Starting a new school year can be tough for any kid, but for children with sensory processing disorders, the transition presents unique difficulties because it disrupts the daily routines they established over the summer months. Luckily, preparation can help ease the stress and smooth the transition for families of children with sensory disorders.
“Students with sensory processing disorders typically struggle with adapting to change,” said Varleisha Gibbs OTD, OTR/L, director of doctoral projects and assistant professor of occupational therapy at University of the Sciences. “A new school year brings an abundance of changes, including new teachers and classmates, schedules and routines, classrooms and settings, as well as new demands and expectations in the classroom.”
Gibbs suggests the following tips and resources for everyone involved in this transition process, including students, parents, teachers and peers:
- Arrange a visit to the school before the first day.
Familiarize and reintroduce your child to the school setting by scheduling a visit with the teacher to tour the school before the first day. If possible, record videos and snap photos of areas in the school building such as the cafeteria, playground and classroom. These recordings will help your child become acclimated to the sounds and visions of these areas through repetitive viewing.
Get organized early. Coordinate your child’s private occupational therapy schedule with that of the school-based occupational therapy to avoid overlapping. Be proactive and reach out to the school ahead of time to share your child’s private therapy schedules, such as occupational therapy.
Prepare a sensory kit. There are varieties of fidget devices designed to grasp your child’s attention and focus, as well as to provide calming. Some include stress balls, moving seat cushions, chewing gum, music with headphones, and scented lotions and lip balms infused with lavender. These items are great to put into your child’s back pack during their transition period. To help prevent all students from feeling isolated in the classroom, teachers are also encouraged to provide different types of seating in their classrooms, including bean bag chairs, therapy balls, and using tennis balls on the ends of the students’ chairs.
Communicate with teachers. Not all children with sensory processing disorders are placed in special education programs. If you are a parent of a child with sensory needs, contact the school ahead of time to explain your situation, and receive permission to allow your child to chew gum in class, listen to headphones between classes, and while arriving and leaving school, or use any other calming tactic that might not be permitted in the building.
Tackle back to school clothes early. Have your child try on clothes, uniforms and shoes in advance to help pinpoint areas of discomfort. Cut off all tags, wash the clothing, and find undergarments – such as compression shirts – which help relieve your child’s irritability to the clothing.
Prepare yourself! A calm and collected parent is better able to help their child make a successful transition back to school. These steps will help relieve the back to school stress for the entire family.
Gibbs earned her BA in psychology from University of Delaware, MS in occupational therapy from Columbia University in the City of New York, and OTD from Thomas Jefferson University. She also co-authored “Raising Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders: A Week-by-Week Guide to Solving Everyday Sensory Issues.”