Guest blogger, Loren Shlaes is a registered pediatric occupational therapist and regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff (where this post is also being published). This is the final post in a series from Loren about how to help students who may be challenged with attention, sensory, or other issues be successful in the classroom. Most likely, you have at least a few students with these challenges every year, but even if you don’t, the information in these posts are relevant to all teachers.
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last post in the series and I want to thank Rachel and her fantastic website,
Minds in Bloom, for giving me the opportunity to share what occupational
therapy has to offer the children who are struggling in their classrooms.
Thanks also to Heidi at Pediastaff, who suggested the collaboration.
post, I want to help teachers identify who in their classrooms could use some
extra assistance from a sensory integration therapist and give them some
suggestions for what they can do to help. Very often people don’t know about
occupational therapy and how it can help, so I am starting by defining who we
are and what we do.
therapy assists people who for various reasons cannot meet their
responsibilities and are not functioning at their highest potential. A child who is not succeeding in school and
can’t meet the grownup’s expectations falls into this category.
integration based occupational therapy can be very helpful to a child who is
struggling in the classroom by strengthening his body, correcting delays in his
neurological maturation, improving the way his senses take in and respond to
his environment, and helping him become more emotionally flexible. School based therapists also work on helping
the child with his hand eye and fine motor coordination, handwriting, social
skills, and anything else a child needs to succeed in the classroom.
integration refers to the ability to take in, perceive, and act on sensory
information in an accurate way. Our
behavior is based on our perceptions of the world around us. If a child cannot correctly perceive and
interpret what goes on around him, or if his balance is off and his
coordination is poor, his behavior and actions are going to reflect that.
- Children who
could benefit from sensory integration therapy are notable for being unable to
meet the expectations of the grownups.
They are “out of synch” in the classroom.An “out of
synch” child may have some of these issues:
- Can’t maintain
focus in a noisy classroom
- Can’t sit still
- Has a hard time
internalizing and following the unspoken expectations and routines of the
classroom and acts as if every day is the first day of school
- Has continual
difficulty controlling impulses
- Lashes out when
others come into his personal space
- Refuses to
interact with classroom materials such as paint, chalk, clay or glue
- Has difficulty
transitioning between activities
- Is emotionally
rigid, can’t roll with the punches, needs to be in control, has difficulty
socializing in an age appropriate way
- Has a tough
time modulating behavior; can go from zero to 60 in a second; his responses are
often not appropriate to the situation
- Slumps over his
desk; rubs his eyes; his handwriting is painful, illegible, and slow, with a
poor grasp; he may use too much force and break his pencil frequently; he has
difficulty organizing his work on the page
- Appears to not
understand what is said to him; can’t pick out teacher’s voice over other noise
in classroom; can’t recall or follow long strings of instructions
- Is easily
distractible; looks up at every ambient sound or movement and then has a hard
- Is clumsy,
trips and falls frequently, holds onto the handrail and uses step to step gait
pattern on the stairs, can’t do what the other children do in gym or on the
- Behaves in
unexpected or inappropriate ways in noisy or chaotic environment
- Is frequently
tuned out, not present
constant redirection and guidance from adults; takes up more than his fair
share of attention
- Does not like
to play in groups, mostly chooses to play alone
- Sits with a
frozen expression in class, especially when it’s noisy
- Is obviously
bright but can’t get his work done on time; poorly organized
- Does not have a
flexible attention span; he is either unable to focus at all, or he is so hyper-focused
that he is in his own world
- Has a short
attention span, poor frustration tolerance, is unable to self soothe or self
regulate in an age appropriate manner
- Is anxious,
needs constant reassurance, seems lost and can’t follow directions.
child who is struggling in your classroom with any of these issues, a referral
for an occupational therapy evaluation is in order.
a Child With Sensory Issues?
Here are some
easy things you can do to help a child who is struggling:
- Children who
are easily distracted do best when they are sitting with their backs
covered. Providing a child who is
bothered by people walking by with a
chair tucked into a corner can lower anxiety levels and allow the child to
- Children who
are very sensitive to noise don’t do well in noisy classrooms. Some things that might help: providing him
with a quiet corner to do his work, providing him with earplugs that dampen but
don’t block out sound, allowing headphones that play soft music or cancel noise
during busy times, providing the child with something to chew (chewing dampens
sound by activating the muscles that protect the eardrums).
- A child with
visual issues needs to sit close to the board and would probably have an easier
time reading with his work placed vertically in front of him. This reduces visual distortion and helps the
child sit more easily by allowing him to keep his head upright. An inexpensive slant board can be rigged up
by taping together several old fashioned ring binders.
- Gum, candy, and
fidget toys may be the bane of a teacher’s existence, but for a child who has a
hard time sitting still or staying alert, they are a necessity. Chewing is grounding, calming, and
organizing. Sucking pulls the eyes in
close together which makes it easier to see close work. Sucking on a strongly flavored candy like a
Warhead or a Tearjerker is especially arousing and alerting.
- An object to
manipulate, and busy hands makes sitting still infinitely easier, which anyone
who has made a chain of paper clips, folded a gum wrapper into an origami
shape, doodled a cartoon, or systematically torn the label off of a soda bottle
during a long meeting knows only too well.
- I send a little
ziploc bag of toys to school at the beginning of every school year for the
teacher to hand out to my little friends when appropriate. Stretchy frogs, Bucky Balls, and miniature
transformer toys are excellent for discreetly keeping hands busy and minds
alert. If none of those things are
available, there are always drinking straws and paper clips.
- If there is
room in your classroom, a large cardboard box, like the kind a washing machine
comes in, can be a very handy place for any child who is overwhelmed by the
busyness and noise in the classroom to regroup.
Put a few cushions in there and leave the flaps on so the child can have
some privacy when he needs it. No
following him in there and forcing him to do his lessons while he’s hiding; let
him come out when he’s ready.
- Many children
with visual issues can’t copy from the board, so an email home with the
assignments would be helpful, or he can be assigned a buddy who can make sure
he’s copied everything down correctly.
children to feel safe and secure and to trust the grownups, they have to know
that the grownups are strong, wise, and can keep them safe. Don’t be afraid to
have high standards, clear expectations, and strong boundaries in your
classroom. Your children will love you
been following this series (or even if this is the first post you have read) we
would love to hear your thoughts in a comment!
Loren Shlaes is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration, handwriting remediation and school related issues. She is also a manual therapist and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. Her informative site won the “favorite resource for therapists” poll conducted by yourtherapysource.com. Her writing has been featured on Parents.com, and she is a regular contributor to the special needs blog at Pediastaff. She is in private practice in Manhattan.
Minds in Bloom would also like to thankPediaStaff for collaborating with Loren to make this series possible. PediaStaff places pediatric therapists in schools, clinic, and hospitals throughout the country. In addition to their highly informative blog, they also have a huge Pinterest presence with over a hundred boards pertaining to education, child rearing, special needs, and various kinds of therapies. This post can also be viewed on the PediaStaff Blog.