by Hartley Steiner, of Hartley’s Life With 3 Boys
Many people ask me what a good sensory diet for school is, and unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. But, in light of how many people are interested, I am going to breakdown what we do/have done for Gabriel in an effort to give you a starting point in determining the best fit for your own child.
PLEASE remember that I am offering mom to mom advice, which is in no way shape or form medical advice, and of course, should not be substituted for your own good judgment. Now that you have my disclaimer, here we go.
Day begins (Gabriel awakes low):
Eat breakfast with input. Offer breakfast items that provide input, like crunchy granola, yogurt through a straw or chewy dried fruit. We focus on high protein and low sugar. Use weighted lap pad or allow standing (or any other at-the-table option) to make sure he finishes his entire breakfast.
Get ready for school. Dressed, teeth brushed, things packed, lunch ready, etc. This is all good linear movement for Gabriel, so I have included him in doing these things since he was very young. The goal here is to get his body moving and his blood pumping.
Heavy work (10-20 minutes before school). To get him the proprioceptive input he needs, I usually have him do chores (I am big on that more since he is older). Carrying, moving and lifting chores like reshelving books, carrying laundry upstairs, pushing the dining room chairs in, carrying the trash, are all good options. Younger kids might require more ‘fun’ like a quick game of Simon Say, short obstacle course with pull ups, stretching/yoga/dancing, pulling/pushing with a door frame, carrying a loaded backpack around, or jumping on the trampoline.
NOTE: We do NOT watch TV in the morning before school. Gabriel gets too low, and even with his heavy blanket for proprioception, it is just a bad idea. I highly recommend against TV watching first thing in the morning. Just a personal opinion.
Bus ride to school. This is where individualized seating arrangements are helpful. Gabriel could very well be over-stimulated by the bus ride (too much noise), so we have him sit up front by the bus driver, and allow him a designated seat (eliminating the potential argument over ‘his’ seat). He is also first off, is always ‘line leader’ when he gets off the bus. Alternatives would be to wear headphones or MP3 player with quiet music to help control noise during the ride.
Waiting for class. At Gabriel’s school we had an accommodation in place that allowed him to not have to stand in line with the other children (think mass chaos under the covered area on the playground) and wait for the teacher to walk the entire class in. Instead, he hung out with the school custodian and ‘helped’ him. This provided additional proprioceptive input (heavy work) in a structured and quiet environment before Gabe started class. It made Gabriel feel/look cool and kept him away from the chaos and stress of noise, movement, touch and waiting. If your school doesn’t have an option like this (ask if your child can wait in a classroom or cafeteria, or somewhere else if you think it is beneficial), ask for accommodations that allow him/her to stand against a wall, be first or last in line, and make sure the supervising para-educator is aware of your child’s needs so they can keep an extra eye on your child. This was HUGE for us — one of our neighborhood moms was a para-educator at Gabe’s school (public) and knowing that she was keeping a close eye on things was a huge help.
NOTE: There is a good chance that your child’s IEP or 504 has NEVER been shared with the para-educators. When Gabriel was in 1str grade (the first time) I would ‘volunteer’ during lunch and recess just to get to know the para-educators and be able to chat first hand with them. It was remarkably beneficial, as the first day I did, I found out that they thought my son’s sensory needs meant he was ‘hyper’ and needed LOTS of exercise. Gabe is NOT hyper. He is the antithesis: so, running all over the playground was exhausting, and hence, made him a mess in class all afternoon. I encourage you all to ask that the para-educators are given a copy of your child’s IEP/504 and that they are educated about your child’s specific challenges. (I also encourage you to do this yourself!) The para-educators often have more direct contact with kiddos like ours during the day, and having them on board is a fantastic resource to you and your child.
In the classroom. Once in the classroom, Gabriel had the first cubby hole, so he was never fighting in a crowd of children to put his things away. He also had access to fidgets, clay, water bottle and gum (first grade) when he needed it. We set up his schedule, so that during existing breaks (natural whole-class transitions from one activity to another) he would be accessing his sensory diet with minimal need for direction from the teacher (this becomes habit, routine, and expected for the child, the teacher and classmates). Example: As the children finish their calendar time on the rug, Gabriel gets up, gets a drink of water (linear movement, oral input), and then carries his own chair from the rug to his desk for writing time (heavy work). Another example: After role is taken, Gabriel pulls the lunch wagon (linear movement) with a ‘buddy’ that sits in the wagon with the lunch boxes for added weight (proprioception), down to the cafeteria. Another example: When excused to go and get their writing folders, Gabriel knows to grab his clay and sit with it at his desk during instructions to warm up his hands (proprioceptive input and fidget toy). The point in all of these examples is that Gabriel is doing what he needs during the natural break times that already exist for the entire classroom. This enables him to not ‘stand out’ as he is getting the input his body needs.
