fresh oomph and fresh muscle into your therapy, teaching and/or parenting. They’ll take you back to the source of wisdom — your own body. You’ll remember how it feels when you’re too wired to concentrate, too worn down to participate, or just at the right alert level to learn something new or gain a fresh insight into yourself. You’ve never had such empathetic teachers. While viewing the online course, you’ll be offered a break before you know you need one. Want to fidget? Pick a play thing. Make noise? How about a Kazoo? Crunch something? Popcorn!
Making Sense of the Senses
The Alert Program® is a judgment-free zone that starts with the understanding that we are all sensory processors. Oops, a little jargon, but you get it. We touch, see, hear, taste, smell and move through space. And it’s up to our brains and bodies, living computers that they are, to make sense of all that. Think about it. That’s a lot of incoming information before we even get to algebra or “A Tale of Two Cities.” So, it behooves us, especially those of us who know a lot about this stuff, to take a step back and then step into our own bodies. Deeply.
The Alert Program® Online Course is a guide to self-rediscovery – how does your body say, “I don’t want to,” “I’m not ready,” “I can’t sit still,” “That’s boring,” “I’d rather go outside,” etc. It’s, know thyself anew – which is the first and best step to knowing (and supporting) someone else.
The best thing about reality-checking your way through the online course is that however you are, wherever you are, is just fine. So, if your inner mother pops up, put her in front of the TV. Once you see yourself through a forgiving lens, you learn to look at others more objectively. And you’ll have a new repertoire of skills and tools to apply to each situation. You play detective; you learn to read clues early on; you don’t get worn down so easily.
You won’t find endless talking-head lectures in the Alert Program® Online Course. You will find videos of real-life situations that illustrate difficulties and how to deal with them and the various ways each of the five senses can be involved in self-regulation. Because the course is designed to be accessible to parents, professionals find its language and metaphors useful for explaining concepts and strategies to parents and caregivers. Plus, it’s darned fun. Catchy songs, games, challenges, music-makers, ways to keep your mouth busy, remedies for a too-tense body or a chronic yawner – there all here, for all ages. And if you find yourself winding down, Sherry or Mary Sue will remind you you’re human and suggest you take a brain break or find a fidget. You can’t do the whole course in a day, Overachiever, but the time will whiz by because the course is so engaging.
One useful refrain is, “When in doubt, do heavy work.” Carrying a stack of books or moving a row of chairs will rev up a droopy student or settle down a client who is too wired. You can also push against a wall or try to lift up the chair you’re sitting in. But that’s just one tool in the box. And it’s a universal favorite. You’ll have your own set, encompassing the sensory experiences that work for you. As you experiment with a cup of chamomile tea vs. sucking an ice-cold smoothie or a foot massager under your desk vs. a fist full of Silly Putty, you’ll come up with new ideas for clients. You’ll even spot your own telltale signs – when am I beginning to flag and what can I do about it before I zone out or need a nap? What gets me into overwhelm, overloaded, when I’m crabby and don’t interact well with other people? How can I maintain that sometimes fleeting even keel I’m on when I’m cool, calm, and collected? When you learn to read yourself, you’re better at reading others. Clues are coming at you all the time and the course helps you spot them. You’ll plot your alert levels throughout the day to see how your alert states change and figure out how best to regulate them.
The course has links to resources for tools – they only look like toys – to suit every sensory need. When you sign up for the course, you’ll get your own Bag of Brain Breaks in the mail to get started. You’ll also find links to books, radio interviews, articles and more. So, no worries. This online course does not require you to white knuckle it, sitting in front of your computer or mobile device for endless hours. You’ll get the Leader’s Guide book, 50-plus pages of additional information in your handouts, and lots of links to explore more helpful information, as well as the videos that are only 15 minutes long. Plenty of time to take brain breaks, stretch, get something to sip or crunch on.
Yes, It’s for You
The Alert Program® is known for its engine metaphor – something that works well with children. They are encouraged to think of themselves as cars whose engines are running in low gear, high gear, or just right. But that’s just one approach. The truth is, the program has yet to find a group, setting, age or environment that hasn’t responded to its basics (see our blog article, “Engine Analogy? One Metaphor Does Not Fit All!”). The authors include research that documents the range of ages and populations the program has helped (see Alert Program® Literature and Research).
The Alert Program® Online Course teaches you to problem solve through trial and error, and not to judge any state – revved up, worn down or smooth sailing. Each has its place. One is right for therapy or learning, but if you’re going to mow the lawn, you need high energy. If you’re going to bed, you want to wind down. Each client, each child, will have a range of “just right,” not a pinpoint. You’ll hone your intuition, maybe be bolder in your efforts with each client or student, trying, say, compression clothing, or a song or a game where you haven’t thought to try one before. You’ll note what works and what doesn’t, because all information is valuable, and each client’s needs will change over time.
Feel the Sensation
We all have certain items of clothing we feel great in. Well, of course we look smashing — that goes without saying. But don’t forget the sensory side of the equation: touch. The feel of the fabric, the drape of the neckline, the snugness of the waist, the flow of the garment when we walk. The online course will help you bear in mind what all this means to someone whose sense of touch is ten times more sensitive than yours. The wrong pair of pants can be the set-up for a truly uncomfortable day.
Fingernails on a blackboard: Do the very words set you on edge? In the Alert Program® course, you’ll meet children who can’t bear to hear a pencil move across paper. You’ll hear about a husband who had a much easier time listening to his wife when he jiggled the coins in his pocket (but drove his wife nuts).The course is chock full of examples that bring the concepts to light and keep them vivid in your mind.
OK, that’s a bit of jargon for those who are new to Alert Program® concepts. But if you are familiar with them, you probably know about the Sensory-Motor Preference Checklist. It’s a checklist that helps adults understand what we call their sensory diets — meaning what floats their boats. It might be a way to move, something to listen to, look at, smell, feel, or chew on. The Alert Program® Online Course will show you how to observe what works for every client or student – your tool box. But remember, this is an ever-changing box. Try new things – for yourself as well as your clients, students and family members.
Amazing things will happen. Sherry Shellenberger tells the story of an older boy, way past toddlerhood, who had drooled and had trouble eating without making a mess because he had poor sensory processing. The answer? Take up the clarinet. Six months of playing resolved the issues with his mouth muscles. When Sherry last heard from his mother, he was away at college, majoring in music, playing multiple instruments and composing. A life changed. You won’t know what works until you try.
The Alert Program® Online Course is designed to be inspirational. Try this, try that; here’s what others have tried. Be creative. Forgive yourself when something falls flat. Know your own quirks and foibles. Think outside the box, way outside.
Above all, the course reminds you you’re reaching people who may live lives of separation and loneliness. When nobody understands that you aren’t able to hear one voice in a crowded restaurant or tolerate a pat on the back or sit still and pay attention, you’re isolated, even judged as stupid or weird. The Alert Program® Online Course offers a chance to provide fresh hope to these people in ways that are wise, funny and confidence-building. And it may teach you a few things about yourself as well.