Back to School: Tips for the Sensory-savvy Parent

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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 info@nesca-newton.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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Sensory-friendly Sunscreen for Tactile-sensitive Kids

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

Our Sense of Touch

Tactile processing is our ability to sense and interpret information from our environment through our sense of touch. Information from our tactile system allows us to gauge everyday sensations such as light touch, temperature, vibration, pressure, or pain.

Tactile Defensiveness

Tactile defensiveness is a term used to describe an individual who is hypersensitive to touch. As occupational therapists (OTs), this is something we come across often on our caseloads. Sensitivity to tactile stimuli can interfere greatly with a child’s functional, day-to-day activities. It can impact one’s ability to tolerate certain types of clothing, perform self-care tasks (bathing, toothbrushing, hair brushing), or eat a range of foods. Another activity that may cause difficulty in the summer months is tolerating the feeling of sunscreen on the body. While we want our families to enjoy the beach, the pool, or spend time outdoors, this task can be daunting for tactile-sensitive kids. The anticipation of this event alone may elicit an aversive response, or, in many cases, the child may begin avoiding the task altogether.

(Movement Matters, 2020).

The Role of OT

Occupational therapists help children and families participate in meaningful daily activities. When a child is sensitive to certain stimuli, the therapist will provide an environment where controlled and guided exposure can take place. This process allows for ongoing positive interaction with the medium, often through play-based activities. The therapist can help the family find alternative solutions and to identify positive coping mechanisms that allow the individual to be successful in the given task.

Tactile Defensiveness and the Beach

As a pediatric occupational therapist, a question that often comes up in the summer months is: “What do I do if my child is having trouble tolerating the feeling of sunscreen on his skin?” The first thing you can do is consider the sensory properties of the sunscreen. Is it lotion? Is it thick? Sticky? Clumpy? Smooth? Does it absorb quickly, or does it stay on the skin? Is it greasy? Does it have a certain smell to it? Stick, spray, and powder options are great alternatives for children who may be sensitive to some of the less desirable lotions. Here are some of the most recommended, sensory-friendly sunscreen options:

      Stick options

  • Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Stick *
  • Neutrogena Dry Touch Ultra Sheer Stick *
  • Aveeno Baby Face stick sunscreen

      Spray options

  • Babo Botanicals Sheer Zinc Spray
  • Banana Boat Light as Air

      Powder-based options – primarily for the face

  • Brush on Block Translucent Mineral Powder Sunscreen
  • Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield


  • Neutrogena Dry Touch Ultra Sheer *
  • Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen
  • Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence

(Evolution, 2021; No Author, 2018).

Additional Recommendations

As an occupational therapist, I am always thinking of other ways to adapt activities to make them easier for my clients. Beyond changing the actual sunscreen, here are some more ways to help make protection from the sun easier for our kids.

  • Coolibar Clothing – Limit the amount of skin that is exposed directly to the sun using protective clothing. This brand offers sun protective clothing options in shirts, hats, bottoms, and swimwear.
  • Make it a routine! – Like any other daily activity, such as getting dressed or brushing teeth, make it a part of the day! This way, it is familiar and expected.
  • Make it fun! – Play a game or sing a song while applying sunscreen. Use a timer so that the child can know when the activity is going to end.
  • Involve the child in the process as much as possible – As appropriate, have the child help with putting on the sunscreen. Use a mirror so that the child can see what is going on.
  • Proprioceptive input – Providing proprioceptive input prior to sunscreen application can help to reduce touch sensitivity. This is the sensory input one receives from the movement and force of muscles and joints. Some examples include massage/deep pressure to applicable areas, any pushing/pulling movement, use of weighted items, digging in sand, animal crawls, or wheelbarrow walks. Have the child rub down arms, legs, and back with a towel before applying sunscreen.


Evolution, M. (2021, May 26). Sunscreen Ideas for Tactile Defensive Kids. Mommy Evolution. https://mommyevolution.com/sunscreen-ideas-tactile-kids/

No Author. (2018, March 31). Autism Inclusivity [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved August 6, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/groups/autisminclusivity

Movement Matters. (2020, May 3). Occupational Therapy ABC. https://www.movementmatters.com/


About the Author
Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts with experience in both school-based and outpatient pediatric settings. Maddie received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science/Kinesiology at The College of Charleston in South Carolina and  earned her Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy from The MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Maddie is a passionate therapist with professional interest in working with young children with neurodevelopmental disorders, fine and gross motor delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.