Organization at School for Students with Sensory Issues
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
When a child's sensory processing is atypical, her brain is not wired like everyone else's. Kids with SPD process information from the senses differently, think differently, and respond differently to everyday sensations. They're often struggling to fit into systems created by people whose brains operate a more neurotypically, which can make organizing time, tasks, and possessions very challenging.
As a sensory smart parent, your job is to honor your child's differently wired brain. You do that by recognizing that he may need to organize his homework, his folders, and his approach to larger projects—such as creating a diorama or a presentation using software such as Prezi or PowerPoint—in his own way. Working with your child, you can build his organizational skills.
While teachers may have a preferred way of doing things, your child might become overwhelmed by the amount of effort it takes to organize papers and assignments the way her teacher does. Too much time and focus spent on trying to master a system that just doesn't work for her will take away time and focus from learning. Yet you might think, "Someday, she'll have to answer to a boss who wants it done a certain way." I've heard this fear expressed over the years in online forums for parents of kids with sensory processing disorder, and I think it's a perfect example of how we get ahead of ourselves.
When it comes to parenting our kids, we have to meet them where they are to get them where we want them to go. That means your child may not be ready developmentally to manage his school assignments, papers, and possessions stored in backpacks, lockers, and desks at home and in school without a lot of guidance—and without a system that works for him. You'll need to work with your child's teachers to gain flexibility if the teacher's or school's system is a bust for your student with sensory issues.
In his senior year of high school, I asked my own son, who at age 2 was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays, "Why do you think you've had your first quarter in which you didn't misplace any assignments or forget to hand them in?" His answer: "Maturity." By this point, he knew what systems worked best for him and he had habits he carried over from year to year to keep his life simple. Although he used a tablet for school, he preferred to write assignments in a paper spiral assignment notebook--the kind he had been using for years. It worked for him—although imperfectly, because he's an imperfect human being (but aren't we all?). He learned how best to stay organized with his assignments, developed habits for writing them down and going over them before the end of Resource Room each day, and kept at it year after year. I told him skills, not grades, were the priority, and we had IEP accommodations to keep him from racking up Fs due to his organizational issues. It took him longer to achieve success at staying organized, but so what? He got there!
What organizational strategies might work for your student?
Regular check-ins. During Resource Room, at the beginning and end of the school day, and perhaps every Saturday morning and one weekday evening a week are often good times for checking if everything is in order. Does your student have his papers in the correct folders? Does he know which assignments have to be handed in today before leaving school? The habit of doing regular check-ins builds valuable organizational skills.
Visual helpers. In Raising a Sensory Smart Child, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and I offer loads of tips and strategies for using visual helpers to stay organized. For example, your student might need to see her musical instrument or lunch box next to the door in the morning to remember to take it with her. She might need a paper calendar to remember what she saw handwritten on the page (that can be easier than retaining a visual snapshot of an electronic calendar page).
Simplification. Some teachers' organizational systems are too complicated for certain kids. Many students with sensory processing disorder do better with keeping all their papers in one large folder rather than several separate ones. They might do best having all their school-related possessions in a backpack carried around during the day rather than storing some items in lockers. Of course, you want to be sure that backpack isn't too heavy, or that it is on wheels that allow her to roll it, like luggage, to prevent back and neck problems. Regular check-ins to clear out folders and backpacks can help prevent that problem.
Customization. Again, your child might need to do it his way, not the teacher's way, to stay organized. If he's to keep all his social studies papers in the yellow folder and his science papers in the green folder, and the teacher or teachers regularly hand out science papers that are yellow and social studies papers that are green, your child is likely to misfile them. By working with your child to figure out what will help him process that the yellow paper belongs in the green folder, you can help him create a custom system that will work for him.
Remember that the point of school is to learn new skills and information, and develop greater mastery of skills. If you have to begin at a very simple point—with regular check-ins and a full backpack she has to rummage through to find a pen—as the months go along, you will probably find you can place more organizational demands on your child as she has started developing good organizational habits that work for her.
You'll find more tips and strategies for supporting your child at school in Raising a Sensory Smart Child.