Making School a Sensational Place for Children with Sensory Sensitivities (SPD)
Making School a Sensational Place
Children with sensory sensitivities or SPD have a higher risk of slipping through the educational cracks due to misdiagnosis and misunderstanding. The problem isn’t that these children have difficulty with learning; their struggle is staying focused as other 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. The answer starts and ends with the child: seeing and working with what they can do and “tweaking” the rest, wherever possible.
Parents and teachers need to work together to help these children find ways to cope in situations where environmental stimuli can 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.
Allow me to share some important ways to make that connection happen:
Arm yourself with resources
We learned that contacting our provincial (or state) educational representative (for us it is Alberta Education), or at least visiting the link, is invaluable. Parents should arm themselves with such information as the local community services that can provide assistance, the sorts of assistance and tools their child will need as well as any assessments the child will need even before starting school. If parents have all the 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 most 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’s assistance, OTs or other tools the child needs. This “meeting of the minds” is how the child will acquire what he or she will need to thrive.
Parents should come to these meetings with such information as 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? (Think about lighting, smells, sounds, closeness of other children, etc.)
- Activities – What sorts of activities would your child struggle with and need “tweaking” in order to participate? (An example would be children whose tactile sensitivity is so severe, an activity like finger painting would cause a break down. Or, alternatively, a child who needs to feel or smell the paint in order to experience it. Giving the first child a paintbrush and the second child permission to use hands with fun smelling paints are great options.)
- 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 your child need in order to feel more comfortable in the classroom? This includes anything from special seating to calm down tools to items he or she needs to feel like part of the group.
- 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. Plus the good stuff can be used as an incentive to do the work children need to do as well as to remind them of what they can do when they struggle.
Options are crucial for a child with sensory struggles. There are days where certain stimuli may not affect a child at all but 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 that even when a child is too sensitive to finger paint, for example, she can still participate in the same activity with a few tweaks, such as a paint brush or using rubber gloves.
Of course, those of us with children who have SPD and other sensory sensitivities understand that our children need exposure to sensory stimuli or they’ll never learn to function in the outside world. Sure, he may need to do things in a different way but the task can, and should, be encouraged.
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.
An important point to make here is that children with SPD should never be left completely alone only doing what they find comfortable. There needs to be a healthy balance between respect for the child’s triggers and doing activities within his or her comfort zone, and the level of sensory exposure he or she is given.
Balance includes: baby steps, small exposures at a time, a lot of prep time (description and discussion), constant positive feedback and teaching the child to use his or her words.
Teach the necessity of calm down time
At home, most ‘sensational’ caregivers have most likely set up a small sanctuary for your kiddo. That’s his place to escape to when the world is a bit too overwhelming. Such a place needs to be set up in the child’s school place too.
The classroom can be a loud, busy, and 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, overwhelming or upsetting 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 daughter, Jaimie’s, Kindergarten teacher. She has decades of experience behind her with children of various developmental delays and levels of abilities from basic learning struggles to severe behavioral issues to Autism, AD/HD, even fetal alcohol syndrome. Her infamous quote has always been, “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 want—parents, teachers and assistants—for these children is for them to thrive right alongside their peers. This is a reality as long as we give them the necessary tools they need to excel. But in order to do this, teachers need to be taught 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 and speak up for children and families struggling with SPD; and we parents need to continue to advocate for our children.
One day I want to see my son, Xander, in his classroom mingling with other children with no fear, just like his older sister, Jaimie, can now do. It will happen because parents care enough to educate others in how to interact with their children and teachers want to learn how to help. Knowledge spawns understanding and that is the most powerful tool we can teach people to help children like Jaimie.
Chynna Laird – is a psychology major, freelance writer and multi award-winning author living in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner, Steve, and their three daughters Jaimie, Jordhan, and Sophie and son, Xander.
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This post originally appeared on our September/October 2012 Magazine