Sensory Processing and Transitioning Back to School: What to Expect and How Parents Can Help
Jennifer W. Hector, MA, LMFT
Transitioning from a summer of open-ended play, sleeping in mornings, loose structure, lengths of time with family, down time, unstructured video game time and no homework can be extremely challenging for kids. The freedom to move about as little or as much as desired ends and becomes constrained at school, set to a prescribed environment of predominately sitting, listening and producing. The body-brain and its regulatory patterns must adapt to new levels of stimulation ranging from fluorescent lighting to noisy, loud cafeterias to confined classrooms full of kids with an array of visual and audible distractions. For some kids, the intense stimulation coupled with limited movement and predominantly sedentary work can lead to a host of behavioral, emotional, mental and physical issues.
Children contending with sensory processing issues have an especially challenging time adapting to this high stimulation environment. In their body-brain, the information taken in by their sensory system is processed in a disorganized manner that can lead to under or over responsive felt experience and corresponding behavior. Through repeated experience with over or under responsive sensory experiences, their brain wires to defend against excessive sensation or to take action to generate more sensation. Behavior patterns set in to assist the child’s nervous system in regulating their sensory experience to cope in their environment. Children naturally want to be at their best; when maladaptive behavior occurs particularly at school it is our cue that their skills to self-regulate and navigate the world need bolstering and for us to be detectives to find out what tools are needed.
During the back-to-school transition, our inner detectives can be on the look out for behaviors that can indicate sensory processing issues. For instance, increased meltdowns after school. Many children find ways to keep it together during the school day but combust when they get home. When confronted with the task of doing homework or chores, they become overwhelmed and may display tantrum behavior, high irritability and inability to focus or complete tasks. They are most likely fried after coping all day with sensory stressors that lead to mental, emotional and physical fatigue. In addition, another common issue is difficulty sleeping. Problems with self-regulation often lead to poor sleep patterns of not being able to get to sleep or sleep soundly making getting up and going in the morning extremely difficult. When they do get up, they may behave as if in a fog and/or be extremely grumpy and irritable.
Additional behaviors kids may exhibit:
– Increase in meltdowns
– Increase in irritability or anxiety
– Acting out or shutting down
– Increase in spacing out/day dreaming
– Increase in inattention
– Unable to complete tasks
– Increase in oppositional, defiant behavior
– Other behavioral issues in the classroom
Now that we can identify some behaviors that might point to sensory processing issues, what can parents and caregivers do about supporting kids in coping with the school experience and build life-long tools to promote self-regulation? A place to begin is in the area of transitions. Mastery in school and life has a lot to do with the ability to transition successfully from one activity to the next. Making things as predictable, clear and simple as possible is one way to support children. Giving plenty of warning, using visual cues such as visual schedules with pictures and visual timers that show the passage of time are some ways to bring more structure and predictability to transitions.
Other ways to help:
– Use simple visual steps with pictures or written steps to check off for getting ready in the AM; Time how long it takes in the morning so you can plan for the real time things take
– Minimize rushing (decrease fight or flight responses)
– Visual schedule (regular morning and night routine)
– Break down tasks into simple steps, physically modeling steps if child seems inattentive/unengaged; make like a game if possible (more fun!)
– Monitor nutrition making sure they get enough food during the day (include protein snacks and consistent meals)
-Sleep, sleep and more sleep (no electronics an hour or more before bed and a regular night routine)
– Increase physical outdoor activity after school (swinging, jumping, going upside down, at least an hour of outdoor time)
– Create a sensory retreat (pillow cave, tent, and noise cancelling headphones)
– Minimize after school activities and have a regular consistent schedule
– Deep pressure hugs
-Use concise, direct, simple language for giving directions and requests
– Calm yourself first before helping your child to calm down (self-regulation begins with you)
– Check your expectations of your child based on context and behavior exhibited;
Do expectations match child’s mental, emotional and physical abilities for the current situation?
Navigating the transition from summer back to school can be an overwhelming time, lots of excitement coupled with anxiety, generally a mixed bag for all. For kids challenged by sensory processing issues it can be daunting. The more we can support their body-brain in increasing self-regulation, the more success they will experience in school and in life.