Talking from my own experience there is nothing worse than a child starting school and having a massive meltdown due to sensory issues. Although sensory difficulties and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are rather complex and need to be assessed and addressed by an occupational therapist, there are some things that us, as parents, can do to minimise the impact on affected children where possible.
The purpose of this article is to provide a brief introduction to the “sensory world” and also to discuss what are some of the triggers children might face in a school environment and ways to address them.
Let’s start with our senses.
When we talk about our senses, we usually refer to the five most common methods of perception which are: taste (oral), sight (visual), touch (tactile), smell (olfactory) and sound (auditory). However, when discussing the sensory systems, there are three more that need to be considered: the vestibular system (the way we perceive our body in relation to gravity, – up, down, laying down, etc), the proprioceptive system (which arises from the muscle and joints to inform the brain about the position of body parts – think of the exercise where you have to point to your nose with your eyes shut) and the interoceptive system (the way we perceive internal sensations – e.g. hunger, thirst, being cold/hot, etc).
“Sensory processing” refers to the process that organises sensation from one’s own body and the environment, thus making it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. In other words, input comes in from our environment and our body through the senses, it gets fed to the brain, the brain makes sense of it (processing) and sends out “commands” to the body appropriately in response to the information it receives and interprets. As Gen Jereb explains, in her highly regarded sensory training workshop “The Traffic Jam in My Brain”, sensory processing is like traffic on a highway, the sensory information being the cars.
While most of us process sensory information accordingly and automatically and do not seem to have any issues around this area, some of us struggle to deal with sensory input, feeling either overwhelmed very quickly, or having the need for a lot of sensory input to be fed to us to reach the threshold where we can focus and function.
Over Responsive/Avoiders v Under Responsive/Seekers
So we talked about being overwhelmed/over responsive to sensory information or under-responsive to sensory information. Most commonly we see those kids as being sensory avoiders and/or sensory seekers.
For example, let’s consider a child that keeps chewing his/her collar, clothes, pencils at school trying really hard to concentrate and stay still at mat time. This child is seeking sensory input (in this case oral) in order to self-regulate and achieve, hopefully, the same level of calmness and attention as his peer. To understand the concept of self-regulation, for example think of the time when we have to sit in a meeting and concentrate for longer periods of time in order to maintain the required level of alertness. To do so we will, without even realising it, engage into activities that help us self-regulate, e.g. flicking a pencil, twirling our hair, shifting in our seats, etc.
On the other scale we have a child that gets really overwhelmed when they are in the classroom and there is a lot of chatter from the other children, maybe they play a game and the noise escalates. They start covering their ears and complain of the noise, sometimes withdrawing in a corner. For this child the sound (auditory input), that the rest of the kids perceive as normal and are able to ignore and accommodate to, is overwhelming to cope with and focus.
As we talked about the 8 sensory systems, it is important to know that each one of those systems has a separate continuum on which a child can be over or under responsive. For example a child might be over responsive/ avoiding visual stimuli (e.g. bright lights, sunshine) and at the same time be seeking vestibular input (movement) in order to self-regulate.
As I already mentioned, sensory integration difficulties and SPD are complex, therefore if you think your child might have sensory difficulties you should seek advice from an occupational therapist who will be able to assess your child’s sensory profile and develop and implement individualised strategies to accommodate your child’s needs in the school environment.
Some Triggers and Ways to Help
Below I have listed some of the common triggers that some children struggle with in the classroom and we will look at ways of addressing those.
Some children are highly sensitive to noise. They will display behaviours such as: covering their ears, hiding, running away, withdrawing from the classroom activity, crying and sometimes becoming aggressive.
Strategies that could be put in place include: noise cancellation headphones, warning the child about the activity and giving them time and space to get themselves ready or have the choice to opt out of the activity and sit somewhere where they are sheltered from the noise.
It is a good idea to discuss this with your child’s teacher so they are aware of your child’s difficulty and can plan accordingly – e.g. if there is a fire drill planned (loud unexpected siren). Some children also react to specific songs, e.g. the Happy Birthday song. I am a strong believer in given the child the opportunity to make a choice and prepare himself for the activity that might come across as a trigger/challenge (if the child has the insight and ability to do so).
Some children react strongly and adversely to being in a crowd, feeling trapped and claustrophobic. In my personal opinion, I find one of the best way to deal with this is to talk to the child prior about what is going to happen and that there will be a lot of people where you are going and set up a plan with them, should the child start feeling anxious. For example, you could agree on a word that the child can use to signal to their parents, he/she is becoming upset/anxious (e.g. colour “red”). Once the child uses this word the parent can take action and remove the child to a less crowded place.
Sensitivity to smells:
If your child has food technology as part of their curriculum it would be of use to mention this to their teacher.
Sensitivity to textures (such as their school uniform):
Depending on the school, uniforms can range from comfortable t-shirts to button up shirts and ties, from wearing track pants and sport shorts every day to tailored trousers and shorts.
Some children are sensitive to textures and fabrics, wearing socks, shoes and clothes tags. They complain it feels itchy, rough and that it is hurting their skin. In this case you could offer the child the opportunity to wear their new uniform in the weeks prior to starting school, try and buy second hand uniform as this has a bit of wear in the material making it softer, and remove clothing tags and labels. Socks and shoes can also be an issue, especially socks with seams. One option is to wear them inside out or purchase seamless socks.
Mat time/sitting still and maintaining focus:
We all know the phrase “ants in your pants”….. Some children find it extremely hard to stay still and they need to constantly move, fidget, shuffle and stand up. When they are at school there are situations like “mat time” when they do need to stay still and listen to their teacher.
Some of the adaptations that could help include: a fidget toys (with the approval of the teacher), stress balls, sensory cushions, chewy necklaces, etc. A point to make here is that there is a fine line when a fidget toy is actually counter-productive and this is why it is very important for the child to be assessed in regards to sensory difficulties. The easiest way to assess whether fidget toys are working is by observing the child. If they “fidget” with them while paying attention to their surroundings and their teacher thus helping them focus then it is doing the job, however if the child becomes absorbed into playing with it, worse even, starts distracting everybody else around them then they are using the toy for playing and not to help them focus. In the later scenario a different approach might be need to be considered.
If you would like more information about occupational therapy, or would like to enquire about our services, please contact us at EquipKids.. We would love to hear from you and are always happy to have a chat.
Our next article will focus on exploring strategies around fine motor skills needed in the classroom, so stay tuned.