sensory strategies for elementary school

Sensory Strategies for the Elementary School Classroom

CME WebsitesChild Development, Early School Age

With summer halfway over, perhaps you’re already thinking about Back to School shopping.  In addition to the exciting preparations, you may also be thinking, “How will my child behave in the classroom?  Does his sensory system allow for him to focus on the teacher’s lessons, engage in classroom activities, and attend to tasks?”

Children with sensory processing disorder face unique challenges in the classroom.  At this point in your child’s development, you may have mastered providing sensory activities at home to help with his ability to focus, attend, and engage with others.  However, what are some sensory strategies that may be incorporated rather easily into the educational setting?

Heavy work activities, for the body or the mouth, can help children with low and high energy levels.  Here are some ideas of heavy work that can be used in the class and lunchroom:

  • Allow use of a water bottle for sucking through a straw or access to gum
  • Lunchtime ideas – chewy (bagels, licorice, fruit snacks) and/or crunchy (pretzels, carrots, apples, popcorn), and/or sucking through a straw (juice box with small straw, applesauce, pudding, healthy shake)
  • Have your child wear a weighted backpack (no more than 15% of his body weight) when walking between classes or to run errands, such as delivering a note for the teacher
  • Provide a daily “job,” involving carrying heavy items- perhaps carrying textbooks to another teacher, or books to the library
  • Move chairs in the room
  • Hold doors open
  • Pull and push heavy items
  • Erase the board
  • Help empty wastebaskets/recycling
  • Allow your child (or have different stations for all of the children in the class) to include standing or kneeling at his desk

Movement breaks can be beneficial for children who are lethargic, as well as those children who are very active.  Some ideas include:

  • Jumping jacks, jogging in place, or heavy marching at their desks
  • Chair push and pull-ups- the children push down on their chairs with their hands to lift their bottoms off of the seats and then pull up on the chairs, working their arm muscles
  • Have child pass out papers/objects in class
  • Active recess with running, jumping, and climbing

For children who are lethargic, the following ideas may be helpful:

  • Bright lighting
  • Have child pat cool water on his face
  • Loud, fast music before a lesson

For children with high energy:

  • Use low-level or natural light
  • Quiet, rhythmic music
  • A quiet corner for completion of work with less distractions; access to beanbags to lie on top of or under are a great addition to the quiet space

Fidget toys can be helpful for children to keep their hands busy; however they should only be used if they help a child pay attention in class.  They should not be used if too distracting. Some ideas of fidget toys include:

  • Worry stone
  • Paperclips
  • Koosh ball
  • Key holders

Inclusion of these activities in the classroom setting would need to be approved by the teacher and monitored by an occupational therapist, should your child receive this service in school. An evaluation by an occupational therapist may be needed to address your child’s sensory needs in the educational setting. If you have questions about your child’s sensory processing in school, please discuss any concerns with his or her teacher.

By Christine O’Matz, OTR/L