As a former middle school teacher for 9 years, sensory processing had not been a huge focus of mine. By the time kids are in middle school, they are (hopefully) beginning to take control of their own sensory needs or they have already been identified as suffering from sensory issues and have received interventions. In middle school, I knew I had kids that needed to take a quick walk in the hall before taking a test to get out their nervous energy. I knew I had kids that focused better while gnawing on their pencil or bouncing one leg like a jitterbug under their desk. I even had one memorable child that liked to sit under his desk during instructional time to take notes. He felt he could focus best from there. I got him a front row seat so that he would have a clear view from his spot on the floor under his desk, and that was that. He knew what he needed. Naturally, I felt that if those things were not distracting the rest of the math class, I was 100% fine with kids self regulating as necessary. I didn't think about the fact that these kids were self-regulating, or that they may have some sensory processing needs that they were taking charge of. I didn't wonder how they had come to realize their own sensory needs. I just thought of it as best practice to allow for it.
Now as a Pre-K teacher, I have been through multiple training sessions on how sensory issues affect our little students in the classroom and how we can best support them. I am no expert, but I want to share what I'm learning and trying in my own Pre-K classroom that may help other parents and teachers working with children with sensory needs.
When you hear "sensory processing needs" your mind might immediately race to autism or the autism spectrum. That's a false assumption. Although ALL autistic children deal with sensory issues of varying degrees, many non-autistic kids simply struggle with sensory processing and can benefit from some training (OT Occupational Therapy) and coping skills that will help them self regulate so that they can better function in daily life.
Today's average elementary school classroom is not designed to meet your child's sensory needs. Kids are expected to sit, listen, and actively engage in learning NEW information for 6 + hours a day 5 days a week. Ok people, let's be honest, how many of you could actively engage and absorb new information from a work meeting that lasted 6 hours without feeling like you needed to lay out on the floor in a scissor kicking tantrum ?
Now you can see where our littlest students come in. Beginning in Pre-K, students are being introduced to letters, letter sounds, sight words, the basics of reading, the concept of mathematics, shapes, and even bigger concepts like the fact that we live on a planet called Earth that circles a giant star called the sun and there are a bunch of other planets out there too... Ok, their little heads are spinning now.
Some of these little ones can focus for longer lengths of time, but the average 4-year-old's attention span is only 5-10 minutes max! So here is where their individual sensory needs come in...
Enter *John. He is a kid in a typical Pre-K classroom that struggles to sit in "crisscross applesauce" position on the rug during circle time. He prefers to lay on his tummy or sit "legs out sauerkraut." Well the typical teacher wants *John to fit into her neat little box of what she considers "normal" and so she is a bit irritated by John's inability to get into "applesauce" position. She then corrects him and he can sense her irritation. Next, the teacher gets out a few fuzzy hand puppets to teach about a new concept. *John immediately reaches out and grabs the puppets. He stands in front of all the other children and blocks their view so that he can see and touch the puppets. His "impulsion" to touch those fuzzy puppets is all-consuming. The teacher is once again frustrated with *John! Why is he so impulsive? She reminds him to sit "crisscross applesauce" just like the rest of the kids and threatens a time out if he gives in to his impulsion to touch the puppets again.*John is feeling misunderstood. He needs to touch those puppets. Now he is becoming very irritated and curls up into a ball beating his first on the rug. The teacher has had it and puts him in a time out. Now he lays out on the floor and grips the rug, tears streaming from his eyes. He feels so misunderstood. So frustrated. He feels like a volcano that is finally erupting all over the circle-time rug. *John might even start to dislike school. Dislike his teacher. He senses that he is earning the title "Bad Kid" at school.
*John also struggles greatly with transitions in the classroom and at home. When he is actively engaged in an activity that he is enjoying, like building a tower with blocks, or a half finished puzzle, he DOES NOT want to hear that it is time to move on to something else. At home when it is time to turn off the tv and get into the car, John throws a tantrum and he feels tortured by the transition. He loses all control of his little world in an instant when mom shouts, "Get your shoes on, it's time to go!" How could she be so cruel?!
*John's mom asks him, "Why do you throw these tantrums every day *John?" And *John looks at her with real tears in his eyes, and he simply has no idea why he does this either. *John does not enjoy his tantrums. He is not throwing tantrums purposely to drive his mother and teacher bonkers. He is actually just struggling with self-regulation and his sensory needs are not being met. *John will never look his mother in the eye and say to her, "Mom, I am having trouble self-regulating." That will never happen. *John needs his mother and his teacher to recognize his difficulties and get him the help he needs to better regulate and control his senses to avoid total frustration of everyday life.
