For the child who needs and seeks out movement, being in a classroom can often be a struggle. The expectation to be able to sit still, attend and learn starts in kindergarten, if not before. Most classroom environments do not support children’s sensory-motor needs. Many children under register proprioceptive and/or vestibular input and need movement in order to be able to attend. Without a sensory diet or program in place to meet their needs, their ability to learn is compromised and they often find themselves in trouble. Each child’s needs are a little different. The challenge for parents (and teachers) is to become a detective and understand what works to help your child be focused and attentive in school.
1. Optimize the foundations of sleeping and eating: All children, but especially children with self-regulation challenges are impacted by the amount and quality of sleep they are receiving and the food they are eating. Work with your child’s pediatrician and/or occupational therapist to help address these concerns as needed. Be sure that your child’s breakfast includes both protein and complex carbohydrate to give them the focused energy they need for school.
2. Provide sensory input that is organizing for your child in the morning before school: Engaging in physical activity before school will provide much needed sensory input and physical release that will help your child be calmer and more focused in the classroom. This could include jumping on a trampoline or hoppitty ball; going for a bike ride; swinging; or playing catch with a weighted ball, among others. Try taking your child to school early so that he or she can climb on the playground for 20-30 minutes before school starts. One family took their daughter ice-skating each morning for an hour before school started and as a result were able to eliminate the use of stimulant medication. If your child is doing a listening program, make that part of their before school routine.
3. Adapt the child’s classroom environment:
- Provide a wiggle cushion to sit on.
- Use a weighted snake or lap buddy around shoulders or on lap.
- Place a piece of Velcro (usually the rough side) on the underside of the desk/table for your child to run fingers over.
- Tie theraband around the two front legs of child’s chair or desk, to provide proprioceptive input to legs.
- Provide a non-distracting fidget, such as a small squeeze ball, that can be kept in desk or pocket for your child to hold when needing to pay attention.
- Encourage the teacher to let your child stand for some work.
4. Provide sensory breaks in the classroom: Movement breaks can be individual or designed for the entire class, however often a combination works best.
- Useful during transitions or to break up long stretches of focused work, movement breaks are helpful for the entire class. Activities such as jumping jacks, wall or desk push-ups, or marches take only a minute or two, providing sensorimotor input that benefits everyone. Diane Henry’s book Tool Chest for Teachers, Parents, & Students: A Handbook to Facilitate Self-Regulation is a quick and easy reference for classroom teachers.
- For the individual child, helping around the classroom: moving furniture; stacking/unstacking chairs; erasing the board; carrying P.E. equipment or a box of books or papers can provide needed movement breaks.
- Have a ‘heavy work’ center in the classroom. This could include:
- Tire or rock washing
- Take-apart ( use old electronics for children to disassemble using screw-drivers, pliers, hammers)
5. Develop an after school sensory diet program: Your child has done the best they can to regulate their behavior during the long school day. After school they typically need to engage in physical activity for at least 30-60 minutes. This can be a combination of organized activities like gymnastics or Tae kwon Do; outings for swimming, playground, or places offering climbing and/or jumping and home based activities.
Employing sensory strategies can make a significant difference in the ability of some children to be able to successfully cope with the demands of school. Remember that every child’s needs are different, so that what works well for one child might not work well for another. Also, children’s needs can vary significantly from day to day. If your child is working with an occupational therapist, they can be instrumental in establishing a sensory support program that will be effective for your child.