sensory stimulation

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.


Getting Through Thanksgiving Day

By | NESCA Notes 2020

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

Occupational Therapist, NESCA

Setting Expectations

Thanksgiving may be different this year, but it can still be a long day full of sensory stimulation, new social interactions and possibly unfamiliar faces and experiences. By providing clear expectations, this can help prepare the child for upcoming events, minimize surprises and set the child up for success. Talk openly about events, review pictures of anticipated people/events, and/or watch a video describing an experience beforehand. Use a calendar or visual schedule at home to display the sequence of upcoming holiday events. A social story is a great tool to prep the child for the day (Lewis, 2016).

Open CommunicationBeing transparent with family members/friends can allow for greater understanding and a more positive experience for those involved. Help those present understand if there are certain obstacles/triggers that can be avoided, or if there are particular tools/language that can be incorporated throughout the day (Lewis, 2016).

Devotion of TimeFor parents, we know that much of Thanksgiving is devoted to cooking and meal preparation. Make sure to communicate with family members beforehand about the plan for the day. Will there be other children or adults around to play with the child, or should my child be expected to play independently if I am occupied? If so, have a few preferred toys/activities accessible. Or involve the child in the meal preparation process as appropriate.

Consider the Environment

How will your family be celebrating Thanksgiving or other holidays this year – in-person or virtually?

In-personFestivities this year may take place with modifications. Will it be less crowded this year? Will events be taking place in a different set-up this year (outside, in the garage, socially distanced)? If so, prepare your child by communicating expected changes beforehand.

  • Is my child expected to wear a mask or keep a distance from others? If so, use a social story or designate a “code word” to act as a reminder for proper mask/social distancing etiquette. Allow the child to practice wearing a mask beforehand. Model expected behavior (Lewis, 2016). Provide mask breaks as appropriate.

VirtuallyWith current social distancing guidelines, Thanksgiving interactions may instead take place virtually. If possible, it can be helpful to make children aware of this change beforehand. Many children may experience difficulty attending to a Zoom call. Here are some tips to help:

  • Provide a tool to help with heightened arousal: fidget toy, squeeze ball, putty, fidget band (at feet), chewing gum/oral tool, etc.
  • Consider the environment: Eliminate distractions as much as possible (visual plus auditory), ensure adequate lighting and proper seating, etc.
  • Rehearse events beforehand, identifying potential “rough spots” and positive coping strategies (Lewis, 2016). Proactively establish talking points if helpful.
  • Establish guidelines for both the beginning and end of a videocall. Use a timer if necessary.

Sensory EnvironmentThanksgiving Day will likely be full of stimulation for the senses: sight, smell, touch, sound and taste.

  • Food sensitivity: Many children may experience sensitivities to food textures, tastes or smells. Ensure access to “safe,” or preferred foods beyond traditional Thanksgiving dishes. If attending a celebration outside of the home, make sure to pack a few options for meals/snacks. For children who experience sensitivity to smell, consider bringing a comfortable nose plug.
  • Sensory overload: Ensure access to calming tools in the case that overstimulation, or sensory overload, occurs. Some options include a weighted or compression vest/blanket, chewy, squeeze ball, pushing/pulling activities, noise canceling headphones or a mini trampoline for a movement break. Create a calming jar with the child beforehand. Ensure that the child has a safe space they can go to, such as a dark, quiet room, when feeling overwhelmed. For children who may experience challenges self-regulating, help to guide the child in identifying states of arousal before a meltdown occurs. Use visuals as needed.



Lewis, K. S. (2016). Full Inclusion Holidays: An SLP offers tips to prepare clients for a season full of social and sensory stimuli—and people who may not understand their communication and behavioral challenges. The ASHA Leader21(12), 52-56.


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.