Going back to school is exciting. But for kids with sensory processing issues, some of the sounds, smells, and sensations that come with school can be overwhelming. Here are some of the challenges your child may face, along with ideas on how you can work together and with your child’s teachers to help manage them.
1. Staying still
The challenge: Kids with sensory processing issues may have trouble sitting still. They may fidget with objects, rock their chairs, or kick nearby desks.
How you can help: For some kids, it can help to put a length of stretchy exercise band around the front chair legs to push their feet or legs against. So can letting them sit on a bumpy seat cushion or a stability ball. Ask your child’s service providers for recommendations. And have someone show your child how to use these items appropriately so they don’t become an issue for others.
2. Music class
The challenge: Some kids with sensory processing issues are sensitive to sound. This can make the noises of music class, band, and chorus hard to manage.
How you can help: Explain to the teacher that your child may need to use noise-canceling headphones or earplugs during class. Arrange for your child to sit near the door and work out a signal to use if needing a break. If the noise is still too much, ask if your child can start out attending class for a short period of time, and then stay longer as tolerance increases.
The challenge: Kids with sensory processing issues may have trouble with motor skills. They may struggle with balance or knowing where their bodies are in relation to others. As a result, they might play too rough or be uncomfortable on playground equipment like swings.
How you can help: Try to pinpoint the specific problems your child is having. Talk about what happens at recess — what’s hard, what’s fun, and why. Ask the teachers what they’ve noticed, too. Then work with your child to think of ways to make recess a better experience. Running games may be more fun than swinging. Some kids might like to practice using playground equipment before or after school.
4. “Busy” handouts or boards
The challenge: “Visual clutter” can overwhelm kids who are sensitive to what they see. It can make it hard for them to focus on what they’re supposed to be doing.
How you can help: Ask to do a walk-through of your child’s classroom. Find out if the teacher is open to changing where your child sits. Together you can look for a spot where your child will be less distracted by things like busy bulletin boards. You can also show your child ways to block distracting visual information. For example, kids can fold their paper to show only one row of math problems at a time.
The challenge: Kids who have difficulty with fine motor skills can have trouble forming clear letters. They may also find it hard to gauge the force they use when writing. Some may break pencils, while others write too lightly.
How you can help: Pencil grips can help kids hold pencils more comfortably and give them a better sense of how hard they’re holding them. Ask your child’s teacher about using raised-line paper. It helps kids feel where they’re writing. Keep in mind that either you or the teacher will have to show your child how to use these tools.
The challenge: From crowded tables to kids talking all at once to the smell of food in the air — there’s a lot going on at lunch! And it can be too much for some kids with sensory processing issues.
How you can help: Ask your child to explain what’s most overwhelming. Then work with the school on solutions. For example, maybe there’s a less crowded area of the lunchroom where your child and a few friends could eat. A child who can’t stand the smell of peanut butter may be able to sit at a nut-free table.
7. Art class
The challenge: For kids who are sensitive to touch or smells, art class can be stressful. Messy hands, the texture of art supplies, and the odor of paint may bother them.
How you can help: Help your child explain to the art teacher what’s causing stress. Brainstorm ways to ease into using materials. Ask the teacher if there are other ways to demonstrate learning. For example, maybe your child can use oil pastel crayons instead of paint to create a color wheel.
8. Circle time
The challenge: Sitting too close to other kids, keeping still, and participating in circle time games can be challenging for kids who don’t like being touched.
How you can help: Try giving your child small fidgets, like a stress ball. Some kids like sitting on their own carpet square — it creates a boundary that may put them at ease. The carpet might have a pleasing texture, too, so it meets both sensory input needs and a need for space. Check with the teacher first, however. If you’re worried about your child being singled out, ask if the teacher would be open to using squares for the whole class. You can try contacting a carpet store to see if they’d be willing to donate remnants.
9. Gym class
The challenge: Shrill whistles and echoing gyms can be tough for kids who are sensitive to sound. And since sensory processing issues can affect motor skills, activities that involve playing with a ball or running can be tricky.
How you can help: Your child could try wearing earplugs or headphones to block out loud noises. Talk to the gym teacher about this possibility. And ask the teacher to let you know about upcoming class activities. You might be able to prep your child by practicing certain skills at home. Or, if your child has an IEP, ask about adaptive physical education — a special class that pre-teaches skills in a small group setting.
10. Assemblies and school performances
The challenge: Your child may face lots of unfamiliar sensory information at events like these. There may be crowds, loud noises, and scratchy costumes — sometimes all at once.
How you can help: Talk with the school about creating a plan. Can your child sit near a door so it’s easy to take breaks or listen from the hallway? Can the school give you advance warning of assemblies so you can help your child prepare at home? Is there a place where your child can change clothes rather than wearing a costume all day?
11. Announcements and fire drills
The challenge: Unexpected loud noises like mic feedback or fire drills can cause some kids to panic. Other kids have trouble filtering out unimportant sounds. As a result, they may not be able to pay attention to classwork as closely as they should.
How you can help: Talk to the teacher about seating your child away from intercom speakers. It can help if the teacher uses a signal to warn your child about planned fire drills. So can providing a visual schedule of announcements so your child will be prepared for them.
12. Seeking out stimulation
The challenge: Some kids who need more sensory stimulation may suck or chew on shirt collars, sleeves, or pencils. That can draw unwanted attention from other kids.
How you can help: Invest in items your child can chew on. Some teachers allow kids to chew gum. You can also discuss adding chewing gum as an to your child’s or . Also, many companies make sensory-friendly pencil toppers or jewelry designed for kids who chew on things. Speak to the school’s occupational therapist for ideas on what might work for your child.
13. Overstimulation in general
The challenge: Managing sensory input all day at school can become overwhelming for some kids. They may shut down or have a sensory meltdown.
How you can help: Talk to your child’s teachers about how to tell a tantrum from a meltdown. Work out a plan together to help your child and the teacher recognize when things are starting to get overwhelming. Make sure it outlines what everybody should do when things reach that point. And ask the school to provide a quiet space where your child can go when overwhelmed.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.