Taking a sensory diet to school
As mentioned briefly in the last post, children benefit if they keep their sensory diet consistent while at school (or anywhere, such as on vacation). Children can’t learn if they can’t focus, and sensory children can’t focus until their sensory needs are met. Having a predictable schedule every day will help your child to process input; therefore, sensory diet activities should be performed as closely as possible at the same time each day. Work together with your child’s occupational therapist and teacher to develop a modified schedule that does not interfere with the classroom routine, and modified activities that do not cause your child to stand out. If your child has an IEP, ask that strategies and activities be added as accommodations.
IEPs and 504 plans
If your child qualifies for special education services, she will receive an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which is created together by the parent/s and the school. The IEP details how the school will meet your child’s specific needs, providing a “free and appropriate education” (FAPE) in “the least restrictive environment (LRE).” The least restrictive environment means “a regular classroom with other children of the same age,” as opposed to a special education classroom that most likely does not meet your child’s needs. The IEP sets out how to help your child function, detailing specific school accommodations (which can include particular seating, sensory diet activity breaks, and more), assistive technology, therapeutic and educational goals, and directives for related support services such as OT, physical therapy, and speech therapy.
You can find more information about IEPs and special education here.
If your child does not qualify for special education services, he can get help through a 504 plan, which formalizes the accommodations that must be made for him, such as eating lunch somewhere quiet rather than the overwhelming cafeteria, receiving extended time for tests, and more.
You can find more information about 504 accommodations here
Avoiding being derailed by sensory overload at school
The teacher/school can only help if you explain what tends to overwhelm your child, how s/he behaves when overwhelmed, and which sensory diet activities prevent him/her from becoming overwhelmed. Once you or your child’s OT identify the issues and solutions, some possible schooltime modifications to sensory diet activities are:
Before and after school activities
Your child’s OT can suggest activities that will be most helpful before and after school.
A scheduled sensory break
Ideally at the same time every day, with an aide or alone (depending on what accommodations he receives), your child should get a short break from classtime in order to perform an OT-modified routine similar to the activities he performs at home.
Unobtrusive fidget objects
Fidgets such as a stress ball or other “squooshy” object, a piece of fabric, a stretchy bracelet or hairband can all keep a student’s hands busy and allow her to focus. Avoid objects which would make noise or roll around if accidentally dropped, i.e., no marbles.
Attach a rubber exercise band (or other stretchy material) around the front chair legs of his chair for him to push against. Attach a piece of fabric or carpet to the underside of her desk.
An inflatable cushion to sit on allows your child to wiggle a bit while staying in his seat, making it easier for him to remain seated for long periods. If she is able to do “chair pushups” (put one hand on each side of the seat of your chair, and use your arms to raise and hold your body above the seat) without disturbing other children, that is also helpful.
If chewing gum helps him but the school doesn’t allow it, substitute age-appropriate objects to chew on such as a pencil topper or chewable jewelry. Drinking water from a sports-type bottle is helpful too. Oral input helps keep her focused on learning rather than on her sensory cravings.
Performing classroom jobs
Your child can expend excess energy, have the opportunity to perform ‘heavy work,’ plus gain a sense of responsibility if the teacher has him run errands. Some examples of ‘jobs’ your child could do: bring the attendance sheet to the office; hand out or collect books or other classroom project supplies; help move chairs and desks; help clean desks or tables; help move or pack boxes, erase or wash a blackboard, sharpen pencils.
Playground and gym activities
The teacher or playground monitor should encourage your child to be very active at recess and at gym. She can hang from/travel across monkey bars; throw a ball; run; jump; race; slide, climb, play tug-of-war, and push and pull playground equipment. This will make it easier to settle down for quiet classroom learning and obey school rules. If your child’s sensory system needs movement in order to focus, get a modification added to your child’s IEP ensuring that recess and gym are never taken away as a punishment.
Appropriate demand for eye contact
If it is difficult for your child to maintain eye contact, he should not be required to do so when also concentrating on something else (answering a difficult question, making a presentation, etc.). He should be allowed to work on increasing eye contact at less stressful times.
Additionally, some sensory children may need to close their eyes in order to listen without visual distractions.
Preparation before intense sensory experiences
A sensory child needs to be told in advance about fire drills, for example, so she can be prepared for the powerful sensory overload. She should also be allowed to wear earplugs or sound-blocking headphones/earmuffs during the drill. The teacher can signal to her discreetly to put in earplugs a minute before the alarm goes off.
Appropriate place in line
When the class lines up to go somewhere, your child should be at the front or back of the line so other children don’t bump into her. (At least sometimes, one of her classroom jobs could be to hold the door, so it’s natural for her to wind up at the back of the line.)
Well-considered seat location
Your child’s teacher, perhaps together with the OT and you, needs to determine an appropriate seat location for your child both in the home classroom and in the other subject rooms. The best spot will be different depending on the child. For example, he might do best seated in the front close to the teacher, or in the back where he won’t turn around to see what’s going on behind him. She may need to be seated away from the distractions outside the window or door. He may not be able to concentrate if he’s seated near a noisy vent, radiator, fan, or air conditioner. She may need to be next to a wall to give her a sense of security.
Heading off overload at circle time before it happens
Schools generally require children to sit quietly and focus on learning for periods of time. This is not so easy for children who need more intense sensory input. Accommodations might include:
Again, an inflatable cushion allows kids to wiggle a bit while remaining seated.
Unobtrusive fidget objects
And again, hand fidgets will occupy your child’s hands and make it less likely that he will touch the child next to him.
If the teacher is on board, a timer can help your child by giving her a visual reminder about how much time is left for the class to stay focused before moving to the next activity.
A weighted lap pad or weighted vest
Sitting under an unobtrusive lap weight, or wearing a weighted vest (or an ordinary vest with pockets holding lightweight weights), is both calming and a physical reminder for your child to sit in one place.
Get your child on board
Most children don’t want to look different from their peers, so ask your child to think of ways he can self-regulate while fitting in with everyone else. The more ownership she takes, the more likely she is to follow through and succeed.
In the next post, we will discuss specific accommodations for testing and organization, as well as ways to speak to and work with your child’s teacher.
Do you find it easy or difficult to communicate with your child’s teacher? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what other topics you would like to discuss or hear more about.
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I look forward to hearing from you!