School Sensory Diet, IEPs, and School Accommodations for Sensory Kids
Specific sensory input throughout the day as part of a sensory diet of activities and accommodations designed to promote self-regulation of focus, energy, and mood is vital for any child with sensory processing issues. Let’s face it: Every child needs a little environmental support to calm down after an exciting activity, to perk up and focus when he’s feeling tired and has been processing information for too long of a stretch, and to shift from frustration into a sense of calm. However, children with sensory processing differences have a more difficult time with self-regulation and transitions than do other children. At school, a sensory diet should include activities to help the child become calmer and more focused, opportunities to get away from sensory input so she can regroup, and accommodations for homework and tests as well as for specialty classes such as art, music, and physical education. There must also be agreed upon discipline procedures for the child with sensory issues who cannot regulate her system like a neurotypical child can and is prone to a fight-or-flight panic response of withdrawal or aggression.
Children with sensory issues may or may not need an IEP or individualized education plan. An IEP is necessary if your child needs special education services. If only accommodations are needed, a 504 plan may be all that’s needed. You can learn more about these two documents in the book Raising a Sensory Smart Child. If your child’s sensory issues are very mild, you may simply be able to work out with each of her teachers and other key school personnel (don’t forget the physical education teacher, resource monitor, and so on) what activities and accommodations your child needs to function well at school.
If you believe your child may qualify for an IEP and special ed services, request evaluations from your district’s special education director and follow up with a certified letter showing when you made the request. Typically, it is an occupational therapist, or OT, who evaluates for sensory issues (as well as for fine motor issues that affect handwriting, which is often a problem for kids with sensory processing disorder). There are many ways to do your research to learn more about your child’s needs. I’ve always found parents in support groups to be enormously helpful in guiding each other through the IEP process. Others have been there before and can offer insights, ideas, and emotional support. I highly recommend in-person as well as online support groups. Social media groups and pages such as the Facebook page for Raising a Sensory Smart Child can be excellent resources, too. (My coauthor, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and I post there regularly.)
What is a sensory diet for a child with sensory issues? While there are general guidelines or templates for a sensory diet, it should be individualized for your child and constructed with the help of a sensory smart occupational therapist if at all possible. Here’s a sample sensory diet:
Activities and accommodations to help the child wake up and become focused and alert to start the morning and breakfast routine. These might include a very sour or tart candy to wake up her mouth before breakfast if she’s a reluctant eater and some time jumping on a mini trampoline or rebounder followed by deep pressure hugs. Desensitization of her skin before she puts on her clothing may help her tolerate that shift from PJs to undressed to dressed and to tolerate her less-than-favorite clothes that are appropriate for school.
Activities and accommodations for the transition to school. These might include earplugs on the noisy bus, walking or taking a scooter to school, or heavy work after leaving the bus or car to calm her system before entering the classroom. A few trips climbing across the monkey bars might be enough input to get her back in her body and ready to go to class after the excitement and sensory stimulation of traveling to school. Work with your child and the school and, if there is one, the school OT to figure out what options are available for this transition if you don’t accompany your child to school.
Activities and accommodations in the classroom to help with circle time, physical education, recess, lunch in the cafeteria, music or art class, assemblies, and so on. Ideally, you can limit the amount of time the child is pulled out of the room to calm and focus herself in a quiet, low-stimulation place, but while a sensory child is developing better self-regulation, she may need many breaks throughout the day. Sometimes, a sensory break pass to take a walk around the hall and up and down a flight of stairs, or to spend a few minutes in a quiet reading room or small office where she can sit in a beanbag chair, listening to calming music, with the lights out, or in an area with plants and grass or an indoor tabletop fountain, can make a huge difference in her ability to focus and attend when she returns to class. A sealable plastic bag with a piece of cloth that has a few drops of a calming essential oil can be used when your child is starting to feel stressed out, especially if smells are bothering her. Just have her open this “smell bag” and sniff the cloth.
Activities and accommodations for the transition to home. Some kids hold it together all day long and upon arrival home, want to go into their room, turn out the lights, draw the curtains, and rock, listen to music, play video games, and avoid any demands. A routine for after-school calming can help your child to make the transition to homework, chores, and socializing with family and friends more easily.
Activities and accommodations for dinnertime. These might include an inflatable bumpy cushion or ball chair to sit on, which can make it easier to stay seated because of the sensory input provided; calming music; and a plate with foods that aren’t touching each other. The more pleasant and sensory friendly the dinnertime environment and routine is, the easier it will be to work on social skills over a meal and on introducing new foods to the picky eater.
Activities and accommodations for evening and bedtime. Roughhousing, done right, can help. A bath can be calming or overstimulating, so pay attention to your child’s unique responses to baths and bath time. Lowering the lights gradually and avoiding the blue light of computer screens and mobile devices can help signal the child’s or teen’s brain to start producing melatonin, a hormone that tells the body it's time to go to sleep, in preparation for bed.
This is just one sample sensory diet, but essentially, if you work around these key times of the day and assume your child will need accommodations and input that serve as “snacks” for self-regulation and management of sensory issues, you can start seeing a difference in her behavior, mood, and energy very quickly.