Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Creating a Back to School Plan for your Sensory Child

Back to school can be a difficult time, especially for a child with sensory needs.  I still can’t believe that my son Ben will be a first grader this year! 

When he was in PreK, I underestimated the challenges his sensory needs would bring to the classroom.  In kinder, I was more prepared for what his needs would be and scheduled a meeting with his teacher at the start of the year to discuss these challenges as well as his strengths. 

Now, as he enters first grade, we have had two years to learn about what works for him in the classroom and what doesn’t.  Ben has come a long way, and things that used to challenge him (cutting with scissors, transitioning from one task to another) aren’t as big of a deal. 

And so, as Ben gets ready to enter first grade, it’s time for me to sit down with his new teacher.  I am thrilled that Ben’s OT will also be joining the conversation this year.   

What follows is part of a packet that I will give Ben’s teacher when we meet later this week.   Of course, your child is different from mine, but hopefully this will give you a starting point when thinking about how to approach a similar conversation with your child’s teacher and make a plan for your own child.  Feel free to use any parts of this that apply to your child. 

Classroom Environment (Setting)

The ideal classroom for Ben is set up to minimize distractions and promote learning with…

-Clearly defined spaces/areas within the classroom
(i.e. stations/centers, carpet area, student work area, class library, etc). Ben does best when he clearly knows the function of each area and the “rules” for using it.  For example, if the center is closed, a small sign saying “closed” is more helpful than someone saying the area is off limits.

-Daily schedule is posted, referred to often, and consistently followed.
(Ben may need his personal copy of the schedule for his table area, though his teacher said he functioned fine without one last year.  He likes to know what is coming next- and how much time a task will take (“How many minutes until…?”)

-Predictable routines and procedures. 
If a schedule is going to change, Ben does best when he is giving a forewarning about it.  Of course, this is not always possible.

-Consistent rules and expectations
(Gives clarity on how to do things).  Ben is a rule follower and does best when the rules are clearly explained.  He wants to please and will be very remorseful if he thinks he let you down.  Be clear on your expectations for him up front- with visuals if possible- and make sure the task and demands are reasonable for him.  If so, he will be eager to carry out the task.

-Calm, organized environment with a reduction of visual distractions. 
Ben gets overwhelmed in a “busy” classroom.  He does best in a quiet space without a lot of stimulation.  His anxiety rises in a chaotic environment.

-Cool-down area for sensory breaks. 
It would be helpful to teach Ben to use a “I need a break” card to give you when he is feeling overwhelmed.  This will allow him to go to a “cool down” spot in the class.  Give him a few to use throughout the day so he can learn to self-regulate or teach him a signal to show you when he needs to take a break.  Ben needs lots of opportunities for movement throughout the day!  5 minute energizers and “brain breaks” work great for him!

-Calm lighting and a soothing environment during work time. 
Ben prefers quiet.  J


Ben works well with a teacher who…

-Is kind, firm, and consistent. 
Ben has a gentle disposition and usually a clear warning is all he needs.  Time outs work will for him- with talk after about why he was in time out and what to do differently next time.

-Is experienced…
Has some background in children with special needs (if possible)


-Is willing to learn and grow
Ben does best with a teacher who is the lead learner.  She is always open to new ideas and welcomes input from parents.  She seeks out professional development in order to grow and meet the needs of all her learners.

-Maintains clear and consistent expectations.

-Has clear and concise teaching points
This teacher keeps the lesson brief and to the point.  She isn’t the one doing most of the talking.  She uses visuals along with verbal directions.   She uses nonverbal cues to remind Ben of the rules and expectations.  Coming up with a “secret signal” works well for him.

-Is calm
She does not get “ruffled” easily.   She recognizes that all behavior is communication and does not take student behaviors personally.

-Holds kids accountable academically and behaviorally.  
Students know exactly what to expect. There is no “gray” area.

-Has high expectations…
but also differentiates for the needs of all learners.  She recognizes the difference between having high expectations and making the work too hard for the child.  She recognizes the value of adding supports for her students so that they can access the material and succeed.  She knows what is developmentally appropriate for the ages and stages of her learners.

Additional Supports

-Another consideration is how to integrate all of the support teachers (speech, OT, paras, etc) into the structures for the day.  These key members of the team need to coordinate schedules effectively.  Ideally, they offer supports within the classroom and provide techniques that can be utilized throughout the day, not just when they are in the class providing services.

-When “Big Events” occur at school, sensory strategies are provided during and after
*Ben gets very excited during these events.  Keep in mind it will take Ben time to “come down” after the event ends.  The more stimulating the event, the longer it will take him to return to a calm state for learning.  Doing some heavy work tasks after the event will help.  The OT can help with this.

Ben’s Needs

Ben’s brain has difficulty taking in all of the sensory input from around him (visual, auditory, etc) and keeping himself calm and regulated.   This makes his behavior appear to be unpredictable and he may seem to be frustrated at the tiniest of things.   He also may seem to be calm one moment but agitated the next.  Without sensory strategies in place, he has difficulty maintaining a calm state where he is ready to learn.

