13 Ways to Help Grade-Schoolers With Sensory Processing Issues Handle School Challenges

By Amanda Morin
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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 with your child and his 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 him 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 he can use when he needs a break. If the noise is still too much, ask if he can start out attending class for a short period of time, and then stay longer as his tolerance increases.

3. Recess

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 to him about what he does at recess. Ask him what’s hard, what he likes, and why. Ask his teachers what they’ve noticed, too. Then work with your child to think of ways to make recess a better experience. Maybe he can play running games instead of swinging. Or he 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 in the classroom.

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, he can fold his paper to show only one row of math problems at a time.

5. Writing

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 to help him feel where he’s writing, too. Keep in mind that either you or the teacher will have to show him how to use these tools.

6. Lunchtime

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 his school on solutions. For example, maybe there’s a less crowded area of the lunchroom where your child and a few friends could eat. Or if he can’t stand the smell of peanut butter, maybe he can 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 him stress. Brainstorm ways to ease him into using materials he’s uncomfortable with. Ask the teacher if there are other ways your child can show what he’s learning. For example, maybe he 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. Or consider getting your child a carpet square so he can have his own space to sit in. The square creates a boundary that may put him at ease. Plus, he might like touching the carpet’s texture. This way his needs for sensory input and for space are both met. Check with the teacher first, however. If you’re worried about your child being singled out, ask the teacher if she’d 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 he 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 sensory information he’s not used to at events like these. He has to cope with crowds, loud noises and scratchy costumes—sometimes all at once.

How you can help: Talk with your child’s school about creating a plan. Can he sit near a door so he can take breaks or listen from the hallway? Can the school give you advance warning of assemblies so you can help him prepare at home? Is there a place where he can change so he’s not wearing his costume all day long?

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 your child’s teacher about seating him away from the intercom speakers. It can help if the teacher uses a signal with your child to warn him about planned fire drills. So can providing a visual schedule of announcements so he’s prepared for them.

12. Seeking Out Stimulation

The challenge: Some “sensory seeking” kids 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 accommodation to your child’s IEP or 504 plan. 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 his teacher recognize when he’s starting to get overwhelmed. 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 he’s overwhelmed.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

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