If your child is receiving occupational therapy (OT) services at school, something that may have been mentioned are their sensory needs. Prior to receiving interventions in the school setting, you may have heard from teachers that your child is fidgety, has difficulty paying attention, doesn’t remain in their seat, struggles with directions, or that they have other behavioral problems.
Once these behaviors have been identified as having a sensory component, there are various strategies that may be implemented within the classroom and school environment to help your child. These strategies may include:
1. Providing your child with fidgets during the day
Your child’s OT may offer fidgets for them to use in the classroom to keep their hands busy so that are not distracting other students. This may include, spinner fidgets, pieces of textured material, stress balls, pencils with built in fidgets, a small container of play-dough, or theraband placed on the legs of their chair. Using a fidget may help them focus and calm their bodies.
2. Providing preferential seating
Your child may be easily distracted by looking at other students or items within the classroom. The teacher and therapist may decide that it is best to place your child near the front of the room to reduce these distractions, or in a seat near an adult so that they can be redirected.
3. Utilizing movement breaks throughout the day
If your child is fidgety, has difficulties remaining in their seat, or appears to lose focus when sitting for too long, movement breaks may be beneficial. The teacher may incorporate whole class movement breaks or an assistant may take them into the hallway. These could include things like yoga poses, jumping jacks, cross marches, animal crawls, weighted backpack walks, or simply a walk around the school.
4. Reducing distractions within the classroom
As mentioned above in number 2, moving your child’s seat may be beneficial to reduce visual distractions. Other strategies to decrease auditory or visual distractions include the use of headphones during loud times like music or recess, or providing simplified worksheets with less pictures and additional text.
5. Use of adapted seating
Adaptive seating options are a great way to help a student remain focused while learning. Wiggle seats, medicine balls, or wobble cushions can be used to improve core strength and provide movement while your child is completing classroom assignments. Small amounts of movement that are provided with things like adapted seating or fidgets can help with active listening and focus.
6. The use of visual timers
Oftentimes, having their day broken down into smaller components can make it easier for your child to focus on their current task. If a timer is available so that they know, “when the timer goes off I will get to go in the hall and do jumping jacks”, they have motivation to complete their current assignment because a reward/break will be available after.
7. The use of a visual schedule to prepare for transitions
Not knowing what is coming next while at school may be stressful for your child. As children get older and start to understand what their bodies need to regulate, it will be easier for them to prepare for activities throughout the day and request a break if necessary. For example, if your child sees on their schedule that they have a math test after gym class, they might request yoga time to calm their body for the test. If your child is not able to request these tasks, it is helpful to add sensory breaks into their schedule for a teacher or classroom assistant to implement. If your child has difficulties with behavior as well as sensory regulation, the use of a “first, then” schedule can be used. (First art class, then animal crawls). This is a more simplified version of a schedule that can be used while your child is learning the routine.
8. Use of a weighted or compression vest
If your child’s OT has determined that they seek proprioceptive input (heavy work) or deep pressure, they may implement a weighted or compression vest program. A compression vest may feel like a hug to your child which can be calming. A weighted vest provides additional input to their joints which can also calm their body.
Oftentimes sensory needs are discussed during your child’s IEP or ETR meeting or during school conferences. This is a great time to ask the team what strategies have been implemented in the school and also suggest strategies that are used at home. It is important to remember that as the parent, you see your child in different situations than their team at school does.
An open line of communication can improve your child’s sensory regulation skills both at home as well as in the school setting. For example, you may be able to suggest games that your child likes to play at home that can be calming, like dimming the lights and using play-dough. The reduced visual stimuli (bright lights) and added proprioceptive input to their hands (play-dough) may also work in the school setting during quiet independent work time like that expected in a science class.
At school, the class may take yoga breaks and complete a few calming poses prior to independent reading time. This may also be beneficial to do at home before sitting at the table to do homework.
Using similar sensory strategies throughout the day, both at home and school may help everyone figure out what works best for your child and help to create a routine. If you have questions about sensory techniques that can be beneficial for your child, ask their OT. The whole team wants to ensure that you are working together to determine what is best for your child!
-Morgan Petroff, OTR/L