By: Lindsey Murphy, OTR/L
As we remember from our own childhoods, a typical school day contains many familiar sights, scents, people, sounds, and textures. Pencil sharpeners whir in the background while a teacher speaks; pencils scrape against the paper until the bell finally rings overhead to signal the end of class. The food from the cafeteria can often be smelled in the hallway; the scent of other classmates becomes mixed with the odor of cleaning products that the janitor recently used on the floors. There are many people surrounding each other as classmates jostle one another to arrive on time, stand in close proximity while waiting in line, and sit next to each other in the classroom.
With all of the sensory input that brains receive during an average school day, it is understandable that many children become overwhelmed. While kids sometimes subconsciously use adaptive strategies to self-regulate such as taking deep breaths or participating in heavy work activities at recess, many others are left feeling exhausted and discouraged at the end of the day. These feelings can be magnified for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) for whom surviving a typical school day can become the equivalent to Black Friday shopping. It is no surprise that by the time kids with SPD arrive at home after a long day at school, feelings of frustration, anxiety, and battle-weariness often occur.
Sensory overloads can appear in many different forms, and individual children tend to handle the feeling of being overwhelmed in a variety of ways. Some children internalize this feeling and remain quiet and withdrawn throughout the school day. They may avoid peers and prefer solitude to attempt to regulate. Others may become belligerent and uncooperative by refusing to follow directions, acting out in class, bullying peers, destroying property, etc. Many kids with SPD fall in between those two categories; they may seek out extra movement in class, cover their ears when sound becomes too loud, hiccup/ sneeze/ yawn frequently, or lose focus on important school work because their brains are overloaded.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, the positive news is that occupational therapy can help! When a child (or adult) enters this fight or flight mode on a regular basis due to being overstimulated, finding ways to both integrate sensory information while modifying the environment can be very effective. Occupational therapists that specialize in sensory integration can provide individualized tips on ways to self-regulate in multi-sensory environments.
In the school setting, many kids with SPD benefit from additional movement breaks. Performing heavy work activities in the classroom every two hours such as stacking chairs, carrying library books, performing chair pushups, etc. can be very regulating and may take the brain out of fight-or-flight mode. Additionally, scented items such as lip balm, Smencils, Mr. Sketch markers, and lotions can potentially have a calming effect and improve both mood and attention. A wiggle cushion in the chair or a piece of Theraband tied around chair legs can provide extra movement opportunities while the child remains seated. The motion of chewing is very regulating and can decrease anxiety as well as sound sensitivity, so chewing on gum, chewy necklaces, or special pencil toppers can provide regulating input. Ear plugs, noise cancelling headphones, or soft and calming music can also improve regulation and decrease auditory overload. Textured pencil grippers or a piece of Velcro attached to a student’s desk provides tactile input without becoming a distraction. The action of drinking through a thick straw is calming and promotes attention, so utilizing water bottles in the classroom is a useful tool for many students.
Although school can provide many positive experiences such as new friendships and increased knowledge, it can also provide too much sensory input. By implementing strategies in the classroom that promote success, children can improve self-esteem while building skills that can be used for a lifetime.