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Sensory Issues and Anxiety About Going Back to School

Kids with sensory issues can quickly become overwhelmed at school, which is a very stimulating place where many demands are placed on them. In a new environment—new school or new classroom—they can struggle to manage their fears and discomfort and take more time to acclimate than you would hope. Their anxiety might soar as they think about all the things that could make them uncomfortable in the classroom, the lunchroom, the playground, and so on. Here are seven ways to help your child with anxiety and sensory issues prepare to go back to school—or attend a new school for the first time.

1. Have a plan that works for your unique child. Every child is different, and what one finds calming another might find stressful. Talk through with your child what she can do if she starts feeling stressed, and reassure her that her teachers can help her. To work out a plan for how she can manage her anxiety and sensory issues at school, you might hold a meeting in the new classroom with your child and her teacher. If your son or daughter is in middle or high school, maybe a special ed teacher can set up a meeting with all the teachers who will be working with your student this year. Consider whether your child with sensory processing issues needs opportunities for sensory breaks, alone or with a one-on-one aide. Walking through the halls and up and down a flight of stairs provide an auditory and visual break—as well as proprioceptive input that can be very calming. Maybe your child will be allowed to sit quietly, alone, behind a curtain or foldable screen that creates a private area, or retreat to a reading or resource room. Survey the physical options at the school ahead of time if you can.

2. Teach your child or teen breathing and relaxation techniques she can use anywhere. When anxiety strikes, relaxation techniques such as mindful breathing can be extremely helpful. Used regularly, they can reduce anxiety overall and improve self-regulation of moods. One of my favorite mindful breathing techniques for relaxation is to focus on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling as you think “in” and “out.” This can be done with the eyes closed or open. Another effective relaxation technique is to do a visualization, closing your eyes and imagining a favorite place that makes you feel calm and happy.

3. Address sensory issues. A sensory smart parent, teacher, OT (occupational therapist), or aide can observe the child over the course of the school day and note what sensory environments or activities are causing him the most distress. The more sensory smart the child is, the better he’ll be able to talk about what he can’t handle well in the school environment. Drawing on this information, the team can come up with accommodations to make the school more sensory friendly. A formal evaluation for sensory issues and OT services may be in order. A sensory diet of activities that includes accommodations and opportunities to withdraw from the most noxious environments should be set up, ideally by a sensory smart OT or in consultation with one. Many kids with sensory processing differences are fine with simple low-cost and no-cost accommodations, while some need more help and intervention to achieve good self-regulation of mood, focus, activity level, and state of being.

4. Remind them of the positive aspects of going to school. Your child might be able to push past his anxiety to some degree if reminded of something enjoyable at school, whether it’s seeing friends or getting to participate in his favorite class or activity (physical education, science class, or whatever it is).

5. Talk through their concerns and listen carefully, repeating back their words. Mirroring a child’s language can help her feel she is truly heard and respected. It is easier for her to trust an adult who mirrors and acknowledges her concerns: “You’re afraid of going to the bathroom at school? Tell me more.” You might think you know what your child’s concern is (for example, loud toilets) and find out it’s something else (getting lost on the way back to class).

6. Know what accommodations work for your child and consider writing a letter to the teacher. While accommodations spelled out in an IEP or 504 plan are extremely helpful for teachers, sometimes, it’s not clear in the document why your child needs them—or how he uses them to function better. You can flesh out the picture with an introductory letter to the teacher. A teacher who knows that a child is timid about asking for clarification of auditory instructions, and knows why a picture that accompanies written instructions is invaluable, will be better able to understand and communicate with your child.

7. Laugh it off! If there’s a family joke you share, or you and your child love watching funny animal videos, take a quick minute or two to enjoy laughing together before your child leaves for her school day. Laughter actually reduces levels of a key stress hormone in the blood that can help your child feel relief from her anxiety, making her ready to face the challenges of walking through that schoolhouse door.

For more ideas on sensory smarts at school, at home, and away, see Raising a Sensory Smart Child.

And if your child has smell sensitivities or craves strong smells, or even if you just want a handy tool for self-calming, consider making a smell bag for your child to take to school. Learn more from my video on smell sensitivities!

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