Sensory Regulation: How Schools and Parents Can Help
For children with sensory regulation problems, learning can present an added challenge. The ability to regulate the stimuli we experience on a moment by moment basis allows us to function naturally in the world. Students with sensory processing issues struggle with regulating environmental stimuli. This dysregulation can lead to sensory overload, which manifests as stress, distraction, and fatigue. Children who experience sensory dysregulation often struggle in school. Concentrating in an environment of moving visuals, and auditory and tactile sensations can be next to impossible.
Dysregulation may manifest in a number of different ways. Children who feel overstimulated may react in the following ways.
- Sensitivity to bright lights and noises
- Refusal to wear certain materials or pieces of clothing
- Avoidance of touch from others
- Trouble with transitions in activities or places
- Aversion to new foods
- Difficulty managing emotions
Others who struggle with under-stimulation may seek out more sensory experiences, such as the following.
- Not reacting to pain, heat, or cold as expected
- Trouble with coordination and balance
- Invading personal space or playing too roughly
- Seeking out tactile stimulation from people or objects, even if inappropriate.
- Not understanding their own strength
- Unable to sit still
- Crave high intensity activities/sensations such as banging into things, spinning, jumping, kicking, being thrown in the air, bear hugs
These behaviors may be construed as “negative”, or purposeful hyperactivity, when they may in fact be due to a sensory processing issue. Sensory processing issues may occur with other diagnoses, although not always. According to a 2009 study on sensory overload, “1 in every 6 children has sensory issues that make it hard to learn and function in school. While sensory processing issues are often seen in autistic children, they can also be found in those with ADHD, OCD and other developmental delays—or with no other diagnosis at all.”
Sensory dysregulation can also affect motor skills. Both proprioception (body awareness) and the vestibular awareness (balance and spatial orientation). Dysregulation with these senses can cause a child to be awkward or clumsy, shy away from everyday physical activities that require keen regulation to perform, or be in constant motion to get the stimulation they need. Dysregulation causes both avoidance and sensory-seeking behaviors, depending on the individual. Read more about sensory processing accommodations here.
Sensory regulation issues are not a result of lack of discipline or willpower, nor are they a sign of overreaction.
Children with sensory processing issues need strategies and accommodations both in school and at home to help them feel secure and at ease. Many benefit from occupational therapy using sensory integration techniques.
“Specific movement activities, resistive body work, and even brushing of the skin can help a child with sensory problems experience an optimal level of arousal and regulation. This, according to some OTs, can actually “rewire” the brain so that kids can appropriately integrate and respond to sensory input, allowing them to both make sense of and feel safer in the world.” (Child Mind Institute)
Sensory integration therapy works on balancing sensory input, strengthening spatial awareness, and creating a sensory plan for the home. Click here for details on sensory processing therapy.
A child’s IEP team needs to be onboard about accommodations to assist in sensory regulation. An evaluation from an occupational therapist is best to determine where a child’s areas of needs are, and to make professional recommendations. Accommodations can be as simple as avoiding clothing that bothers a child (e.g. turtlenecks, wool fibers, tight articles of clothing, tags, etc.), providing hearing protection (especially in noisy environments), protective eyewear such as tinted glasses, and sensory kits that include items that help them stay calm. Teachers must be informed about children’s sensory needs and what they can do in class to streamline a child’s sensory regulation techniques.
When it comes to accommodations, Child Mind Institute reminds parents and advocates:
“Kids with sensory issues may need accommodations of a different kind than schools are used to granting. For example, being allowed to chew gum, wear dark glasses, or use earplugs during class. You can also ask to be warned of potentially jarring school events, such as fire drills or surprise pep rallies, so you’ll have time to make sure your child is prepared. Be sure to include these accommodations in their IEP. That way if any confusion arises, you’ll have the documentation you need to advocate for your child.”
Accommodations aren’t just accessories they bring with them. Routines are exceptionally important in helping sensory kids feel secure. Child Mind Institute says:
“Kids with sensory issues do best when they know what to expect. Establishing consistent routines around school –getting up, breakfast, bus or car ride, afterschool routine—will help them feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed. You can also request that teachers request or officials give you a heads up if school schedules are changing so you can help your child adjust accordingly.”
Most children who struggle with sensory processing will need an IEP to make school manageable for them. An IEP team in this case would include the insight of an occupational therapist, as their goals and accommodations will be influenced mainly by a therapist’s recommendations.
When parents notice their child struggling with daily activities involving sensory processing, getting an Individual Education Evaluation (IEE) is the first place to start. IEPready provides comprehensive IEEs for students that can measure their sensory strengths and needs. IEPready also partners with advocates and attorneys to streamline the IEP process. Getting children the help they need in IEP meetings and in the classroom requires a current evaluation of a child’s abilities. If you are a parent or advocate looking for information about how IEPready can assist your child, fill out this form to be in touch. Together, we support children to feel secure and ready to learn.