Children with sensory sensitivities or SPD have a higher risk of slipping through the educational cracks due to misdiagnosis and misunderstanding. Their struggle is staying focused as 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 can be an additional challenge.
Parents and teachers need to work together to help these children find ways to cope in situations where environmental stimuli may be too much for them. Most teachers want to do everything in their power to help make the school experience a positive one and encourage parental support in making this happen.
Here are some important ways to make that connection happen:
Have good resources. Parents have information such as local community services that can provide assistance, the tools their child requires, as well as any assessments the child will need even before starting school. If parents have all 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.
Set up a meeting of the minds. The first step to paving the way to a child’s success is meeting with the people he or she will be in the closest contact with. These meetings should include the school principal, or vice principal, the child’s main teacher(s) and the main contacts at the community funding service who’ll provide the teacher with assistance, OTs or other tools the child needs.
Parents should come to these meetings with professional reports and assessment data, any copies of OT or other therapists’ notes they may have been given during sessions, as well as any recommendations for treatment options. Professionals provide the labels, the jargon and the tools. Parents provide the loving, calming strategies that work for the child at home in their safe zone. This combination is essential to the child thriving in the school setting.
Provide a history. Most schools require a health history. But it’s a great idea to also include the following:
- Triggers – What sensory stimuli in the classroom environment would produce the greatest struggles for your child?
- 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 the child need in order to feel more comfortable in the classroom?
- 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.
Options. There are days where certain stimuli may not effect a child at all, while on others the same stimuli will catapult her through the roof. Teachers need to be sensitive to this aspect of SPD and have options available for certain activities so the child can still participate in her own way. Children who have SPD and other sensory sensitivities need exposure to sensory stimuli or they’ll never learn to function in the outside world.
For children who are distracted by noise, there is an option of earphones to block out excess noise or seating them away from windows or classroom doors. For children who cannot handle certain smells, being seated near the front of the class is a great option. For other children who aren’t able to handle too close of a proximity to other children, being seated near the front or on the outside during circle time, craft times or in general help to keep them focused on the task at hand.
It’s all about choosing options that help to include the child instead of excluding them or making him or her feel different.
Balance. Children with SPD should never be able to do only what they find comfortable and safe. There needs to be understanding of the child’s triggers, but using baby steps, small exposures at a time, a lot of prep time, and constantly giving positive feedback while teaching the child to use his or her words.
Teach the necessity of calm down time. It’s important for the child to have a safe sanctuary. That’s his place to escape to when the world is a bit too overwhelming.
The classroom can be a loud, busy, overwhelming place for these kids. Having a small area that’s blocked off or separate from the rest of the classroom when things get too scary allows the child to remove herself from the chaos until she can go back to the activity with renewed calmness.
Knowledge, understanding and respect. These are the most important aspects of setting our children with sensory sensitivities up for academic success, each aspect leads right to the next.
I’m reminded of my oldest child’s Kindergarten teacher who often said, “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.”
All of this said, one can’t forget the most important thing in helping children with SPD in school: the child. All any of us wants for these children is for them to thrive right along side their peers. This is a reality as long as we give them the necessary tools they need to excel.
In order to do this, teachers need to learn 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 to help parents and others understand. And parents need to continue to advocate for their children.
Knowledge spawns understanding and that is the most powerful tool we can teach people to help these children.