Are you homeschooling a child with sensory processing disorder, or considering making the leap? Children with sensory processing disorder respond very well to the homeschool environment. Homeschool mom Jackie Nunes offers 10 practical tips for making your sensory homeschool day rock.
Traditional classrooms can be a nightmare for children with sensory integration issues. The bright lights, noises, buzz of activity, crowds, smells, sounds, and plethora of things to look at can completely overwhelm them making it hard to function, let alone learn. Asking a child with sensory issues to sit still in a hard chair for hours on end is akin to torture.
If your child has trouble processing sensory input, you might have considered trying homeschooling. Learning at home can eliminate many problems for children with Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), but it requires careful planning to create a good experience for you and your child.
Here are some tips to create a learning environment that will match your child’s unique learning style and allow them to truly thrive.
Rethink the Seating Arrangement
Students in school have to sit at a desk to complete their schoolwork. Children who are homeschooled do not. In fact, for a child with sensory concerns, sitting in one spot can become painful at times. Allow your child the freedom to choose the way in which to sit or stand while completing academic work. Sometimes, a child with sensory concerns simply needs to move, hang upside down, or even bounce in order to focus well.
Allow and Encourage Movement
Let your child move while working. Children with sensory issues often build up anxious energy, and movement allows it out. These are the children who gnaw on their pencils and shirt collars, so give them some bubble gum to chew. These are the children who endlessly tap their pencils or feet, so give them a ball to sit on and bounce while working. The more movement you encourage, the more focused your child will likely be on the work at hand.
Have a Predictable Routine
Children who struggle with sensory input thrive on routine. Yes, one of the benefits of homeschooling is flexibility, but that does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t create a routine that you stick to fairly closely. Once you figure out the routine that will work best for your family, post it in your schooling area. Being able to refer back to the posted routine regularly will help your child each day get through the “to do” list of schooling. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some unpredictability. After all, that’s what homeschooling is all about! But do have some predictability to your day whenever possible.
Allow Built-in Breaks
A child with sensory concerns may not be able to work for hours on end. That’s OK. Build breaks into your routine. Work on a lesson for a while, then do some chores together. Never turn time into a power struggle, but find ways to put your child in charge of how long he or she spends on an activity. For example, if your child is balking at spending 20 minutes on a math page, hand him a set of dice. Rolling the dice will determine how many minutes he spends on the page before a break. Yes, this may mean he has to come back to the page later to finish, but by giving him the control and leaving the outcome to chance, you eliminate the power struggle.
Children with sensory issues are easily distracted. A small sound that you may not even notice can drive these kids crazy and make it impossible to concentrate. You will need to find ways to eliminate these types of distractions. For some kids, noise-canceling headphones are a must when concentrating. For others, working in a space where your other children are not working is important. Some children are easily distracted by visual input, so created a dedicated classroom space where you can close the windows and keep the television off. You will have to find what works best for your child in these instances, and structure the learning environment to eliminate distractions as much as possible.
Be Aware of Smells
For people with sensory issues, the sense of smell is often heightened. This can lead to sensory meltdowns and sensory overload with something as simple as a scented candle or spray air freshener. Be aware of how smells can affect your child, and avoid strong smells during schooling hours. On the flip side, some smells, like lemon and lavender, can help calm your child during stressful periods, so consider using this to your advantage. If smells seem to trigger periods of stress or poor focus, consider using nose plugs to help block smells.
There are a lot of school-based resources that you lose access to when you decide to homeschool your child. You may not have art and music equipment, sports facilities, a full-time school nurse, or trained education professionals. However, there are ways to compensate for a lot of that if you are willing to do some research and enlist help. After-school enrichment programs might be able to replace some of the arts and sports opportunities. You can take an online CPR class to help you deal with emergencies confidently. You might be able to get speech, occupational, or physical therapy through your school district, state education department, or health insurance. If there are subjects you don’t feel qualified to teach, you can partner with other homeschooling families or hire a tutor.
Find Ways to Stimulate the Senses in a Positive Way
Children with sensory concerns are often tactile learners. They learn best when they are touching and feeling things, so work sensory play into your learning environment. When children are young, have them not just learn to write letters, but also trace them in sand or beans, glue string into the shape of the letter to trace with the finger, and even trace letters in shaving cream on a tray, if the feeling of the cream is acceptable to your child. Create sensory bins and stock up on essential craft supplies. As children get older, get creative to find ways to incorporate sensory experiences into the learning environment. This will help your child retain information better.
Exercise Is Critical
Children who crave sensory input need to exercise. Exercise is more than just something to check off of their curriculum “to do” list. It is a critical part of their well-being. Also, don’t let circumstances that keep you indoors prevent exercise. You must find ways to exercise indoors and do it daily. A rebounder indoor trampoline is a great way to do this.
Why is exercise so critical? Not only does it help release some of the energy that seems to be tied to sensory concerns, but it also awakens sensory processing. In one study, mice were found to have increased visual perception while running, and researchers surmise that exercise also awakens sensory processing in humans. In other words, with exercise, your child will be able to learn more effectively.
Accept the Challenge
Finally, as a homeschooling parent, you must accept the way your child is wired. Children with sensory issues may not learn like other kids, but they are beautiful souls who are more than capable of achieving great things. All it takes is a little tweaking of the learning environment – something that you have the freedom to do as a homeschooling parent – to allow these children to thrive and exceed every expectation you have for them.
A few final thoughts
Whether homeschooling is something you’re already doing, or it’s a journey you’re considering, know that you aren’t alone. One study found that one in 20 children has sensory processing challenges. Controlling the stimuli that your sensory-sensitive child finds overwhelming is the first step in helping them learn and grow. You can work with an occupational therapist to create a “sensory diet” and work on sensory integration. Over time, you should see fewer meltdowns and less frustration. Homeschooling a child with sensory processing issues is a lot of work, but can be extremely rewarding for both of you.
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.
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