When July turns to August every year my ‘Mum’ brain switches from summer to ‘back-to school’. As I was making my back-to school list today my mind wandered back to when my hypersensitive/over responsive oldest child was starting big-school or primary school. I can tell you, it was a worry for me! This was a child who had to be removed from crèche/nursery at the age of 2 for biting, kicking, hitting out and causing general mayhem. I had to move her to a private babysitter until preschool.
Through pre school year I wondered and worried what would happen when my child went to primary school. Nine years on I can say we survived! But as I write this I am thinking about all of you parents out there who are in the shoes today that I was in 9 years ago.
How many parents out there have the same worries about a sensory child that I did?
Here’s a little research I did.
An article published by the Journal of Child Psychology in 2009 looked at children with sensory over responsivity (SOR) and starting primary school. It says’’ in elementary school age the child encounters social contexts that are less predictable and tailored for their sensory needs thus the impact of individual reactivity(how the child reacts) becomes pronounced. The research showed up to one in 6 children entering primary or elementary school have sensory issues.
What does this mean?
I wish I had read this article 9 years ago; I would have realised that I was far from being the only parent with my worries! The above research is saying that for every 6 children going through the doors of crèche, preschool or primary school, one has sensory issues that may impact on their social skills (interacting with others) on their learning and even on their play. The child might seem destructive, inattentive and even be labelled with behavioural problems.
What’s the result? often it is anxiety for the child and parent plus frustration for the teacher and other children in the class who are trying to focus and learn.
At least 1 in 6 children have ‘sensory issues’.
Wow- can this be true? From my observations as a sensory educator teaching schools and parents all over Ireland and in different parts of the world I can definitely say yes. In fact many years have passed since the study above was completed and I fear that the in the present day-the number is even higher in socially deprived areas. I am thinking about the inner city Dublin school where I developed my BRAINCALM™ program and other programs. The ratio of children with various issues that impact on behaviour & learning entering primary school is as high as 1 in 2.
Many don’t just have sensory issues they; have other co-existing conditions such as dyspraxia & ADHD. In recent years when I have screened children starting my BRAINCALM™ pilot primary school, I have noted that half have SGO or was I call ‘something going on’. These SGO kids often struggle to learn, attend and behave. In other schools, even in rural or country schools, I am seeing at least 25% of pupils with SGO and sometimes more. It truly seems to be an epidemic of this era!
What are the sensory issues are being seen in young primary school children?
Over sensitive children can go into overload and this might lead to sensory meltdowns. This child may seem to have an excessive reaction to a normal sensory stimulation in comparison to his peers.
This child may:
- be overwhelmed by crowds of kids such as in yard
- look for a quiet place to escape noise
- squint or cover eyes in bright lights
- hate putting hands in sand or other textured materials
- complain of clothing being itchy and sometimes even remove items of clothing
- be a picky eater at lunch and complain of some smells making them feel sick in the lunch room
- startle easily or cry at loud or sudden noises
- get upset by change in routines and appear anxious and fearful
Sensory seeking child:
This child may appear to:
- be constantly touch objects in a class-room
- seek hugs and squeezes/deep pressure
- not be able to sit still; may squirm and fidget excessively
- rock excessively in a chair or spin in circles
- get easily distracted compared to their peers
- bump into tables chairs & toys
- be clumsy and uncoordinated
- shout out excessively
- not know his own strength even kick and scratch others
The Sloth-like Child
**Very often I see a mix of some of above issues in the same sensory child. I am VERY familiar with mixed sensory issues- I have 2 children who struggle with processing their senses.
Tips on preparing your sensory child for primary school:
Complete my BRAINCALM™ program with the child for 15 minutes a day at home in the weeks leading up to the start of primary school & even after starting school. In 80% of children who complete the BRAINCALM™ program we see a reduction in anxiety, an improvement in attention, behaviour & ability to learn. See www.brendacassidy.combraincalm/ for details. Ask your school if they run the BRAINCALM™ program and if so ask if your child can be included. Feel free to send this link to your school if they don’t already run it.www.brendacassidy.com/braincalm/
- In the weeks leading up to starting school have the child sit at their own small table and chair at home to colour in pictures and to do puzzles even if it is for a short amount of time every day.
- Arrange to bring your child to the school in advance on a day when there are no other children present. Let the child see what his classroom looks, sounds and smells like. Ask the teacher to allow him to sit on the chair at a table so he becomes familiar with it.
- If you have an Occupational Therapy or other therapy report for your child give it to the school principal well in advance of the child starting school. Some pre-schools have a ‘passport system’ where a booklet about your child goes with him from preschool to primary school. Give the school time to make preparation for your child. Remember he is likely to be one of at-least 4 or 5 other children! The school needs time in advance to make plans for your child plus all of the others. Also be aware that school staff may have had little or no training in the area of sensory issues so be prepared to help them by passing on as much of your knowledge as possible.
- If your child has highly sensitive hearing (covers ears and complains of loud noises being painful) consider asking the principal to allow the child hear the school bell during your quiet visit. This might give him time to get used to it! If the bell is loud or shrill the child may benefit from wearing ear defenders (noise blocking headphones) coming up to break times and home time.
- The school uniform: if your child will be wearing a uniform get him used to wearing items many weeks in advance. In a child with over sensitivity to touch it is highly likely that a shirt, tie, stiff jumper, new shoes & trousers with seams will bombard the child’s touch sensors. Make sure clothing is adapted as needed to be comfortable.
- Work on their little hands to make sure they are ready for big-school activities! Have the child play with sand, shaving foam, tubs of rice, water and play doh. I see hand weakness in many children starting school -whether they have sensory issues or not. I developed a simple video program called STRONG HANDS to help little hands hold crayons, cut & manage items in school successfully. ** See the ‘STRONG HANDS’ video program on www.brendacassidy.com
- Play, play, play! All children need an hour of rough and tumble play every day so that they have enough strength & sensory challenges to be able to function in the primary school environment. Bring your child to the play park at least 2 to 3 times a week for an hour at a time in preparation for big school. Swings and slides are great for developing sensory ‘body & space awareness’ & monkey bars are great for developing grip and arm strength.
- Ask teacher about movement breaks to alleviate a fidgeting/moving/squirming child. ‘Quiet zones’ or a tent at the back of the classroom for the over sensitive child is really essential to offer breaks. The over- sensitive child can be prone to becoming overwhelmed. Also talk to the principal or teacher about possible items that may help the child to concentrate-such as soft ear plugs (to block out excessive noise so the child can concentrate better) or a wobble cushion for a seeker ‘fidgeter’ to sit on.
- The Lunch Box: during the weeks prior to starting school try to get the child used to lunch time food and smells particularly if your child is over sensitive to tastes and smells. Think about making a Crunchy lunch box if your child is a ‘mouth sensory seeker’ with items such as hard pretzels crunchy apples carrots sticks and bread sticks may be a good option to help ‘feed the seeking’ and therefore help calm the child in preparation for the lesson after lunch.
These are just a few tips that I give to parents of preschool children during workshops I give on getting ready for big-school. Preparation in the months and weeks ahead is key. As is a good sleep routine is also vital.
Caution! If you are anxious and stressed coming up to take every step you can to be REGULATED & CALM yourself! The sensory child (especially those who are over or hyper sensitive) will absorb and possible mirror your anxiety.
Oh yes and like every other parent on big-school day 1…. remember to bring a packet of tissues!
** If you are a parent or guardian who suffers on-going anxiety get in touch with me- I can recommend practitioners who can help – contact me here.