Strategies that help Ben:
-Predictability is calming to him.  When he is unsure of what’s coming next, he becomes anxious.  This is why visual schedules and consistent routines are helpful.
-When Ben starts becoming anxious, he needs sensory strategies BEFORE he melts down.  He needs to be taught techniques to help him self-calm.  Ben has told me that he prefers a big hug when he is feeling anxious.

-Sensory techniques (see below) are very effective for Ben, but they must be repeated every few hours as they “wear off”.  These techniques allow him to be able to relax, focus, and learn.  Activities involving pushing, pulling, lifting, and carrying are best.
*Heavy work tasks help bring calm and stability (i.e. carrying a note to another class with a heavy backpack, wall push-ups, squeeze ball, bear crawl, kneading Play-Doh, weighted vest during class, wiping tables, etc)
*Stimulating the vestibular system also helps (swinging, jumping on trampoline, monkey bars, running, rocking chair, spinning around…)


Emotional Regulation-
When Ben becomes frustrated, overwhelmed, or upset, he will sometimes cry.  Again, this may seem to be for “little problems” that happen, such as if he were to spill a box of crayons, lose a favorite pencil, or be picked last to get a drink of water.

Strategies that help Ben:
-Explaining a task clearly, telling Ben exactly what is expected of him, and providing a visual example.

- “If…then…” statements work well for him
(Example:  “If you finish this page of work, then you can get a drink”)

-Rewards and motivators (sticker charts) also work well for him.

-Social stories (talking through what is going to happen) help him to stay calm and anticipate a change to his routine.

-Waiting his turn is hard for Ben.  Using “Wait cards” or other visual cues are very helpful.  He also has difficulty being at the end of the line (He’s a “Z” in the alphabet and is usually last to do pretty much everything.)

-Consequences are effective if they are given immediately and connect to the situation.  Restitution works well (cleaning up a spill, etc).  Explain to Ben exactly what to do next time in the situation so the incident has less likelihood of being repeated.  It helps to read social stories and act out appropriate responses also.

-If Ben is overwhelmed, he needs time to cool down.  If he is pushed to “work through” these emotions, he will become more stressed and anxious, and his behaviors will escalate.  Reducing the demands and placing him in a calm environment will help his body and brain to “reset”.

Ben may appear unfocused in class.  This could be due to a wide variety of causes.  Because he has a hard time filtering out extraneous sensory information, he can be distracted by background sounds/visual information around him.  However, he often recalls details even when he does not appear to be listening because he processes information differently than most learners.  Make sure to have Ben’s full attention before giving him directions.  Having him repeat back the steps is also helpful.


Social Skills-
Ben is working on his peer interaction skills.  He made so many friends in kindergarten and loves his friends!  He does need help knowing how to initiate interactions with peers and will need encouragement to “stay with” his friends. Ben has a strong vocabulary but has difficulty with the pragmatic (social) aspect of language. 

Strategies that help Ben:
-Practicing how to initiate and take turns during conversations
-Playing games or doing collaborative group activities where everyone has a role (Ben loves board games and is very good at Monopoly, Sorry, etc)
-Encouraging peer interaction, especially during non-academic times such as specials, lunch, recess, etc.
-How to use language to talk through problems when difficulties arise with friends


I hope this list helps spark ideas of ways you can open conversations with your child’s teacher and his support team.  Schedule a time to talk to your child’s teacher when you can talk uninterrupted by distractions.  Back-to-school night is not ideal for this sort of conversation!

In my experience, keeping open, positive communication with a spirit of helping each other to help your child yields the best results.  Remember- you know your child best, but also that your child may present different behaviors at school than he does at home.  Hearing from everyone who works with your child should help provide different perspectives that will help to create strategies that will best meet your child’s needs.   Good luck!
Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!


  1. Wow - incredibly thorough!
    Thanks - and good luck,

    1. Thorough...me...never! ;)
      Thanks and I hope your kiddos have a great start to their school years also!

  2. Great post! I like all the suggestions... especially the schedule. I have found that when a teacher thinks a certain thing isn't needed (when we as parents think otherwise) it is something that builds up--what I mean is, he may be fine without a schedule when everything else is calm and in order, but when things go a little more chaotic the schedule is a God-send. Without it, the stress of not having it and the extra energy spent coping without it builds up and then other things become bigger problems than they would have been.

    1. So true! We talked about this very thing today. Ben's OT was explaining that he can do many tasks (especially fine motor ones) in a low-stress environment, but add in stress, and suddenly has a much harder time. This is true for all of us. She compared it to us if we were to thread a needle under pressure vs at our own pace. And I agree- those structures help support even if he doesn't always need them.

  3. A lot of helpful information here, tools and strategies. Thanks for making this conversation starter with ideas that can be applied. Wonderful resource.

  4. A really great list, and I have no doubt that other students of your child's teacher will benefit from many of these things too. Good luck in your new school year!!

    1. Thank you! It was exciting to hear Ben's teacher talking to the parents at Open House about implementing these strategies (and more) with all the kids!


Please add a comment here.