10 ways to help grade-schoolers manage sensory processing challenges

Learn about the sensory challenges school can bring. Get tips to help your child navigate classes, recess, lunchtime, and more.

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Bob Cunningham, EdM

Going to school is exciting. It can also be overwhelming for kids who have trouble managing everything their senses take in. The sounds, smells, and sensations can be too much to handle.

Here are some of the sensory processing challenges your child may face, and strategies that can help.

1. Staying still

Kids with sensory processing challenges may have trouble sitting still. They may fidget with objects, rock their chairs, or kick nearby desks.

Some kids may benefit from using a stretchy exercise band around chair legs to push against. Sitting on a bumpy cushion or a stability ball can also be helpful. Ask your child’s service providers for other suggestions. And have someone show your child how to properly use these items to avoid problems for others in the class.

2. Music class

When kids are sensitive to sound, it can make the noises of music class, band, and chorus hard to manage.

Explain to the teacher that your child may need to use noise-canceling headphones or earplugs during class. Ask if your child can sit near the door. Work out a signal your child can use if needing a break.

If the noise is still too much, ask if your child can start out attending only part of the class, and work up to longer sessions.

3. Recess

Sensory processing challenges can cause trouble with motor skills. Kids may struggle with balance or knowing where their bodies are in relation to others. They might play too rough or be uncomfortable on playground equipment like swings.

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 instead of swinging, for instance. Or putting in some practice time using playground equipment before or after school.

4. Writing

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.

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.

5. Lunchtime

Crowded tables. Kids talking all at once. And that lunchroom smell. There’s a lot going on in the lunchroom. It can be too much for some kids with sensory processing challenges.

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.

6. Art class

For kids who are sensitive to textures or smells, art class can be stressful. Messy hands, the texture of art supplies, and the odor of paint may bother them.

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 show their learning. For example, maybe your child can use oil pastel crayons instead of paint to create a color wheel.

7. Gym class

Shrill whistles and noisy gyms can be challenging for sound-sensitive kids. And when children struggle with motor skills, activities like playing with a ball or running can be difficult.

Using earplugs or headphones can minimize loud noises. This is one option you can discuss with the gym teacher. You can also request updates on upcoming class activities. That way you might be able to practice relevant skills at home to help prepare your child. Or, if your child has an IEP, ask about adaptive physical education — a class that pre-teaches skills in a small group setting.

8. Assemblies and school performances

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.

Talk with the school to create a plan that factors in your child’s needs. Arrange for your child to sit near a door. Ask for advance notice of assemblies. And find out if there’s a place for your child to change clothes after the performance.

9. Announcements and fire drills

Unexpected loud noises like mic feedback or fire drills can cause some kids to panic. Other kids have trouble filtering out unimportant sounds. They may not be able to pay attention to classwork as closely as they should.

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.

10. Overstimulation in general

Managing sensory input all day at school can become too much for some kids. They may shut down or have a sensory meltdown.

Talk to your child’s teachers about how to tell a tantrum from a meltdown. Create a plan with your child and the teacher to identify triggers. Set up a clear action plan that has steps to take if your child is already overstimulated. And request a quiet space at school for your child during overwhelming moments.

Find more strategies you can try at home to support kids with sensory challenges.

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