To keep it simple here, there are two main umbrella types of sensory issues: Sensory Seeking (like *John, need to touch and feel things, have extra energy to burn, do not do well being expected to sit still) and Sensory Sensitive (easily overstimulated, avoid sensory stimulation, avoid loud noises, avoid bright lights, avoid too much touching and certain textures).
The spectrum of sensory issues out there is a wide one and we are ALL on that spectrum to some degree. Yes, even YOU! You likely have sensory-avoiding/sensitivity behaviors yourself like avoiding loud concerts, wearing certain textures like velvet, or smelling strong perfumes and colognes.
You may also have some sensory-seeking behaviors like needing to go for a run before work so that you can better focus, chewing gum at a meeting to stay awake, or listening to music while you study.
You are an adult and over time, you have discovered the most efficient and least disruptive ways to manage your own sensory needs so that you can function at your best in this big bad world. Your child however, may still need help with this.
How can we support our kids sensory needs?
Here are some things that I have begun to do in my own classroom and with my own child:
1) Give Warnings before transitions. Do not catch your child off-guard by shouting, "Hurry, get in the car! Turn off the tv!"Give a 5 minute warning. Try to time it so that there is a sensible stopping place for your child. Provide a timer if need be.
2) Distract with calming toys (sensory toys). Remember when your child was a baby and you had to tell them "NO"? You found it often worked better to "distract" them, instead of reason with them. These toys work in a similar fashion. If the sensory-seeking child is feeling frustrated by a transition or situation, they can learn to better self-regulate their feelings by squeezing a stress ball, watching water bubbles, stretching putty, even playing with a slap bracelet. I give them to students to look at and touch until all the bubbles fall to the bottom. Then it is time to re-join the group again. We avoid tears, tantrums, and both of us end up feeling understood and respected. I also love using the stretchy balls during circle time for the kids that just need to touch something. I have found that if I provide ground rules like "the toy must stay in your lap at all times and you must sit in the back row to avoid disturbing others." The kids are able to self-regulate and still pay attention to the lesson. In fact, they pay better attention when they are allowed to touch their sensory toy!
3)Use a schedule. Kids with any type of sensory issue, like to know what is happening next. It helps to provide these kids with that information regularly. You can try to verbally remind them of what's coming next, but some may need even more, like a visual schedule that helps them remember what comes next. Try to keep schedules similar from day to day because all children do better with some kind of routine so that they can anticipate what will happen next.
4) Provide sensory avoidance assistance like ear muffs in a loud music class, preferential seating that avoids touching from others, even weighted vests or compression shirts that can provide a calming effect for overstimulated children.
5) Allow for movement. Sensory-seekers will need breaks to burn some energy. Whether they use a mini trampoline or run circles around the playground, burning off some energy often helps with focus. Some kids will not thrive in the crisscross applesauce position. Some physically need to switch positions and will do better with a space provided for them to do so.
The bottom line is that we all have sensory issues. We all cope in different ways. Some of us have healthier ways of coping than others. Your child may already be coping well on their own by avoiding certain situations, calming themselves with hair twirling or even thumb sucking. As parents and teachers, our role is to help our children develop healthy tools and methods for coping with the many sensory challenges our world has to offer. The goal is for your child to manage self-regulation in the real-world on a daily basis so that their individual sensory needs do not interfere with their learning and development.
If you have noticed that your child struggles with sensory issues to a degree that seems to be interfering with their daily life, I recommend having them evaluated by a licensed OT (Occupational Therapist). Even a few visits with a professional can help you, your child, and even their classroom teachers to better understand and meet their needs.
I recommend this because the alternative can be detrimental to your child if they begin to feel "unsuccessful" in the classroom and constantly misunderstood and frustrated at home. Your child becomes labeled as a "behavior issue" and "bad kid" at school. This will be of no help to the child or the teacher. Be proactive and help your child take charge of their feelings and needs. If we can remove the frustration from the child and give them back control of their feelings, it's a win for all of us.
Here are some of my fave sensory toys on amazon. Click to view or purchase. I am not sponsored by any of these toys, these are just examples of what I use in my classroom and at home with my own child.
Sensory Stress Balls
Spaghetti Noodle Fidget Toy
Pull and Stretch Balls
Liquid Bubble Timers
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