Back To School with Sensory Smarts

Back to School picture

Watch Lindsey Biel discuss back-to-school on YouTube!

Whether a child is going to school for the first time or returning to school after summer break, starting a new school year can be exciting yet disorienting or even downright scary. New people, new settings, new clothes, and new academic expectations are especially hard for kids with sensory processing challenges who struggle with change and transitions.

Ease the Transition

If your child has been going to bed later and getting up later over summer break, readjust sleep-wake cycles little by little. Have your child go to bed 10-15 minutes earlier and wake up 10-15 minutes earlier each day until your child is back to a normal sleep schedule.

The same thing goes for back-to-school clothing. You don’t want your child to be distressed by the strange sensation of new underpants when he’s meeting new classmates.

Clothing companies like Teres Kids specialize in sensory-friendly clothing for supersensitive kids. Hanna Andersson has great underpants for boys and girls that stay in place, don’t have nasty elastic waistbands that bother so many kids, and that hold up in the wash. Experiment with boxers vs. briefs to find the fit that’s right for your child.

Get Everyone on Board

Some schools are happy to arrange for a new teacher to visit your child at home before school starts so your child can get to know the teacher and the teacher can learn more about your child. This is the perfect time to share your child’s interests, strengths, and challenges with the teacher.

It’s important to take steps to communicate information you would like the teacher to know about your child even if you do not have this opportunity to meet in person before school starts or early on in the school year. Special Needs Parenting, a great, free online magazine, offers a free downloadable form called Getting to Know My Child that will help you teach the school about your wonderful child.

Research shows that sensory issues affect 5-16 percent of the general population and up to 90 percent of people with autism spectrum disorders. With so many student affected, there are fortunately many teachers and school administrators who already “get” the sensory piece. They understand that a child may need a hand fidget to self-regulate and attend at circle time, do 20 jumping jacks or climb a few flights of stairs before sitting down to work on handwriting, or wear earplugs during recess and assemblies to protect themselves from unbearable noise.

Regardless of whether your child is in a regular education or special education program, many schools and individual school staff do not know about sensory processing challenges. It will help to spell out ways your child’s sensory issues interfere with his education and day-to-day functioning. For example, if you know your child flaps his hands in front of his face when he is visually overloaded, teacher or therapist doing tabletop work under a fluorescent light in a room with a patterned rug and a wall full of distracting visuals and posters needs to know your child will be better able to learn (and not hand flap) if his session is in a workspace with a regular desk lamp, a clutter free surface, and without complex visuals within sight.

A student who has difficulty dealing with information from more than one sensory system at a time may become overwhelmed by a teacher’s demand to process input simultaneously, such as to make eye contact when speaking. This child may be seeing visual distortions or trying to be distracted by another person’s eyes blinking or eyebrows moving instead of hearing what is said. This child must be allowed to break off eye contact when she is listening or speaking.

A student may do fine one-on-one with a teacher or therapist, but put him in a crowded cafeteria or in recess, and she may be feel like her body and brain are under attack. Any time a student is uncomfortable or in pain, isn’t getting enough sensory input or is getting too much, that student can’t reap the full benefit of the educational program - no matter how appropriate and well designed it may be. A hypersensitive student may be totally distracted from lessons because she is anxious about the fire alarm because it feels like an earsplitting explosion or by a fluorescent light that hurts her eyes. A student may not be getting enough sensory input to stay tuned in to a lesson and instead become self-absorbed.

While you may be quite used to dealing with your child’s sensory issues don’t assume that your child’s teacher is completely familiar with these issues. Once teachers make the connection between sensory issues and classroom behaviors, they will likely be more willing to implement sensory-based activities and accommodations.

Lindsey Biel created the SPD Student Checklist for parents, therapists, and other caregivers to increase understanding of how sensory issues impact a child’s function at school. Give the checklist to your child’s classroom teacher, principal, therapists, paraprofessionals, and anyone else who interacts regularly with your child at school. That includes the bus driver who may punch your child on the arm with as a friendly hello each morning and the cafeteria aide who blows a shrill whistle to signal it’s time to quiet down. These unintentional sensory insults can add up over the course of a day!

You’ll find many practical school strategies and sensory diet activities for before, during and after school in Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Here are a few quick ideas for school:

More progressive schools incorporate movement experiences such as Brain Gym, yoga, or other fun activities into classrooms to keep students on track and ready to learn. The best gym teachers let kids run laps around the gym to blow off pent-up energy before asking requiring them to sit down and listen to instructions for the day’s gym class.

For more information on sensory smart strategies, please see Raising a Sensory Smart Child and the Sensory Processing Master Class DVD.