Recent research has shown that 1 in 6 children struggle with some sort of tactile and/or auditory sensitivity.
With statistics such as these, it’s easy to understand how parents are concerned with having their sensory-sensitive child in public school. When their child is barely able to handle the sensory stimulation of simple things, such as a bath or a car ride, how on earth will he be able to function within a busy public school system?
Children with sensory sensitivities, especially Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), have a higher risk of slipping through the educational cracks due to misdiagnosis and misunderstanding. The problem isn’t that these children have difficulty with learning. Their main struggle is staying focused as other stimulants in their environment fight for their attention. And for these children, who often need constant movement to organize their little bodies for tasks at hand, the aspect of sitting still for lessons or lectures can be an additional challenge.
Most teachers want to do everything in their power to help make the school experience a positive one for all children, and they encourage parental support in making this happen. The main tool in achieving this goal is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) specifically targeted to children with sensory sensitivities or SPD.
Here are some important tips to help create the best possible IEP:
Gather SPD resources. Parents should arm themselves with such information as the local community services that can provide assistance, the sorts of assistance and tools their child will need, as well as any assessments the child has had or will have. Teachers require this information before setting out an individualized school plan. If parents have all the reports and necessary documents in hand for their first meeting with school representatives, they’ll be miles ahead and cut through a lot of red tape.
Include information that may be missed or ‘invisible’. It’s important to note here that there isn’t an insurance or educational ‘code’ for SPD. In many cases, these children are still able to get their work done despite their sensory struggles. What this means is that if they are observed to function well in the classroom, and their disorder doesn’t interfere with their ability to learn, they will be passed over for assistance. Things such as the child’s need for regular sensory input throughout the day to stay on track and organized, any need for visual or verbal cues to stay focused or struggles with communication, social skills or confidence need to be added into the IEP. These are things that are often missed, but are important to the child’s overall functioning. And if administrators see the child has struggles beyond the school work, there’s a greater chance for some sort of community or in-school support.
Set up a meeting of the minds. Include all educators that the child will be in the most contact with such as the school principal and/or vice principal, curriculum coordinator, the child’s main teacher(s) and the main contacts at the community funding service who provide teacher’s assistance, occupational therapists (OTs) or other tools the child needs. This ‘meeting of the minds’ is how the child will acquire what he or she will need to thrive. Plus having everyone present who’s included in the IEP will keep everyone informed when a child is excelling in one area, but needing extra help in another.
Parents should come to these meetings with such information as professional reports and assessment data, any copies of OT notes, as well as any recommendations for treatment options. These reports are particularly important because they provide invaluable information about what the child needs to function in the various social settings at school. Plus, parents are the experts in their child on a personal level so their input is essential. Professionals provide the labels, the jargon and the tools, while parents provide the loving, calming strategies that work for the child helping to create that ‘safe zone’.
Provide a history. All schools require a health history. The following information should be on the IEP:
- Triggers – what sensory stimuli in the classroom environment would produce the greatest struggles for your child? (Think about lighting, smells, sounds, closeness of other children, etc.)
- Activities – What sorts of activities would your child struggle with and need ‘tweaking’ in order to participate?
- Transition difficulty – this is a common struggle for children with sensory sensitivity. Be sure to voice which areas may present a higher degree of difficulty.
- Routines – Most children with SPD have rigid routines they follow in order to cope with their sensitivities. How can these routines be used in school to make transitions easier?
- Needs – What does your child need in order to feel more comfortable in the classroom? This includes anything from special seating to calm down tools to items he or she needs to feel like part of the group.
- The good stuff – It’s crucial to add what your child excels in. They need to be seen as more than a child with difficulties. Plus the good stuff can be used as an incentive to do the work children may avoid, as well as to remind them of what they can do even when they struggle.
Options. Options are very important for a child with sensory struggles. There are days where certain stimuli may not affect these children at all, while on others the same stimuli will catapult them through the roof. Teachers need to be sensitive to this aspect of SPD and have options available so that even when a child is too sensitive to finger paint, for example, he or she can still participate in the same activity with a few tweaks, such as a paint brush, using rubber gloves or having a place to clean the hands right away.
It’s also important to understand that children with sensory sensitivities need exposure to sensory stimuli or they’ll never learn to function in the outside world effectively. He or she may need to do things differently but the task can, and should, be encouraged whenever possible.
It’s all about choosing and offering options that help to include the child instead of excluding them or making him or her feel different.
