Sensory Smarts at School and Leading the Team
Updated: Aug 21
How can you help a child with sensory issues that cause her difficulties at school? The best thing you can do as a parent is be a strong advocate and the team leader, coordinating the help your child receives from her teachers and any therapists or aides at school.
In an ideal world, your child would get OT for sensory issues through a school-based occupational therapist, even if only on a consultation basis. You might be able to make this happen, or you might not: Depending on the severity of your child's issues, he may or may not qualify for this type of help. As a parent, you can work with your child at home to ensure that you are supplementing any therapy services through the school district or that you pay for privately.
Ask your child's OT to explain what she is doing and why, and get insights into how you can support your child and carry out a sensory diet at home before and after school as well as on the weekends and on vacations--because while OTs that work with schools are focused on school-tasks, some of those are at-home tasks, too. For example, your child may have difficulty with fine motor skills such as drawing and writing. If you can supplement the therapy with home-based activities, your child will develop skills more quickly.
If your OT provides movement-based activities, ask her to demonstrate for you how she works with your child. This is especially important when it comes to spinning and swinging activities, which can be overstimulating and disorganizing for many kids, meaning that they can go into sensory overload and become too hyper or shut down and refuse to participate. OTs know that a "just right" challenge of pushing kids a bit out of their comfort zone, but not too much, is the way to go when it comes to sensory diet activities.
Parents, teachers, therapists, other professionals, and students can all help each other develop sensory smarts so that students function better and are better able to learn, play, and participate in school activities. Think of the professionals at schools as part of a team that you head because as the parent, you know the most about your child and you have the most invested in him! You are aware of how your child behaves in different sensory environments, and you know how much stimulation he can typically handle before shutting down or going into sensory overload. Don't ever feel afraid to speak up when your gut tells you that a therapist or teacher is taking the wrong approach or is being too tentative with or too demanding of your child!
If you're not sure how to be an effective advocate, here are some of my favorite tips for approaching a teacher, therapist, or aide about an issue at school:
Recognize they are professionals but don't dismiss your own expertise.
Your child's teacher may have no idea how your child acts at home, at Grandma's, on vacation, in the woods by your home--the list goes on and on. She may not have much experience with kids like yours who have sensory issues and perhaps other related conditions. She will know little if anything about your child's temperament initially, which is why you might want to introduce your child with a short letter at the beginning of the school year.
Go to parent-teacher conferences and call IEP meetings or teacher/parent meetings as necessary. Don't be shy about asking for an extra meeting or more time than is usually allotted at a parent-teacher conference. If you feel you have to meet face-to-face with a teacher, ask for it. If you don't hear back, don't give up. Teachers are busy. You may have to follow up!
Recognize the challenges teachers face in working with a group of kids and not just your child.
Keep in mind that teachers are managing and teaching a group of kids all at one time, which makes it challenging for her to address your child's needs individually. Sensory accommodations that work at home may not work very well at school. For instance, if your child regroups by going off to a quiet space away from stimulation, it may be very difficult for her to do that at school.
Use collaborative language and a collaborative approach. You might want to ask the teacher, "I notice that (my child) is struggling with (name the struggle) in your classroom. I'm hoping that we can figure out how to help her." Tell the teacher, "I have a dilemma and I'm hoping you can help me." If you don't like how the teacher expresses herself, you can say, "It's interesting that you feel that way. I'd like to know more," or "I'm sure you don't realize it, but when you say (repeat what she said that made you uncomfortable), I feel (frustrated, disappointed, concerned, etc.)"
Learn about your child and advocating for her at school. You'll find advice on this website but you will also find plenty of guidance on advocating for your sensory child at school and assembling a sensory smart school team in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.