NOTE: I encourage you to be open about your child’s sensory needs at school. I wrote my book, This is Gabriel Making Sense of School for this exact reason. My son’s classmates were complaining to their parents that Gabriel got ‘gum’ or a ‘water bottle’ for what looked like bad behavior. By explaining to the other children in Gabriel’s class why he needed these accommodations (my book is a great tool for this), the children became much more understanding. Kids can be cruel, yes I’ve heard that, but they can also be amazingly empathetic if we just give them the opportunity. (A side, side note: Read this story about My Son’s Angel — a post about just that: understanding, compassion and friendship.)
Cafeteria. This is a hard one. And for Gabriel, this is where he starts to get UP UP UP, which means, this is the time he is going to have problems, hit, kick, meltdown, yell, etc. My best suggestions here are very similar to the bus. Assigned seat at the edge of a table, away from the doorways, headphones when necessary, and access to a para-educator.
Lunch. Packing your child a lunch is a great idea! Aside from the amazingly nasty additives that are in most school lunches, and the general lack of nutrition, it gives another way to add to your child’s sensory input. Just like breakfast, pack your child different food textures (if they tolerate this) and shapes, like crunchy pretzels, chewy granola bars, applesauce with a straw, juice box or water bottle with a straw, fruit leather, crunch granola bars with yogurt (a fave here), apples (whole apples give more input if your child is older and can/will bite them), dried fruit; craisins/raisins/apricots, nuts or anything else that makes them chew.
Recess. For Gabriel, this is the most unstructured and chaotic time of the day. Not to mention having social pressures on top of everything else. I encourage you to request that your child’s play time be monitored by a para-educator and structured if they are young (preschool-2nd grade). Offering your child something to actually do (Hey — join the soccer game!) is better for some kids than the free chaos of running through the playground. We had a recess plan for Gabriel when he was in 1st grade that he had to do his ‘obstacle course’ before free play: Monkey bars, hoola hoop, up the stairs, down the stairs, jumping jacks, etc. This was a great way to give him input, and the other kids LOVED to participate. It was led by a para-educator I had spoken with one day on the playground. Yay for para-educators!
Back in the classroom. This is when my son would come in high, and he needed options for quiet time. A quiet secluded area under a desk/table in the corner, a reading ‘bean bag’, dimmed lights (usually being under a table accomplishes this), quiet music via classroom CD player, or headphones, heavy blanket/lap pad for seated time are all helpful. Each child is different, but Gabriel was always so high at this point, that there was a good chance he would hit or yell at anyone that was ‘too close’ and definitely at any perceived social infraction (“He grabbed my yellow crayon!!”). This is a good time to avoid group activities and allow quiet independent work. If your child has access to the Resource Room, this might be a good time to go there to complete any major assignments. It is also helpful if the teacher will plan more ‘hands-on’ lessons when Gabriel is low — too much pressure to perform pen-to-paper tasks, and he is going to meltdown.
NOTE: Some kids wake up high – and then end low during the day. This would mean that the two “classroom” sections above would need to be flip flopped for those kids. It is so key to remember that every kid is different, which means that every sensory diet will be different.
Bus ride home. I encourage you to use the same supports and accommodations on the bus heading home, as you did heading to school.
Once home. When Gabriel arrived home, especially when he was in Kindergarten, he was crazy high – it was a mixture of him being overwhelmed, and letting loose after ‘holding it together’ all day. We used a weighted compression vest to add serious proprioceptive input (without needing him to te active/exercise), a weighted blanket (on his lap during snack) and lots of input during snack (extra thick smoothie through an extra thin straw). He wore the weighted vest for 20 minutes every hour until bed. It was VERY helpful. If you think this might work for your child, DO NOT just try it. Contact your OT for information and instructions. Every kid is different. Your child may benefit from quiet calm down time, low lights, soothing music, and plain old ‘down time’ as well.
My last advice here is to get everyone at school on board as soon as possible. If your school isn’t familiar with SPD, or even if they are (many know ‘of’ SPD, but are not as well versed as they may need to be for our kids to be successful), offer them resources to learn more. I suggest my book, This is Gabriel Making Sense of School, and of course using the Sensory Download that I developed with my Occupational Therapist that is a short cut for communicating your child’s sensory needs to their school – it has 100 of the most common accommodations for sensory kiddos and all you have to do is check the ones that apply. Really, it isthat easy.
I also want to remind you that most Occupational Therapists will come to your child’s school and do an observation. With the information they can provide to you and the teacher, you are much more likely to get an effective sensory diet in place in the classroom – be your child’s advocate, and be a resource for the teacher. You are all on the same team!
Hartley Steiner lives in the Seattle area with her husband and their three sons, two of which are on the spectrum. Hartley is the award winning author of the SPD Children’s book “This is Gabriel Making Sense of School,” a contributing writer for the SPD Foundation’s blog, S.I. Focus Magazine and Autism Spectrum Quarterly. Hartley chronicles the never ending chaos that is her life on the blog Hartley’s Life With 3 Boys. When she isn’t writing, or dealing with a meltdown, she enjoys spending time in the company of other adults preferably with good food and even better wine.