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Sensory Overload at School: 6 Steps to a Smooth Transition for Your Child

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Mother kneeling down in front of daughter while preparing to school

As summer winds down and the back-to-school season approaches, parents are gearing up for the exciting yet sometimes nerve-wracking transition into school. If you have a child with sensory overload, this transition might seem even more challenging. I get it! But fear not! As a pediatric occupational therapist, parent of 5 and grandmother of 14, I'd like to share some simple yet effective strategies to help make your child's re-entry into school smooth and successful.

Understanding Sensory Overload

Kids with sensory overload experience the world too much! Noises are too loud, lights are too bright, textures are irritating, and/or smells are nauseating. This can make adapting to the noisy, crowded school environment overwhelming. However, with patience and planning, you can make this transition more manageable and positive.

1. Take It Step by Step

Introduce your child to the school environment gradually. Visit the school, explore the classroom, and let your child become comfortable with their surroundings.

2. Implement a Sensory Diet with your Occupational Therapist’s guidance

Think of a sensory diet as a personalized menu of activities and tools to serve your child's sensory needs. With activities to calm and organize their nervous systems, such as movement, compression, massage, and tactile play, children can better manage the overwhelming barrage of information. Include a sensory kit designed to provide your child with the tools they’ll need, such as fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, or stretchy bands.

3. Communicate openly

Establish open lines of communication with teachers and school staff about your child's sensory needs. Let them know your child’s sensory triggers and the coping mechanisms that work at home or were successful in camp. Work together to figure out how to implement effective strategies in the classroom.

4. Prioritize Comfortable Clothing

Choose soft, tagless clothing that you know your child will accept. Pack spare clothes in their school bag to ensure they always have comfortable options available.

5. Establish a Consistent Routine

A consistent daily routine offers stability for children with anxiety. Predictability helps reduce anxiety and prevents sensory overload, especially in unfamiliar situations. Practice the daily routine before school starts!

6. Encourage Self-Expression

Teach your child to express their needs and feelings. Equip them with simple phrases to use when they're feeling overwhelmed or need a break. We all incorporate feelings into our bodies; for example, "my heart is heavy or "I feel it in my gut," so ask them "where" it bothers them when they are in distress. Then address that body part and help it feel better. That makes the feeling more tangible and manageable and less mysterious and overwhelming.

Remember, the school transition is a journey, not a one-time event. Your child is unique, and what works for them may differ from other kids. At the beginning of the school year, your child’s teachers will need to be brought up to speed on how to best keep him well-regulated throughout the day. At the same time, they will be learning ALL of their students preferences and needs, so have patience and keep it simple! With your understanding and love, along with a set of strategies, you're paving the way for a positive and successful school experience.

Cheers to a school year filled with growth, discovery, and endless possibilities!

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