In this first of four articles exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory
Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects Founder, Joanna Grace, explores how we can boost
the brain’s ability to set-shift through play. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet
guides, more can be found at: http://www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/guides

What is set-shifting?

Set-shifting is the brain’s ability to move between one set of cognitive strategies to a new set in response to changes in the environment. We need to be able to do this in order to achieve all sorts of other things, for example:

  • It underpins our ability to pay attention: To pay attention, we must switch between what we were attending to, to what we are asked to attend to.
  • It is fundamental to our ability to behave in a socially-acceptable way when faced with challenges: To behave acceptably we must be able to switch between our instinctual response to challenge, which might be to lash out and kick or hurt another person, to a more considered response, which could be to tell a teacher or ask an adult
    for help.
  • It is utilised by the brain when it tackles mathematical problems: To solve maths problems we need to switch between functions, for example one moment adding, another moment taking away.

These are only a few examples of all the fantastically brainy things our ability to set-shift underpins

Spectacular set-shifting

The brains ability to set-shift is one of its spectacular functions, underpinning our ability to interact successfully with the world around us. It takes us a while to secure it, with most typically-developing people’s brains only fully getting the hang of it in late childhood/early adolescence. But as with so many things achieved in later development, its roots begin in our early experiences and even for very little children we can begin nurturing these roots. Practice at experiences associated with set-shifting are like a work out for the brain, which is an incredibly flexible organ. Experiences in early childhood can mean a lot to later cerebral abilities.

The Frontal Lobe Deficit and set-shifting

Unsurprisingly, the frontal lobe is the part of the brain at the front of our skull, the part just behind your forehead. The frontal lobe is the home of set-shifting. People with various conditions can experience impairment to their frontal lobe abilities and this will in turn affect their capacity to set-shift. For example, people with Parkinson’s disease, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (currently one of the leading causes of learning disability in the UK), autistic spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, epilepsy and individuals with specific brain injury to the frontal lobe can all experience impairment to their frontal lobe capabilities.

The brain is a fantastically adaptable organ, and it may be possible to improve abilities in areas that are impaired by practicing the underpinning skills. Meaning that for people at risk of frontal lobe deficits there is extra potential at stake in these spectacular set-shifting activities.

Playing at set-shifting

To play at set-shifting, we need to create a play environment which gives the brain the opportunity to view one set of resources, or one environment, in multiple ways. In other words to see something in a particular way and then shift to see it in another way.

As you play at set-shifting, it is important that you check the understanding of the children playing with you at each phase of the game. They need to understand the environment, or the resources, as they are in the first phase, before you move on to the second phase. Do not shift before they have ‘got’ what is going on initially. You are looking to support their change in understanding.

Activities ripe for set-shifting exploration

Choose a toy or resource that the children you support play with regularly in a particular way. Invent a totally new way of playing with that toy and share it with them. For example if they regularly build models out of toy bricks show them how to use the bricks to colour in a drawing on the floor as if building a mosaic out of them

► Use stacking bricks to make print paintings

Place damp sand in a tough tray with sandcastle buckets and spend time making sand castles. Then remove the buckets and add in large pencils, spread the sand flat and use it to write in

► Turn a piece of furniture upside down and use it in a different way. If inverting a classroom table, use tennis balls cut along one side to pop over the ends of table legs to prevent injury. Turning a table upside down and making it a boat in an imaginary game is a wonderful piece of set-shifting

► Line up a selection of sturdy toys and hit them with a musical mallet to see what sounds they make. Order them according to their sounds and then play them as if they are a glockenspiel

►Make grated-cheese sandwiches by sprinkling grated cheese onto a plate, buttering the bread and then printing it into the cheese

Activities like these have also been shown to increase creativity in adults so by playing at spectacular set-shifting with your children, you may well find you are better able to come up with new activity ideas yourself!

The Sensory Projects believe that with the right knowledge and a little creativity, inexpensive resources can become effective tools for inclusion. Find out about The Sensory Projects events here:


About the author

Joanna Grace

Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.

Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.




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