Try some of these powerful calming sensory strategies to help kids remain focused, engaged, and content in the classroom!
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The back-to-school season can be filled with excitement and high hopes for a fresh new start. But it’s also important to recognize how challenging this time of year can be for kids.
Shifting from summer to school brings academic demands and expectations along with a whole new schedule, which may mean different bedtimes, wake-up times, pick-up and drop-off times, and even mealtimes. Going to school also means adjusting to complex social nuances and managing all different kinds of relationships.
Kids who attend school outside the home must also adapt to a new classroom routine and culture and the expectations of a new teacher. Put this all together with some of the most intense sensory input in the world…have you ever been in a school cafeteria!?…and it’s no wonder that going back to school can be stressful for many kids.
But the back-to-school season doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom! There are many simple calming sensory strategies and therapy tools that can be used to help kids with self-regulation during school days, regardless of their school setting or whether they have identified sensory needs.
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Calming Sensory Strategies for School
1 || A quiet space and a way for the child to signal when she needs a break.
A quiet space can be as simple as a corner with a bean bag chair and some pillows, a small tent or canopy made from a sheet, or even a desk with a partition for some privacy. A quiet space is a great way to limit auditory, visual, and other input so a child can regroup and calm herself down.
Don’t forget to provide kids with a clear way of indicating when they need to use the quiet space – a sign up sheet or a laminated card they can give to the teacher to request time in the quiet space are great options.
2 || Calming Tactile Input
There are many great ways to provide calming input through the tactile system. One simple tool that is easily used as a calming sensory break during the day is a tactile bin. Fill a shoebox-sized plastic container with sand, dry rice, or dry beans and let kids run their hands through it.
Applying deep pressure to the body with hugs, a weighted blanket or weighted stuffed animal, or squishes with a pillow or beanbag chair provides full-body calming sensory input for kids who might be overwhelmed or anxious at school.
3 || Calming Oral Sensory Input
The oral sensory system can be another great avenue for calming and self-regulation. For many children, chewing can provide calming oral sensory and proprioceptive input. Try oral sensory snacks like bagels and fruit leather or even gum.
Many kids benefit from using chewy pendants, bracelets, or other items to provide this calming input. Chewigem USA has a huge variety of products for kids who need to chew! They have a great variety of wearable options, including their Disc Pendants and Tread Bangles.
Other great calming oral sensory activities include sucking against resistance (e.g. sucking a thick smoothie through a straw) and blowing (e.g. blowing a feather or pompom across a table).
4 || Calming Auditory Input
One of the quickest way to help kids who are overstimulated and overwhelmed is to quiet things down. Using a quiet voice to address kids and get their attention rather than raising your voice over the noise is a great start. Having a way to monitor sound in the classroom, like a noise meter, is also a great idea.
Other auditory strategies include playing white noise while students are working (e.g. rain sounds, ocean sounds, or even using a fan) to help block out typical school sounds like chairs scraping the floor and kids coming in and out of the room from the bathroom.
Quiet, calming music is another great option. These can be used either for the whole classroom or for individual students with headphones. Noise reducing headphones are also great for kids who become overstimulated by sound in loud situations (e.g. lunchroom, assemblies, gym).
5 || Calming Visual Input
Some children become overwhelmed and overstimulated by visual input. The movement, light, and other distractions in a school setting can simply be too much.
There is usually enough natural light coming through the windows during the day for kids to see and simply turning off or dimming the lights is a quick and easy way to decrease visual stimulation.
It’s also important to try to limit other visual distractions in the learning environment for kids who are easily overwhelmed. This means creating a clear, clutter-free workspace by storing supplies and materials off of tables and desks and limiting decorations and other things hanging on the walls. Some children may also benefit from visual dividers or working in a study carrel.
Other calming visual activities include repetitive visual input like watching fish in a fish tank or looking at sensory bottles and calm down jars filled with liquid and other objects (water, oil, water beads, glitter). Many children also respond positively to a visual picture schedule, which lets them know what’s coming next throughout the day.
6 || Calming Proprioceptive Input
A lot of kids benefit from proprioceptive input in the form of heavy work. Heavy work means moving the body against heavy resistance. This provides stimulation to the muscles and joints that can be calming and organizing.
Heavy work activities include: squishing/squeezing play dough or a stress ball, pulling against resistance bands, pushing/moving chairs or desks, climbing, holding a heavy door open, and carrying books.
Chewing also comes into play here. Chewing against resistance as described above is another great way to provide calming input to the proprioceptive system.
Many children find repetitive and rhythmic vestibular input, including rocking, swaying, or gentle swinging to be extremely calming. This kind of sensory input can be a great and easy way to help a child reset when they are overstimulated, overwhelmed, or dealing with tantrums. Adding a rocking chair or two around the room and having an exercise ball handy are simple ways to provide calming movement when kids need it.
Try one of these Row, Row, Row Your Boat activities or some gentle back and forth movement on a scooter or on a therapy ball.
8 || Yoga, Breathing, and Meditation
Using these tools in educational settings is becoming more and more mainstream – with very good reason. Moving slowly through a yoga sequence can provide calming stimulation to the vestibular system, the proprioceptive system, and the tactile system.
Including calming breathing techniques for kidsthroughout the school day is another way to calm the entire nervous system.
9 || Fine motor and visual tasks that are familiar, quiet, and repetitive
Completing familiar, repetitive tasks can be a very calming experience for many kids. Arriving at school and completing one or two quiet, independent activities can be the perfect start to the day for kids who become overwhelmed easily.
Easy ideas for calming fine motor tasks include:
-Stringing beads (check out this great story threading idea!)
-Simple put-in tasks like this pompom task
–Fine motor sorting tasks
–File folder tasks
–Fine motor learning activities
-Dealing With Tantrums: Fine Motor Reset Activities
10 || Calming Combinations
When it comes to finding calming solutions for kids, it’s best to allow some time for experimentation and trial and error. And sometimes, the best solutions involve combining two or more strategies and using them together.
Here are some examples:
-Dig/play in tactile bin while listening to white noise or quiet music on headphones
-Sitting or lying with a weighted blanket while looking at sensory bottles
-Chewing gum or a chewy snack while working on a calming, independent fine motor task
-Rhythmic rocking or swaying with calming breathing technique
Check out our DIY Calm Down Kit and these great sensory ideas to help calm kids when you’re on-the-go.