By Lauren Zeitler, MSOT, OTR/L
NESCA Occupational Therapist; Feeding Specialist
Just like that, summer is over and it is finally time for children to head back to school! This year might look a little different as we move from remote learning and ease back into the school building full time. For children with sensory processing issues, the school building poses a great deal of anxiety as they try to deal with various sensory stimuli. The noisy bus, smells of the cafeteria, and visually overwhelming classroom are just a few examples of the daily overstimulating experiences a student with sensory processing issues encounters. Don’t fret! We will break down the school day and the core sensory systems that are impacted along with strategies to help your student succeed.
Starting the Day: Auditory Processing
As the day starts, many children hop on the bus and ride to school. This means they are encountering a noisy, chaotic vehicle filled with many other children. You might see kids respond negatively by running away, crying, or holding hands over their ears to block out the noise. Startling easily, the bus ride can be a stressful start that will set the tone for the rest of the day for students with sensory issues. It is important to utilize different strategies to prepare your child for the bus. Try these ideas to help with auditory processing:
- Provide over the ear noise canceling headphones to wear on the bus ride
- Provide calming music on an iPod, etc. to listen to during bus ride
- Wear a weighted vest or lap pad during bus ride
- Provide heavy work input to the student’s body in the morning before entering the bus
Learning in the Classroom: Visual Processing
Walking into the classroom, there are bookcases lined up, posters on the walls, desks in rows, and lots of bright lights. When it comes to visual processing, children respond in different ways. Some children avoid these stimuli, while others seek out visual input. Squinting, blinking, and covering their eyes are just some of the quick fix responses to the bothersome lights. Some kids have trouble paying attention if there are too many things to look at. To some children, the flickering lightbulb in the corner of the ceiling is much more interesting than whatever the teacher has to say. It is very easy to become distracted and overwhelmed in the visually overstimulating classroom environment. Teachers: try these strategies to help with visual processing:
- Remove distracting posters, pictures, etc. from the walls
- Place busy bookcases, lockers, etc. in the back of the room
- Have easily visually distracted children sit in the front of the room closest to the board
- Provide a calming corner with a sensory bin filled with items, such as noise cancelling headphones, stuffed animals, lavender lotion, books, etc.
Time for Art Class: Tactile Processing
It is time for art class, and your child freezes at the doorway refusing to enter the room. Glitter and glue are everywhere, and the fear of being dirty strikes again. The feeling of touching messy media can send some children into panic fight or flight mode. This goes well beyond art class’s requirement to interact with different media, often branching out and impacting their ability to participate in social experiences, such as playing on the playground. To avoid overstimulation, prepare your child’s body with these strategies:
- Prepare the student before art class by reviewing the schedule
- Provide heavy work breaks, such as wall push-ups before entering the art room
- Provide a weighted vest or lap pad to use during art class
- Find adaptations to the art project to decrease interaction with sticky substances (i.e., using glue sticks, spoons to spread glitter, etc.)
Lunch in the Cafeteria: Olfactory and Gustatory Processing
It is now time for lunch. As your child walks into the cafeteria, they look around to find their friends and are greeted with a really strong smell. What is that?! Your child is no longer looking for their friends; instead, they are trying to find a way out because the smell is too overwhelming. Try these strategies to help kids with sensitive noses:
- Find a place in the cafeteria that your child can eat away from the food serving area (where the smells are the strongest)
- Provide an essential oil patch or roller ball that the student can smell to calm their body and move their focus away from the cafeteria smell
- Use essential oils, such as lavender or eucalyptus, which help calm
- Provide heavy work opportunities before entering the cafeteria to help organize the body
Once your child has gathered their food and found the best place to eat, they sit down and look at their meal. Oh gosh – why does it look so squishy? This sandwich is slimy – that is a big no! The gustatory – or taste system – kicks in, and it does not appear happy. What can we do to help kids with sensitive taste systems? Try these strategies to help make mealtime easier:
- Provide lunch from home to help control what options the child has to eat during the day
- Provide crunchy food items, such as pretzels, raw veggies (carrots, peppers, cucumbers, etc.), or popcorn to promote “heavy, organizing input” to the mouth and jaw
- Provide thick drinks, such as smoothies, to drink through a straw
- Promote drinking water through a water bottle with a mouth piece, such as those from Camelbak
- Provide a special treat, such as licorice, Twizzlers, or sucker candy to provide alerting and organizing input
Gym Class Makes Me Nervous: Vestibular and Proprioceptive Processing
Afternoon gym class has arrived, and your student is too afraid to participate. Bumping into the wall, being hit by a ball, or playing in a coordinated group activity is hard for some children. Echoing voices and shoes squeaking on the floor, bright colors and moving objects are enough to overstimulate anyone. With the right environment, gym class can be fun for everyone! Here are some strategies to help with vestibular and proprioceptive processing in gym class:
- Provide the opportunity for the student to leave the gym. Let them know that if the class becomes too overwhelming they can ask the teacher for a break. Going for a walk to the bathroom or grabbing water is a great, brief break.
- Adapt games or activities as necessary. Students will be at different skill levels, and physical activity can present unique challenges. Provide simpler options when possible.
- Create space boundaries. Using visual cues for personal space, and working in small groups can relieve anxiety. Visual cues may also be helpful in showing children where they should position themselves for games and exercises.
- Provide activities that promote consistent, linear movements instead of sporadic, rotational movements, to help keep these sensory systems organized.
Remember to keep school fun! The school day is where kids spend most of their week, and we want to ensure they have the best experiences possible. Recognize that not all students with sensory processing issues will have the same strengths and difficulties. Meeting a student where they’re at and discovering their specific strengths is the greatest way to set them up for a successful school year! If you have any questions or to learn more about occupational therapy services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email email@example.com or call 617-658-9800.
About the Author
Lauren Zeitler is a licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatric occupational and feeding therapy. Ms. Zeitler joined NESCA full-time in the fall of 2020 to offer occupational therapy assessment and treatment for children of all ages, as well as to work in conjunction with Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP, on the feeding team.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.