Overload at School
Avoiding Sensory Overload at School
There’s a big difference between “bad behavior” and “sensory overload.” You can help the school recognize and manage this by describing what overwhelms your child, what overloaded behavior “looks like,” and what actually helps to avoid getting overloaded in the first place. Doing so get school staff more invested in supporting beneficial activities, ideally for all students. While needs vary from child to child, opportunities to obtain the sensory input a child’s nervous system craves and to avoid noxious sensory experiences should be provided across the board. We all need to “wake up” by moving after sitting for a long time, and an occasional break from the intense sensory stimuli in noisy, busy environments such as school, but for kids with sensory issues, brief respites may be crucial in order to remain focused, calm, and attentive throughout the school day.
A sensory diet at school might include:
Walking. Taking a brief walk at specified intervals, perhaps accompanied by an aide.
Brushing. Going to the bathroom, where he can enter a stall and brush himself using the deep touch pressure technique for sensory defensiveness taught by his occupational therapist.
Listening to calming music. Using an iPod or other audio player, the child can listen to music that helps him regain his composure: nature sounds, classical music, or even rock n’ roll—whatever effectively organizes his unique nervous system.
Fidgeting with objects. Fidgets such as a Koosh ball, fabric tab sewn in to a pocket, or even a hair band can keep a student’s hands busy so she can focus better.
Desk accommodations. A band of stretchy material around front chair legs that he can push his shins and ankles against may help. A carpet square or piece soft cloth he can touch attached to the underside of the desk or an inflatable cushion to sit on can make attending for long periods easier for every child.
Objects for chewing. Objects to chew on such as a Pencil Topper, ChewEase, or Chewable Jewel can provide soothing oral input to keep a student focused on learning rather than sensory cravings.
Push-ups and jumping jacks. Jumping jacks or just jumping in place, and push-ups done in a chair or against a wall provide organizing proprioceptive input at school.
Stretching. Stretching wakes up the body after a quiet activity. Everyone can benefit from stretching after sitting, but it’s even more important for a child with sensory issues.
Playground and gym opportunities. All children—especially those with sensory challenges—need opportunities to move before, during, and after school: hang from monkey bars, throw or push objects, run, jump, and pull objects. Otherwise, it can be quite difficult to settle in to quiet classroom activities and obey school rules about “no throwing” and “no running.”
More progressive schools incorporate movement experiences such as Brain Gym, yoga, or other fun activities into classrooms to keep students on track and ready to learn. The best gym teachers let kids run laps around the gym to blow off pent-up energy before asking requiring them to sit down and listen to instructions for the day’s gym class.
A sensory smart OT can help you identify activities that will be most helpful before, during, and after school. If your child’s body needs movement to stay tuned in, make sure that recess and gym are never withheld as a punishment, and get this added to your child’s IEP.
Appropriate demand for eye contact. A child with sensory issues may need to “block off” his visual sense in order to listen more effectively. He should not be required to maintain eye contact when answering a question requiring concentration. If increasing eye contact is a goal, it should be worked on at other times, not, for example, when he is making a nerve-wracking oral presentation.
Prepare for intense sensory experiences. The sensitive child should be warned in advance about fire drills, for instance, so she can be prepared for the intensity. She should be permitted to wear earplugs or sound blocking earmuffs during such a sensory onslaught.
Special place in line. When lining up with other children, the child should always be at the front or end of the line so she isn’t disturbed by other children crowding or bumping into her. (You might ask the teacher to appoint her “line monitor” so this doesn’t seem like a punishment.)
Special seating. A sensitive child needs a well-considered seat location in the classroom and other rooms such as art, music, and computer lab. The best spot varies from child to child and the parent, teacher, and OT may need to collaborate to determine the best location in a given room. Children with sensory issues often do best in the front of the classroom close to the teacher, away from distractions such as direct sunlight and vents and noisy radiators. A student may also need to sit where she can’t see out the door or windows, or next to a wall for a sense of security.
BUY Raising a Sensory Smart Child and learn more about sensory smarts at school.
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