Back To School with Sensory Smarts
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
- Since kids crave predictability and familiarity, maintain regular routines during school breaks and holidays like eating meals at the same time each day, and going to bed and waking up at the same time.
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.
- Let your child take part in selecting school supplies and let him use the supplies before school starts so you can make sure everything is familiar and comfortable to use. You don’t want your child to be distracted by his cool new pencil case or upset that the paper in his notebook doesn’t feel right when you want him to be adjusting to a new teacher and classmates. If your child is overwhelmed in crowded stores, be sure to go at an off hour or shop together for school supplies online.
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.
- If your child is sensitive to clothing, don’t feel you need to send her to school in a brand-new outfit. It’s perfectly fine to start school in well-worn, proven-comfy but neat dress or pants and shirt. Cut out clothing labels and tags, and snip off any stray threads. Wash any new clothes several times to get rid of sizing and chemicals using a perfume-free, dye-free detergent.
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 your child’s vision checked before school starts or early on in the school year, especially if your child struggles with vision-based skills such as reading. Even what we think of as fine motor skills such as writing, beading, using scissors have a strong vision component. Any undiagnosed vision issues can also hold back gross motor development such as catching a ball and climbing stairs. I generally recommend that kids get their vision checked by a developmental optometrist or a pediatric opthalmologist who looks at functional skills. Your best bet is to find an eye doctor at COVD.
If your child is going to school for the first time, or if it’s a new school or new classroom, visit the school together before school begins. This way your child will know what the building and if possible, the actual classroom, hallways, bathrooms, gym or yard, and other areas will look like. Take photos or videos if you think that will help.
If your child is going to a new school or classroom, arrange to spend time with one or two classmates before school starts.
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:
- Movement opportunities. All children – especially those with sensory challenges-need opportunities to move before, during, and after school: hang from monkey bars, throw or push objects, run, jump, and pull objects. It might be something as simple as taking a brief walk at specified intervals or doing some jumping jacks or wall push-ups. Otherwise, it can be quite difficult to settle in to quiet classroom activities and meet behavioral expectations.
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.
Fidgeting with objects. Fidgets such as the Koosh ball or Tangle on the Toys page – sensory soothing, fabric tab sewn in to a pocket, or even a hair band can keep a student’s hands busy so she can focus better.
Desk accommodations. A band of stretchy material around front chair legs that he can push his shins and ankles against may help. A carpet square or piece soft cloth he can touch attached to the underside of the desk or an inflatable cushion to sit on can make attending for long periods easier for every child.
Objects for chewing. Objects to chew on such as a Pencil Topper, ChewEase, or Chewable Jewel on the Toys page – oral comforts can provide soothing oral input to keep a student focused on learning rather than sensory cravings.