For kids with sensory issues, going to school presents special challenges. There are loud, sudden buzzers going off, crowds of students in the hallway bumping into each other, strong odors wafting around the lunchroom, and other sensory experiences some students really have a hard time with. Luckily, there are many accommodations that can help kids tolerate the sensory environment at school so they can focus, learn, and socialize better. Sometimes, parents get these accommodations formalized into their child’s IEP or 504 plan. However, many teachers and administrators are quite willing to informally implement accommodations that will help students learn without adding them to legal documents.
Please see our “Working with Schools” page for lots of accommodations that are frequently made at school, including things like: Some helpful accommodations for kids with sensory issues include:
- Auditory breaks or movement breaks scheduled throughout the day, so that a child who struggles to process auditory information in the presence of background noise or a child who has a high need for movement can focus better.
- Alternative lunchroom arrangements, such allowing him to eat lunch in a quiet, low-stimulation environment. You might want to get together with other parents to form a lunch club so sensitive kids can eat in a small room together.
- Allowing the child to always be at the front or the end of a line of children to avoid being bumped (you might ask the teacher to appoint her “line monitor” so that this doesn’t seem like a punishment.)
- Seating the child at the end of a table or a separate desk to reduce the risk of being jostled.
- Providing the correct size chair because one size does not fit all. He should be able to keep his feet flat on the floor and arms on the table without reaching up. You may need to provide a footstool for under his feet (use a nonskid mat underneath so it doesn’t slide around).
- Having the child sit on a bumpy inflatable cushion like a Disc’O’Sit in order to provide needed sensory input and make it easier to stay seated. Consider having these available for all children so your child doesn’t feel singled out. A weighted lap pad or a weighted or pressure vest may also help him to stay seated and focused.
- Having the child do wall push-ups or chair sit-ups (holding the chair edges while seated and pushing up to support her weight), push her shins against a Lycra band (or Theraband) wound around the legs of her desk or chair, or carry furniture or books to get the sensory input she needs.
- Giving the child advance warning about fire drills
Here are some helpful tips for approaching teachers about these accommodations:
- Come from the position of “I know you have loads of experience, so I am hoping you can help me with a problem I have.” Appealing to someone’s authority and experience — and ego — is a great way to open them up to making changes you would like them to make.
- Explain what’s worked for you at home or at your child’s old school: “You know, last year we found that when he’s allowed to take a short breaks and listen to calming music through headphones every couple of hours, he’s much less likely to tune out when you’re giving him important information.” Emphasize your mutual goal of helping your child learn while not disrupting the class.
- Smile and keep your sense of humor.
- Write a nice, chatty note at the beginning of school year outlining your child’s issues, or ask for a private conference. Your child’s teacher is certainly going to notice any unusual behavior, and if she isn’t sensory smart and hasn’t been forewarned, she may interpret it as willful, rebellious behavior. Rather than start off on the wrong foot, let the teacher know what to expect. Tell her your child’s strengths, tell her about any accommodations you know will help — or think might help — and open the lines of communication. Ask her to let you know if your child’s issues cause any problems so you can help her address them.
- Take responsibility for your part in addressing your child’s behavior, and insist that your child take responsibility for meeting his sensory needs (if developmentally appropriate). If your child is unable to pull himself back from sensory overload, or take responsibility for his own sensory needs, make it clear to the teacher that you (and his OT) are working on it.
- Talk to your child about what she might expect at school and how she can handle it. For example, if your child gets very upset when another child touches her, talk with her about what to do if this happens.
- Talk to all the teachers and therapists who will be working with your child to make sure you are all on the same page. If he’s allowed to not make eye contact in class, but the gym teacher doesn’t know that and punishes him, your child might start hating gym and his teacher. Anticipate problems, use your creativity and diplomacy skills, and communicate with the entire team of people who will be working with your child — including the bus driver, lunchroom aides, hall monitors and others.
- Listen. You might be pleasantly surprised by the wisdom of teachers, coaches, and playground supervisors who work with kids.
- Be optimistic about your child’s school experience, because she will be looking to you for clues on how to feel about school.