With kids heading back to school, it’s a good time for parents to think about making the transition as smooth as possible for children with sensory processing issues. In fact, many of these strategies apply to all children. Begin by discussing what the upcoming changes will be with your child. Involve them in the process; make buying a new lunch box or shopping for back-to-school supplies exciting. You can also start adjusting their routine back to a more structured “school-year schedule:” going to bed earlier, waking up earlier, etc. Depending on how much your child’s routines differ from summer to fall, they may have difficulty separating from parents or caregivers. If possible, start to prepare them for this adjustment gradually, so that the transition is easier.
Here are some sensory strategies for back-to-school that may help your child be more organized and prepared. Always consult your child’s occupational therapist with any questions:
- As part of your back-to-school preparation, get a good quality backpack that your child likes and is excited to carry. On the way to school, have your child carry it with some heavier items inside. A bag of rice often works well, but it depends on your child’s age. Talk with your occupational therapist for some ideas. The extra weight over your child’s shoulders and on their back will help them feel more grounded, similar to the effect that a weighted vest may have.
- Give your child some calming input before school by giving a firm massage. You could ask your occupational therapist about using brushing protocol and joint compressions prior to getting dressed. Another idea is to make a “sandwich,” by pressing your child’s body gently but firmly between two pillows. Be careful not to cover their face or head. You can also have your child lie on his or her tummy and roll a large ball over his or her legs, arms, and trunk like you were rolling out dough. Adjust the pressure to your child’s tolerance and make sure they are enjoying it.
- Allow your child to get increased opportunities for “heavy work” activities, including pushing, pulling, climbing stairs, and jumping. Try to get to the playground for 15 or 20 minutes before school for some intense movement using both arms and legs. Allowing your child to run, climb, jump, and play first thing in the morning may help him or her be more attentive and organized in the classroom.
- If possible, have you child walk part or all the way to school. Get off the bus a stop or two earlier and walk the rest of the way. If the weather is bad or this is not an option, you can do some calming heavy work activities at home. Suggestions include wheelbarrow walking, practicing some yoga poses, jumping jacks, sit-ups, bear walking or crawling over cushions or pillows. If your child has a younger sibling, let him or her help you push the stroller.
- Try to anticipate when your child may need to use a sensory strategy so you can be prepared. For example, riding on a crowded bus or train can be overwhelming for a child with sensory issues. Pack some fidget toys, like a piece of putty with some beads hidden inside or another type of toy your child can squeeze. Playing some calming music on an iPod may work well too.
- Provide snacks for your child that will help meet his or her sensory needs. For example, a child who seeks a lot of movement may like to eat foods like a chewy bagel or a piece of fruit leather on the way to school. Many children find crunchy foods such as pretzels, goldfish, crackers, or carrot sticks calming.
Keep in mind that you may need to try a few things and figure out what works best. If your child is averse to any of these, try something else, never force anything. Your occupational therapist will be happy to strategize with you, and together you can develop a sensory diet to get the school year off to a great start!