How Do I Get My Child with Sensory Issues to Focus?
One of the biggest challenges kids with sensory issues have is focusing on schoolwork. Too often, their sensory issues get in the way of learning because of the environment in which they learn. Fortunately, by making simple changes, we can often remove distractions for the child with sensory issues. Focus can then be much easier to attain and maintain.
As you set out to help your child better focus, you’ll want to talk with her about what is and isn’t working for her. She might come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of—or you might realize that what’s distracting her is something you would never have imagined could be a problem. While we can develop sensory smarts and teach them to our children so that they understand their sensory issues and know how to self-advocate for themselves effectively, we can often be surprised by exactly how their sensory processing issues are affecting them. Every child’s sensory profile is unique, and by asking questions and truly taking in their responses as we work at coming up with solutions, we can become even better at problem-solving with them.
Let’s consider some of the environmental challenges that can distract our kids and how to address them.
Sounds. Kids with sensory issues often struggle to filter out unnecessary background sounds and focus on important sounds. That dog barking in the distance or footsteps in the hallway outside the classroom door grabs their attention just as much, if not more than, the sound of their teacher’s voice. One solution is to reduce background noise as much as possible (closing doors and windows, for example). Another is to have the child sit up front, close to the teacher (or next to her during circle time), so that the teacher’s voice is more prominent than it would be if the child were to sit elsewhere. Earplugs or noise-reducing headphones can be used in moderation to block background noise. If the child has to take a test or do quiet work requiring great focus, doing it in a room with fewer students and less stimulation can help. Test-taking in a separate, less crowded room is a common accommodation on IEPS (individualized education plans for students with special education needs).
Smells. Cooking and food smells from the cafeteria, perfume and hair product smells, and body odor all can overstimulate or overwhelm the child with sensory issues. A teacher can change where the child sits and avoid strongly scented perfume or clothes washed in perfumed detergent. To get a break from unavoidable smells, the child can use a resealable plastic “smell bag" containing a piece of cloth with an essential oil sprinkled on it.
Sights. Classrooms are often cheerfully decorated with lots of visually stimulating pictures and signs. Seating at the front of the classroom, especially away from windows that reveal a lot of visual stimulation outdoors, can help the child focus better. Also, you can have the child use a piece of paper to cover the text on a worksheet that should be temporarily ignored as she focuses on one problem or question at a time.
Other sensations. Sitting in the child’s seat for a minute or so might alert a parent, teacher, aide, or occupational therapist to distractions that most people tune out easily but the child with sensory issues can’t. Is there a vent that suddenly stops or starts blasting cool or warm air, providing a distracting sensation near the child? Does the light from the windows and overhead lighting create glare on the interactive whiteboard that makes the child unable to read it from their chair? Asking the child to identify distractions while he’s seated in his chair might yield important information. For example, some kids have difficulty feeling the smooth chair bottom underneath them and become distracted by their need to focus on not falling out of it. An inflatable bumpy cushion might help. Then too, using a fidget—a small item the child can manipulate with her hands—can help some kids focus better but make focusing more difficult for others. Always work with the child to determine what interventions and accommodations work best for them.
Also, keep in mind that kids are asked to sit still far more than many of them can do without losing focus. If all your attention is on not wiggling or getting out of your chair, you might be able to follow the rule to sit still, but are you learning or just trying to be obedient? Kids need lots of movement throughout the day, including recess (which should never be taken away as a punishment, as it’s counterproductive and will make it even harder for the child to focus). In-classroom physical activities can keep kids from having to put their focus on sitting still rather than on learning. Options can include chair pushups (grasp sides of the seat with hands and push up, lifting the body a few inches off the chair) and wall push-ups (standing with feet a few inches apart, at least 24 inches from the wall, place the palms on the wall and lean forward, then push away again, and repeat). Make sure the child has opportunities to move around, taking a movement break and walk in the hall or up and down a flight of stairs, and doing simple stretches and yoga moves (which the entire class might do). Moveable seats, such as Hokki stools, can help the child get much-needed movement in the classroom, too.
For more practical strategies on how to help kids with sensory issues, check out the award-winning, best-selling book Raising a Sensory Smart Child (now available in Spanish).