Going back to school after the long summer holidays can be stressful for both children and their parents. Whether children are going to school for the first time or returning and starting a new year, the experience can be exciting yet disorientating or even scary! This is especially true for children with sensory needs as the smallest change to their routine can cause anxiety and meltdowns.
For kids with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), too much sensory overload or the wrong kind of stimulation can lead to problems with attention, coordination and impulsiveness as the child tries to either increase or decrease the sensations they are experiencing. These behaviours are magnified during periods of change and transition. Changes bring anxiety and can be triggered by new people, new clothes, new academic expectations, new schedules, new sights, new sounds, etc. Transitions, such as returning to school, disrupt daily routines that have been established during the summer months. That is why it is important to consider some basic strategies to help you and your child cope and enjoy going Back To School!
Ease the Transition
- Kids crave routine and predictability. Get your child back on schedule with meal and bed times now! Start readjusting their 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 they are back to a normal sleep schedule.
- Create visual time tables to help organize and motivate your child in the morning http://www.ican.org.uk/~/media/Ican2/What%20We%20Do/Enquiry%20Service/Visual%20timelines%20fact%20sheet%20parents.ashx
- Go shopping for school supplies together. Let him select what he needs and allow him to use the supplies before school starts. This will give your child time to become familiar and comfortable using his new pens and notebooks. The last thing you want is for your child to decide that he doesn’t like the feel of the paper or the grip of the pen once in the classroom. Instead, you want him to be adjusting to his new environment and ready to learn. If your child becomes overwhelmed in crowded stores, you can shop at off times or check out an online retailer.
- Clothes! If your child has tactile defensiveness and gets distressed by the strange sensation of tags, fabric, etc make sure that you wash new clothes several times to soften the fabric and rid it of any perfume/chemical scent and remember to cut out those tags! Many companies now offer back to school staples such as underpants and t-shirts, trousers and socks. Marks and Spencer just came out with such a range in their new line of sensory friendly school wear http://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/media-centre/news/2016-07-21-marks-and-spencer.aspx
- Have you child’s vision checked. Kids should have their eyes checked once a year and doing it right before the new school year ensures that he is ready to learn. Having an eye exam can assist not only with reading but with fine motor skills and if undetected can impeded upon the development of gross motor skills too. Additionally, many children with SPD also present with a Visual Processing Disorder which is characterised by a child struggling to differentiate between size, shape, colour of objects, confuse written symbols like those used in calculations, misjudge distance, and experience poor spatial awareness, often resulting in frequent falls or bumping into objects. Therefore, it is important to have a vision test to rule out problems not associated with a SPD.
- If your child is starting school for the first time try to visit before school begins. Take photos or videos of the route your child will follow, the classroom he will be in, the gymnasium, and cafeteria. Spend as much time as necessary for your child to get a ‘feel’ of his new environment. If your child has difficulties with crowds and noise, ask if he can arrive at school ten minutes before the other children.
Getting the school involved
- It is important to take steps to communicate with anyone who may come in contact with your child in the school setting. This may not only be teachers but also cafeteria attendants, receptionists, library staff, etc. While 90% of children on the autistic spectrum have problems associated with SPD and 15%-20% of children present with SPD, there are many professionals who ‘get’ the sensory piece. However, there are still a vast majority of people who will see the behaviours as disruptive or naughty. By alerting staff to your child’s uniqueness, it will help others to better understand your child’s needs and support him should the need arise. You do not necessarily have to meet everyone in person. You can write up a communication ‘passport’ such as the Getting to Know Me example found here: http://www.getreadytoread.org/images/content/downloads/Kindergarten_Readiness_Toolkit/getting_to_know_my_child-english.pdf
- Regardless of whether your child is in a typical school or a specialist provision, many schools and individuals are not experts on the challenges children face with SPD’s. Therefore, it is imperative to make sure that your child’s sensory issues are recognised; simple adaptations to the environment or basic exercises are essential for regulation throughout the day. Once teachers make the connection between sensory issues and classroom behaviours, they will likely be more willing to implement sensory-based activities and accommodations.
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 behavioural 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 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 can provide soothing oral input to keep a student focused on learning rather than sensory cravings.