Balance. An important point to make here is that children with SPD should never be left alone only doing what they find comfortable. Doing this won’t teach these children how to cope within the social aspect of school. And the teachers are unintentionally isolating her even further from her classmates. There needs to be a healthy balance between respect for the child’s triggers and doing activities within his or her comfort zone at the level of sensory exposure he or she is able to handle.
Balance is all about baby steps, small exposures at a time, a lot of prep time, much description and discussion, constant positive feedback and teaching the child to use his or her words. Setting the IEP goals up with all of this in mind will provide the best path for success.
Teach the necessity of calm down time. Children with SPD absolutely require tiny ‘brain breaks’ throughout their day, in addition to their sensory stimulation times, to calm down. There should be an area assigned in the classroom where such children can go and regroup when the environment becomes too overwhelming. It can be something as simple as a corner of the room blocked off with bookshelves, throw pillows on the ground, favourite writing books, pens, a small light, a few stuffies, something to wrap themselves up in or cuddle into (like a pup tent or big blanket) and some books. Included in the IEP should be that the child is permitted to bring his own ‘fidgets’, or calm down tools from home, to use in the classroom as well. Having anywhere from five to fifteen minutes in this space included in their school routine will make a huge difference.
Knowledge, understanding and respect. These are the most important aspects of setting children with sensory sensitivities up for academic success, each aspect leading right to the next. An infamous quote from a teacher with four decades of experience has always been, “All children have the ability to learn. We simply need to discover what works for them…what turns that light on…then bring it out so they can see themselves shine.”
This means that parents, teachers and school administrators need to be willing to do what’s necessary to learn about the needs of a child with SPD and how those needs can be incorporated into the classroom with as little disruption as possible. Having the OT in on the IEP meetings will be beneficial not only to helping the teacher, but also on how to educate and foster that understanding.
All of this said, one can’t forget the most important thing in helping children with SPD in school-the child. All any one wants for these children is for them to thrive right alongside their peers. This is a reality as long as we give them the necessary tools they need to excel. But in order to achieve this, teachers need to be taught about SPD and how to help these children in the classrooms; researchers need to further their work in order to provide the data to educators; therapists need to use that data and speak up for children and families struggling with SPD; and parents need to continue advocating for their children.
TRY THESE OUT: Tips For Teachers
(More information in Sensory Integration: Answers For Teachers by Gina Geppert Coleman, Zoe Maillous and Susanne Smith Roley)
Here are a few additional suggestions for teachers to help SPD children in their classrooms:
- For children who find sitting still for lessons difficult. Give the child other opportunities to move by giving them jobs like passing out materials or sending messages to the office; doing some in-class ‘wigglytime’ activities like songs with movement, walking around the classroom or hallway; or allowing textured seat cushions or yoga balls to sit on (but not for all-day use as it can interfere with posture.)
- For students with difficulties paying attention. Seat students in areas with the least amount of visual distractions (eg: near the front, away from windows, away from where students would group, etc.); give them a tactile item to squeeze, such as frustration ball or a foamy; or have them do jobs that require them to push, pull or lift heavy objects.
In addition, recess is extremely important for these children and is often not long enough. See if there are other short outside or gym activities they can do to release some extra energy.
- For students with problems learning the motor skills for writing and other activities. Create clear, but short instructions; praise each baby step; use movement to help explain the tasks; using activities that offer additional feedback (writing in/cutting through clay, light wrist weights while writing); and give them extra time to practice and learn.
- For students with sound, texture, odor, light and other sensory sensitivities. Talk about such things with the entire class about how, ‘Some people are more sensitive to certain sensations than others and may feel irritated.’; help the child learn where the irritating stimulus may be coming from so they know what it is next time; prepare the child in advance for certain activities that may be too sensory stimulating for him or her; help the child learn strategies during certain tasks or activities (eg: using words to say something doesn’t feel right, standing an arm’s length away from other children to avoid uncomfortable feelings, etc.). It’s also important to remember that firm touch is often better for children with sensory sensitivities than a light touch.
Chynna Laird is a mother of four, a freelance writer, blogger, editor and award-winning author. Her passion is helping children and families living with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), mental and/or emotional struggles and other special needs. She’s authored two children’s books, two memoirs, a Young Adult novella, a Young Adult paranormal/suspense novel series, two New Adult contemporary novels, a parent-to-parent reference book and an adult suspense/thriller.