Difficulty paying attention in class or on homework. Fidgeting. Exhaustion at the end of the school day.
For some students, it's not willful misbehavior. For some children, it's a way of coping with sensory processing disorder. But learning skills to help the brain better process stimuli can make the difference in improving school success.
What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.
Sensory processing disorder, also known as SPD, exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses.
"Your body's just not taking in information from the senses properly, and your brain's not processing it the right way," said Brook Spenner, MS, OTR, SCCE, manager of rehab services at Franciscan Health Lafayette East. "It is often tied to other diagnoses like ADHD, autism spectrum, but it can be stand alone as well. We see it too with children that are struggling with mental health issues, anxiety, depression. Oftentimes we can work through some of those things with some sensory components and we'll see improvement in those things as well."
Sensory processing disorder can affect people in only one sense–for example, just touch or just sight or just movement–or in multiple senses.
One person with SPD may over-respond to touch sensation and find clothing, physical contact, other tactile sensory input to be unbearable and/or they may respond to visual or auditory or another sensory input. Another person might under-respond and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold or just may be slow to respond to sensation.
"Maybe your kid doesn't like the tags in the back of their shirts, or they get bothered by the seams in their socks," Spenner said. "It's something where you see them being overreactive with the stuff that the rest of us kind of just forget about."
So, what does this mean for children, especially school-aged children?
How Does Sensory Processing Disorder Affect Learning?
While sensory processing issues are not a learning disorder or official diagnosis, they can make it hard for children to succeed at school. A 2009 study found that 1 in every 6 children has sensory issues that make it hard to learn and function in school.
As your child grows older, you may find certain strategies more helpful in letting them process their school day.
Early School Years
The transition from a preschool or home setting to a structured school day is a time of big adjustment for children. A drop in unstructured activity, an increase in personalities to contend with in the classroom and a lengthy day can sometimes unveil challenges in sensory processing.
"Maybe they're having difficulty paying attention and they're not showing you the skills that you know that they have, or they're coming home and they're super tired, fatigued and grumpy," Spenner said. "Sometimes it's that shift in that kindergarten year where you see that things just don't seem right."
Middle School and High School
As students get older, they not only have demands of a more structured day, now they've got homework to lay onto it. Figuring out how to incorporate breaks into your child's school day is important.
"Breaks in their day to get them some of that movement or input that they need can help some students continue to show us the skills that we know that they have," said Spenner.
Spenner said that occupational therapists see many children around the ages of 12 and 13 for the first time for occupational therapy services because things seem "off." Occupational therapists can help young students establish a routine, establish some activities that will help the children and can help keep everything in check.
"Is it just that the demands on their body as a growing kid and again, that those sensory things were probably there underlying, but they had found ways to manage it and now just everything's ramped up," Spenner said. "Everybody's louder. You're on the screen more. Screen time isn't bad. It's just it's stressful and it can be overpowering to the system."
Strategies For The School Day
There is no medication to treat sensory processing issues, but there are strategies, as well as practical changes you and teachers can make at school to help your child feel and do better.
Where and what your child sits on throughout the day can have an impact on their sensory processing. "Balls are great or even small little cushions that you just put in a chair like this that allows you some wiggle room," Spenner said.
Spenner also suggests gum because a reason why children sometimes talk too much is because they need sensory input from their jaw.
"Gum is a great way to get movement in your jaw without getting movement throughout the rest of your body," said Spenner.
Building breaks during the day
Lunch time and recess can be chaotic, and Spenner suggests talking with your child's school for reasonable requests.
"The hard part is that as adults we get to do that. We get to choose those things. As a kid you don't get to do that necessarily, so we need to help them find that wiggle room to make some of those choices to keep themselves functional."
Building After-School Habits
Managing the school day is just one part of school success. Building healthy habits outside of school can make a difference in a child's ability to manage sensory inputs.
Plan for digital-free downtime
Allowing for downtime after the busy school day can provide a student with the needed break to recharge before homework, chores or after-school activities.
The downtime can be done on the car ride home from school, or even after getting home from school. During this break, there shouldn't be any distractions, including phones and tablets.
"Just turn everything off. When we do that, we allow the brain to kind of change states, to kind of get out of that unorganized kind of state to a calmer state, so that way you can be flexible and get back into that homework piece," said Spenner.
Set a plan
Another habit that Spenner suggested is to work with your student and teachers to make a weekly plan.
"If you've got a teacher that's willing to give you a plan for the week of what homework is, so that way you can kind of have some ability to say, 'You know what? Monday we're free, we're going to get a couple of extra things done. So, Tuesday, all you have to do is reading for the next day.'"
Build in family time
Children love one-on-one time with their family and Spenner suggests that we give our children this time and play and interact with them, because it is so motivating. Some examples of this are taking your pet for a family walk, playing catch or games.
Talk about behaviors
Children learn from our example. "Communicate with them the things that you need as an adult to kind of meet your sensory needs, because whether we have a disorder or not, we probably all have sensory needs," Spenner said. "Help them hear that and see how you manage it. Then after they are in the middle of a crisis or a meltdown, when you come back to that calm-down space, ask, 'I wonder if we would've done this if you would've really felt that way?' The more we can involve them and help them shape and make some of the choices, it will then make it more personal to them."
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