For a child with sensory processing disorder, the world can be an overwhelming place. According to the STAR Institute, as many as one in 20 children has sensory processing issues, meaning their nervous systems don’t respond appropriately to information received through the senses. These difficulties can cause children to overreact to minor stimuli, or not feel or notice stimuli that others do.
School can be especially challenging for children with sensory processing disorder. Noises, activity, smells, and even lighting can overwhelm the senses and create sensations, including physical pain, that make it difficult to concentrate and focus.
No matter how organized and “in control” a teacher is, there is a level of noise and potential chaos that is always going to occur in the classroom. Even just the typical sound of other students or the smells of classroom supplies can quickly overwhelm.
So what is the solution? For many families, homeschooling is the answer.
Tips for success if you are homeschooling
It’s not a cure-all, but homeschooling enables you to create a controlled learning environment that works with your child’s differences, rather than against them. If you are thinking of teaching your child at home and know that they struggle with sensory issues, here are some tips to make the journey easier for both of you.
Create a dedicated learning zone
Distractions, whether they are sounds, sights or scents, are a problem for children with this particular special need. The best way to eliminate them is to set up a classroom space in your home that is dedicated to learning.
Ideally, it should be away from the busiest part of the home, but even then, you might have to deal with distractions. Think outside the box to address sensory concerns. If the neighbor mows his lawn on a particular day each week, try noise-canceling headphones. If the smell of dinner cooking is a problem, you might need to even think about nose plugs. Consider setting up a small, cozy space that your child can retreat to whenever she starts to feel overwhelmed by sensory input.
Have a regular schedule
Children with sensory processing disorder are often easily distracted. A clearly set schedule can help them thrive. Set a schedule, then provide visual cues somewhere in your home that will allow them to know what to expect next on the agenda. As an added bonus, having a visual schedule set out for your child will help him take more control over his own learning, which is one of the additional perks to homeschooling
Find an outlet for pent-up Energy
Many children with sensory processing disorder also have high levels of energy. The neurological traffic jam that occurs from the input they receive can cause frustration, anxiety, and nervous energy. They need an outlet for that energy. Some children with this condition find that their bodies constantly crave motion. In a traditional school, these are the children that seem to be tapping their pencils or feet constantly. Homeschooling gives you the freedom to create a learning environment where children can move when they need to. Some options you can try in the homeschool environment include:
- Sitting on a large ball instead of a chair
- Chewing bubblegum
- Standing to do work instead of sitting
- Frequent breaks for exercise
The more a child with sensory issues is able to move, the better he or she may be able to focus on school work when needed.
Be cautious with hands-on experiences
Each child with sensory processing disorder is unique, but parents often find that certain textures are difficult to handle. If your curriculum is calling for science experiments or art projects that involve using these textures, be cautious. Find ways around it when needed, such as using gloves to handle messy or gritty materials. This will allow your child to experience the learning activity without any unwanted side effects. There are lots of craft supplies including pipe cleaners and washi that are not particularly messy or squishy.
Focus on helping, not fixing, your child
Those who see the world in brighter, more vibrant colors or who are extra sensitive to things around them often grow up to be sensitive, caring, artistic adults.
There are frustrations that can develop when schooling a child with sensory processing issues. Your child may have to wash hands regularly while working on art projects. He may not be able to do her work in your “designated school room” because of an odor that you cannot smell. He may need absolute silence to study math.While accepting the child for who he is, aim to find the best way to teach him to excel in spite of his unique challenges. Focus on the positive rather than the struggle.
Expect over-the-top reactions from others
Unfortunately, children with a sensory processing disorder may react strongly to sensory input that you find minimal. This is part of the condition. Expect and accept it. If you find something that your child reacts strongly to and it is not an absolute necessity, put it aside. You don’t need to do that science experiment in person for your child to learn the basic concept. Find a video to watch instead. The beauty of homeschooling is the fact that you have the freedom to make these types of changes to create a learning environment where your child can thrive.
Be prepared for home emergencies
Everyone should have basic safety supplies and be prepared for emergencies. But for children who are anxious or fearful, knowing that their family is safe can be especially reassuring. Make sure your home has smoke detectors in every room and fire extinguishers in the kitchen and garage. You should have a well-stocked first aid kit. It’s also a good idea to get CPR training. The calmer and more confident you are about your ability to handle an emergency, the less your child will have to worry about
Is your child struggling to focus while sitting at the table or desk? Consider allowing him to stand. Does he do better reading while hanging upside down or running in place? Then, by all means, allow this alternative. Remember, the goal is for your child to learn the material, not conform to society’s idea of what “school” should look like.
For children affected by sensory processing issues, homeschooling can be a breath of fresh air. If you are a parent who is considering this route as the best option to help your child thrive, I hope these tips will make your homeschool environment one that will give your child the best chance at success.
Jackie Nunes is a blogger at WonderMoms.org. She is a former pediatric nurse and now a full-time homeschool educator. She and her husband have three children. Their middle child suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4; now 11 years old, she is hearing impaired and uses a wheelchair. Jackie and two other moms created Wonder Moms as a project to share real talk, helpful information, and practical advice with parents of kids who have intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, language and speech delays, deafness, chronic illness, and traumatic brain injury.