Self-Regulation at School
Updated: Sep 5
The smell of new markers, the feel of new back-to-school clothes, the sight of new kids and adults bustling about in the school building—all are a part of the back-to-school experience. For a student with sensory issues, everyday sensations such as these can register in the brain much more intensely than they do for other kids, and it can be anxiety-provoking to sort out all the sensory input. It's common for kids with sensory issues to really struggle with self-regulation at school. It's important to take a sensory approach to keeping them focused, feeling good, and not hyperactive or underactive. Kids with sensory issues might be trying much harder than their peers to self-regulate when it comes to focus, activity level, and mood. The quiet, well-behaved child and the child who is playing with his pencil, looking out the window, and constantly being drawn into conversation with the child next to him can both be working hard to self-regulate yet failing to pay attention. It might be very difficult for both of these students to focus on what they're expected to focus on (such as the teacher's voice or what's being written on the board) and tune out distractions. Yes, one's looking out the window while the other may be looking straight ahead at the teacher, but the second child could be completely lost when it comes to what the teacher is talking about.
Switching focus is often an issue. A student might be able to focus on the lecture or focus on taking notes but not both at the same time (a smart pen might help).
For kids with sensory issues, all sorts of transitions can be tough. Being active at recess and then coming into the building in a quiet and orderly fashion and then sitting down to do quiet work at a desk can be very difficult. Being focused and intent on reading in class only to hear a loud bell, move through a noisy hallway, and enter the onslaught of smells and sounds and movement in the cafeteria can make a student with sensory issues want to sit down, pull a coat over their head, and hide.
A sensory diet of activities, accommodations, and breaks can help kids stay self-regulated at school. Whether or not you're working with a sensory smart OT to set up a schedule of activities, breaks, and accommodations (such as using some nontoxic item to chew on for oral sensory seeking), you'll want to check in with your child and their teacher to be sure your child is functioning well in the classroom and other school locations such as the playground, gymnasium, hallways, and cafeteria. That means they're able to follow directions from adults, get to down to business quickly instead of being "zoned out," and maintain personal space instead of poking, touching, or even licking or biting other kids (common symptoms of sensory processing disorder). They need to be able to switch activities without too much trouble.
Even older kids who have better self-regulation skills than younger ones can benefit from a sensory diet. Having to focus on sitting still when your body's telling you to move can be hard for the student in middle school or high school. Trying to tune out background noise and not become discombobulated by all the bustle in a hallway between classes can make it hard for any student with sensory processing issues to function well at school.
A sensory approach to self-regulation that your child can use before, during, and after school means providing such things as:
Oral sensory seeking items such as gum (think about offering sour, minty, and cinnamon gum, not just the usual flavors, for helping struggling with focus) or chewable items such as chewable necklaces and pencil toppers
Heavy work activities, that is, compressing or pulling apart joints as they push, pull, lift, or carry heavy items or their body weight (such as using the monkey bars or a pull-up bar)
Sensory breaks to get away from harsh lighting and too much auditory and visual stimulation, for example, permission to take a break and go to the school's Resource Room or in a quiet and comfortable space within the classroom
Visual breaks to look into the distance instead of constantly looking at a screen or at a chalkboard or Smart Board in front of the room
Auditory breaks in quiet rooms
Earbuds or headphones and recordings of music that helps the student focus, calm down, or get energized (such as these recordings from Advanced Brain Technologies)
Opportunities for spending time in nature outdoors
Techniques for calming anxiety, such as mindful breathing techniques
Discuss with your child what makes them struggle the most at school and why. No two children with sensory issues are alike, so a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go. If your child is fine at the beginning of the school day but gets overstimulated in art or music, you can work through with them and their teachers what adjustments can be made in class and even before and after class to keep them regulated. Walking up and stairs before class or moving bins or furniture within the classroom to set up can help them avoid overstimulation, for example.
In having these conversations with your child and their teachers, remember: "Kids do well if they can" as Ross Greene, MD, author of Lost at School, has said. Keep the focus on solving problems instead of judging or criticizing and you'll be modeling to your child that information gathering and creative collaboration can get you from problem to solution faster. Avoid saying or implying that the child is being lazy and not trying: You simply don't know whether that's the case and again, they might be trying very hard but failing. Then too, try to come with a creative, curious, collaborative mindset whenever talking with any of your child's teachers about sensory approaches to your child's self-regulation struggles.
Want more strategies, tips, and resources for helping your child with sensory issues thrive at school? Check out the newly updated best-selling book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, available in bookstores everywhere.
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