Distractions surround children during the school day and it’s often much more than classmates talking. During the elementary school years, children’s sensory systems aren’t fully developed. Their central nervous systems are still maturing in terms of how they process information from the senses (sights, sounds, touches, etc.) and react to it in a behaviorally appropriate way. Children are better equipped to maintain attention to tasks, respond to what’s going on around them and engage in positive social interactions once their sensory processing skills are fully developed. Until then, sensory input is often likely to be distracting.
Over time and with positive sensory experiences most children’s sensory processing skills will mature, but until they reach that point there are many ways a child’s environment can be adapted to minimize sensory issues. Occupational therapist Katie DeWeerd from our Fredericksburg Therapy Center utilizes the following strategies to help children with diagnosed sensory processing difficulties more successfully engage in school and daily life. Based on specific sensory needs, these strategies can be used to help create a supportive sensory environment for any child. Consider these adaptations when creating a homework, study or school-day environment designed to best support a child’s ability to concentrate.
Adapting the environment for sensory defensiveness
Decreasing the sensory stimuli in the environment can help alleviate distractions for a child who is easily overwhelmed by sensory input.
Visual adaptations (child who gets overstimulated by visual stimuli)
- Decrease clutter near child’s desk area
- Simplify worksheets by removing extra pictures and using a larger font
- Create an enclosed cubicle from cardboard around child’s desk to block distractions
Auditory adaptations (child who becomes agitated or distracted by noise)
- Seat child near front of classroom
- Seat child away from the hum of the air conditioner/heating system
- Allow child to use noise reduction headphones/music during quiet work
- Prepare child ahead of time for unexpected noises (like the school bell or fire alarm)
Tactile adaptations (child who is bothered by touch)
- Modify messy hands-on projects
- Position child away from crowds
Adapting the environment for sensory seekers
It is not uncommon for children to seek out certain types of sensory input as their sensory processing systems are developing. Providing the child with enough input of the sensation they are seeking can decrease disruptive/inattentive behaviors.
Tactile seekers (child who fidgets and wiggles)
- Encourage teachers to allow child to use a distraction tool like a stress ball during quiet work or tests
- Have child hold a weighted ball or weighted stuffed animal during circle or group time
- Provide heavy work activities like stacking textbooks and erasing the board (giving muscles heavy work or deep pressure can help a child calm down and focus)
- Glue worksheets that require cutting to cardstock before child cuts them out (cutting cardstock also provides heavy muscle work that can be calming)
- Have child seated on a sit disc like an inflatable cushion when they’re at their desk and during circle or group time
- Encourage your child’s teacher to have the class get up and do quick five-minute exercise routines throughout the day or ask the teacher to build in this time specifically for your child
Oral seekers (child who chews on shirt, pencils/pens, etc.)
- Provide a chewy or crunchy snack two to three times a day
- Provide minty or sour hard candy that provides intense oral input
- Provide ice cold water or tart lemon water and have child drink through a thick waterbottle straw for intense oral input
Make sensory adaptations part of your family’s back-to-school prep and let your firsthand knowledge of your child’s behavior patterns guide you in selecting helpful strategies. (Note: If you think sensory difficulties are affecting your child’s ability to successfully get through the day, talk to your pediatrician or get a referral for an occupational therapy evaluation. An occupational therapist can further examine sensory processing and provide helpful treatment recommendations.)