The Star Institute for Sensory Processing reports that at least 1 in 20 children are affected by SPD and that 1 in every 6 children have sensory symptoms “that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions.” Certainly school is a huge part of any child’s everyday life. SPD can go undiagnosed and untreated even when it occurs along with another developmental disorder, sometimes making it tricky to receive support at school. So what can parents and caregivers do to help their children with SPD at school?
Communication is Key
No one will argue that teachers have a lot to do in the classroom. While they may be familiar with developmental disorders such as autism, they may not be as aware of SPD. Since SPD can and does occur in the absence of other disorders, teachers may simply not have had the exposure to or education about this disorder. Here is where parents can step in as their child’s most helpful advocate.
Teachers and parents have the same goals in mind: making sure a student has all the tools necessary for success. To meet that goal, teachers need to be informed of a child’s needs. If your child has another disorder or disability, he or she should already have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan in place. Each of these speaks to the necessary accommodations a child may need in order to ensure his or her success in the classroom (or gym, cafeteria, media center, etc.). If your child does not have a plan in place, meet with the appropriate personnel at the school: most likely the guidance counselor and principal. Bring any related documentation, such as diagnoses and information about your child’s current treatment plan. Your child’s therapist may have useful information to pass onto the classroom teacher, and there may be an occupational therapist at your child’s school.
Work as a Team
Sitting still, focusing, and meeting behavioral and academic expectations in the classroom can be a challenge for any child. Students with SPD can have it worse, and any ways in which parents and teachers can work together will benefit everyone.
Sharing information is essential. Parents know their own children best, and will know what triggers to avoid and mechanisms to utilize. Students who need oral sensory stimulation in order to focus, for instance, may be able to bring gum or a “chewie” with them to class in order to maintain focus. Children with auditory issues may benefit from sound-blocking headphones to avoid auditory overload. Teachers are not necessarily going to know this, though, unless a parent speaks up and offers these suggestions.
Teachers may really appreciate suggestions from parents as they work toward creating a learning environment conducive to helping kids with SPD issues. The Hot Chalk Lessons Plans Page offers some practical, easy-to-implement suggestions for helping teachers develop a sensory-friendly classroom. Some of these include designating a “crash/quiet” corner where children who need sensory input can crash into the pillows or use a weighted blanket. This can also be a place where overstimulated students can escape – especially if hearing protection and sunglasses are provided.
Another useful strategy may be to allow children some heavy lifting opportunities, such as putting away chairs or moving books. Special seating arrangements or being placed at the beginning or end of a line of students may help children who are overwhelmed by being so close to others. Considering the visual cues in the classroom can be important: reducing visual clutter and allowing a student who is over-stimulated by too much visual stimulation to have a space with an uncluttered view may be helpful.
All students benefit from recess, but those with SPD may particularly benefit from using their gross motor skills to help them achieve a balance in the classroom. Hypersensitive students, on the other hand, may find that using this time to relax inside away from noise is helpful.
Sitting still in class can be difficult for any child, so if teachers recognize that, even when seated, some kids need sensory input, it can be easier. Stress balls, large rubber bands attached to the legs of a desk (so students can fidget without disturbing others), bumpy seat cushions, or a special pencil holder all can help kids who crave sensory input.
Finally, having the opportunity to walk at specific intervals, listen to music, or to be excused to the restroom to brush oneself (provided appropriate training has been provided) can all be strategies beneficial to both students with SPD and the classrooms in which they participate.
Model Understanding and Communication
Let both the teachers and administrators as well as your child know that you understand the necessity of discipline and limits within the classroom. It is essential that you let everyone know that any accommodations are tools for your child’s success and not a “free pass” to be disruptive.
SPD symptoms can commonly be mistaken for discipline problems, so helping teachers to understand the underlying causes of your child’s behavior is essential. Keep your child involved in this process and model good communication skills: if you are open and honest in your discussions of your child’s needs, he or she will be better able to advocate for him- or herself by asking questions and speaking up.
All of you have the same goal, so be flexible and understanding as you work toward that as a team.