It’s that time of year again: Summer is not even over, but it’s time for the kids to get their school supplies and prepare their minds for classroom learning. Many school children struggle to sustain attention through the school day, organize their bodies and minds, and transition smoothly for a wide variety of social and academic challenges.
As occupational therapists, we are tasked with assessing the sensory needs of the children we work with, and providing the proper sensory support for caregivers to help children manage the demands of daily tasks and environments. Finding sensory strategies for school can be a unique challenge: How much time teachers can allocate to support each student’s sensory needs? Can a student can use a strategy without it being a distraction to themselves or others? (think fidget spinners)
Occupational therapist are experts at navigating these challenges and communicating with caregivers and teachers. Here are a few examples of some of the more popular (and effective) classroom sensory tools:
Fidgets are one of the most common tools, but also one of the most difficult to select appropriately. A fidget is something that can be manipulated in-hand while focusing attention on something else. Just about anything that fits into the palm of your hand can be a fidget. There are fancy ones sold in stores, or very simple ones, such as a piece of velcro. As long as it is not a distraction to the child or other children, a fidget can be effective.
Chew tubes and necklaces are common oral motor supports, and are much preferred to chewing a sleeve or pencil. Some children respond really well to having something to blow or suck on, such as a straw, or blowing bubbles during a break.
Many children need extra sensory input to their body while they sit. As an alternative to crashing on the ground or wiggling wildly in their seat, both of which are quite distracting, there are two choices: One is placing an elastic band around the base of the chair. This helps children stretch their feet while they sit. The other option is a “wiggle seat” or “bumpy cushion”: An inflatable disc that can rest on the chair. This provides extra sensory input in the chair without the child needing to move their body drastically.
Opportunities for movement at intervals through day are important for any child, especially children in kindergarten and younger. Classrooms should be accommodating movement breaks to support children in improving their classroom performance. Some examples of movement breaks include animal walks (e.g: “frog jumps” and “bear walks”), wall pushes, trampoline jumps, and just about any outdoor play
Each child learns differently, and some require specific changes to their environment that take into account their sensory profile. Some examples include visual schedules, sitting at the front of the class, or having a partition on the desk to avoid visual distraction during work.
Remember, an occupational therapist can help figure out what your child’s sensory needs may be, and find the right tools to support your child at school.
Wishing everyone a great school year. As my grandmother used to say, “Have fun, but learn something!”
Blog post written by: Andrew Klein, MS, OTR/L