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3 ways to help your child with sensory issues succeed in school
Written by Greer Gurland, Esq.
Does your child crash into walls? Does he cover his ears in a crowded amusement park or shy away from birthday parties? Does she seem insensitive to pain, or overly sensitive to sound or light?
When children have difficulty processing, or making sense of the sensory information they take in, they may have difficulty responding appropriately in a given situation or environment. When this difficulty is so severe that it impedes daily functioning, the child may be said to have a Sensory Processing Disorder (an “SPD”) also known as Sensory Integration Disorder. An SPD may affect your child’s ability to access his school education in numerous ways. For example, an SPD may affect your child’s ability to focus, write, perform motor activities or participate in school social situations, such as lunch or recess.
The good news is that much can be done to help your child with SPD succeed in school and in life. Here are three ways you can help your child with SPD achieve in school:
1. Educate the teaching staff about your child. Educate school personnel about SPD. Parents can explain to teachers what SPD looks like in their child so that a teacher is less likely to consider a child’s reactions to evidence a “behavior problem.”
Parents and teachers need to know that an SPD is not the same as a behavior problem. For example, a child who is overwhelmed by tactile input may push another child in line if that other child pokes or touches him. What might look like aggressiveness might actually be a child with an SPD who is simply reacting to sensory overload and trying to control his environment.
Parents and teachers should also know that SPD is a neurological impairment, but it is not a cognitive impairment. Children with SPD can have normal intelligence and often are gifted intellectually.
2. Ask the school to evaluate your child for an IEP or 504 Plan. SPD can impede a child from many activities, such as listening and attending, that are essential for a child to access the school learning environment. Parents who are concerned that problems in school may relate to an underlying SPD may request a child study team evaluation which may lead to development of an IEP or 504 Plan.
The child study team evaluation would need to evaluate your child in all areas of suspected disability. You as the parent would have the right to ask the school to perform an occupational therapy evaluation that focuses on the child’s sensory needs.
An IEP entitles a child to special education and related services when a child has a disability that impedes his or her educational performance and that child requires special education and related services. A 504 Plan provides accommodations to students with a disability that substantially limits a major life activity when the child requires special accommodations in order to access his education.
If your child qualifies for an IEP or 504 Plan, she may be entitled by law to accommodations and modifications in school to help her achieve success.
3. Suggest a sensory diet and specific accommodations. A school-based occupational therapist may provide direct therapy and help the school implement a “sensory diet” throughout your child’s day, to help her maintain a state of self-regulation or alertness that is optimal for learning. A sensory diet may consist of a series of accommodations for your child designed to help her manage the sensory input he will encounter throughout the school day. Such a sensory diet can become a part of a child’s 504 Plan of IEP accommodations. Help the school devise one by sharing what works to help your child.
Further Accommodations for SPD
In addition to providing sensory-based occupational therapy services, including a sensory diet, a school child study team or 504 team can provide numerous accommodations to enable your child to function in the school environment. The following list contains only a sample of the accommodations that have been put in place for students with SPD. Often, creativity can also lead to inexpensive solutions that respond to your individual child’s sensory needs.
- Allow the child to take tests in a quiet space so the child is not distracted by classroom noise.
- Prepare the child for intense sensory experiences such as fire drills.
- Appropriately prepare the child in advance for transitions or changes in schedule so that the child can process the information and plan accordingly.
- Allow the child who needs to move to take movement breaks in order to increase ability to attend.
- Allow the child who is overwhelmed by noisy environments to eat lunch in a quiet space instead of in the lunchroom cafeteria.
- Allow a child to play with hand fidgets or chew gum in class to address sensory needs so that the child can focus on learning.
- For a child who becomes overwhelmed by visual stimuli, tape off portions of written work so that visual input is limited.
- Allow a child to wear a weighted vest or other clothing that provides sensory input.
- Teach the child using methodology that incorporates the senses through which the child interprets information best. Or, use a multi-sensory teaching approach–for instance a multi-sensory reading methodology.
Team Solutions for SPD Can Make a Meaningful Difference
Children with SPD may be children with autism or other neurological or developmental disorders. They may also have no other disorders. In either case, you can take these steps to help the school understand your child’s behavior so that you can work together to implement practical, meaningful solutions to help your child succeed.