School is Back in Session

It is the start of the 2021-2022 school year, and the students are settling back into the routine of school. With this new school year comes new experiences for our children – new peers, new teachers, new environment. For many of our sensory unique students, this transition back to school can be a difficult one.

The school environment can be overstimulating and overwhelming, with a wide range of stimuli that our students experience every day. From sounds in the classroom and halls, visuals on the walls, bright fluorescent lights, different smells in the classrooms and cafeteria, touch sensations from new clothes, peers bumping in line, sitting on different materials throughout the day, to new foods in the cafeteria. All this information being received is processed by our nervous system, which works to integrate and regulate the information together, in order to create appropriate responses to the specific input (whether that is to tell the body to act or to ignore the unimportant and non-threatening information). This process happens while the student is trying to stay focused on lessons and assignments, engage in appropriate social exchanges, and keep a calm arousal and emotional state to best participate in their environment. Our children who have difficulty with this process may be put into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. For our fighters, we see those who have emotional outbursts or tantrums. Our children who have a flight response may hide or elope. And those who freeze could get upset stomachs, be nervous, or appear disengaged.

These students may be observed to seek constant movement, fidget in their seats, or appear to be “jumping off the walls” as their sensory systems are dysregulated and trying to process all the information from the environment coming in. Others, may do well in school, keeping it all together until they get home where they have these similar behaviors or reactions. Common behaviors in children having difficulty regulating and responding to sensory stimuli at school include tantrums, anxiety/nervousness with going to school, difficulty interacting with peers, trouble maintaining emotional regulation throughout the day, limited social skills, appear impulsive, have big reactions to small problems, have poor compliance or direction following, and more.

As mentioned, it is not uncommon to see our sensory unique students having difficulty in school or seeming to be dysregulated once they get home. The transition back to school can be tough on them. Using strategies and routines could benefit these students in helping them find their groove back into the school year. This includes forming routines, utilizing sensory and calming strategies, implementing a daily sensory diet, and if needed modifying their school environment to best support their success at school.

Routines are important ways to give our children predictability in a very unpredictable world. Set a target bedtime, follow routines every night, participate in calming activities of warm bath/shower, dimmed lights, bedtime stories, or quiet play before bed. Avoid screen time and arousing activities (running, jumping, cold baths, bright lights throughout the house) 30-60 minutes before their set bedtime. Have a routine in the morning, with a healthy breakfast that will keep them energized and full until lunch or snack, morning affirmations to start the day with positivity, and implementing a sensory diet to prepare their nervous systems for the day (e.g., heavy work of jumping, animal walks, wall pushes, simple obstacle course, brushing, ball rolls). A routine after school could also be beneficial to reset the child’s sensory system and provide some regulating input before homework or chores (e.g., park time, riding bikes, family walk, backyard play, free play, etc.).

Another important thought to remember is that students who have difficulty regulating sensory input may not process and respond to feelings of hunger like their peers. Your child may simply need some extra nutrition and energy from a healthy lunch or snack to keep them going through the school day. Providing your child with crunchy food items could also provide some heavy work that helps organize a calm the sensory system. Also, make sure that your child is comfortable in their outfit, shoes, socks, and hairstyle for the day. A child that has tactile sensitivities may have difficulty ignoring the information they receive from their clothes throughout the day, keeping them distracted and uncomfortable.

Remember your child is unique and may have a different way of responding to the world around them. Behavior has a root cause and there may be many unseen factors that contribute to the behavior. Putting your “sensory goggles” on to identify possible stressors or irritants, as well as implementing routines and strategies into their daily lives, could help give them the supports they need to have a successful school year.

For more specific ideas that you could implement into your child’s routine, contact your therapist or reach out to our office for more information (281-480-5648). Our occupational therapists are trained in the sensory systems and are dedicated in working with our families to find strategies and routines that will best benefit your unique child.

Have a happy school year!

Sarah M. Grych, MOT, OTR/L

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