Q&A: Sensational Homeschooling: Weaving in a Sensory Diet

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By: by Tiffani Lawton, RN, Publisher/Editor of Our Journey Thru Autism

Why are so many of my clients embarking on homeschool?

Many parents are choosing to homeschool their special needs child and the list of reasons is endless. Among the top reasons is that parents can create an accurate individualized education plan and customize the learning environment specific to their child’s needs. Parents can offer a sensory diet throughout the entire day and as needed providing the child with a consistent sensory diet. Sensational children have a hard time fitting into the typical classroom setting. In the homeschool setting, a child does not have to feel like the square peg crammed into a round hole. The environment is conducive to the child’s specific learning style and needs, so the pressure to conform to the rigidity in a classroom setting is removed. In doing this, the child’s self esteem grows and expands exponentially. Another reason is that parents can weave in various therapy appointments into their homeschool week, offering increased therapeutic opportunities for the child who may not be receiving regular and consistent therapy within the school environment. Another big reason is that there is a rise in the use of restraints and seclusion with special needs children in our nation’s schools.

How can we as OT’s best support the homeschooling family?

Although most OT’s work in the clinical setting, it would be very beneficial to homeschooling families to have their OT offer a sensory home assessment. An OT can look at the environment with sensory lenses on and make suggestions and recommendations that would work in the child’s home and learning environment.

The provision of therapy in the home environment would serve several purposes. One, while providing therapy in the home, you are educating the family on how to use resources within their own homes. Two, in home therapy would teach the child how to regulate within his own environment. Three, it would offer homeschooling families the opportunity to seamlessly weave OT into their homeschool lesson plans, as opposed to stopping a lesson to get ready to head to the OT, to drive to the OT for a 45 minute session, to drive home and then try to get back into a lesson. Lastly, any learning challenges that the child is struggling with would be apparent to the OT who can then make recommendations to assist the struggling child with a specific issue.

Another supportive measure would include assisting the families in securing sensory tools for the home learning environment. Look into your communities to see what resources are available to help offset the costs associated with obtaining sensory tools. Perhaps set up a sharing co-op of tools, sort of like a lending library. Look into the individual’s health insurance. Can any of the sensory tools be considered durable medical equipment? You may be able to assist the family in getting the sensory tools covered by insurance.

Help facilitate a team approach by working with other disciplines including speech therapy, physical therapy, learning consultants, cognitive behavioral therapy and special education teachers. When all disciplines are on the same page working together to achieve similar goals, outcomes will certainly improve.

What do you suggest for setting up a sensory homeschool environment?

Creativity and Flexibility are the keys to successful homeschooling. Not all families have an extra room to devote to a sensory room or can even designate a specific room as the classroom. However, sensory stations are very important for children with sensory processing disorder. Sensory stations need to be customized and tailored to the individual child’s sensory needs. For example, a child has a vestibular need in order to focus and attend to task. This child would greatly benefit from a therapeutic swing. In a sensory room, a special swing can be placed in the center of the room hanging from the ceiling much like you would offer in the clinical setting. For a sensory station, a swing can be placed in a doorway or outside from a tree. If either of these options are not feasible, then a trip to the local playground could be woven into the homeschool planning.

You can set up a station in the corner of any room with an exercise ball and a yoga mat. Develop a list of games that the child can play with the ball and matt. Recommended books for yoga activities for kids.

Sensory snack boxes that offer alerting snacks are always great to have on hand at the lesson table. A trail mix of the child’s favorite crunchies will help the child focus and attend. Consider allowing your child to chew gum to remain attentive.

Offer a sensory box that includes a variety of fidget toys.

An example may be to break for a snack from the sensory snack box and then perform a variety of hand exercises followed by a hand massage before any writing activities. For hand fatigue, suggest a fidget that will help stretch the hand muscles as well as a variety of supportive handwriting tools.

A visual schedule always helps too. Consider the use of a timer to stay on track with lessons. Develop break cards for the child to communicate when he needs a break.

Allow your creative juices to flow. Everything that is offered by an OT in the clinical setting can be modified for the home environment. A Sensory Diet can be built to offer the child input to alert and input to calm throughout the day.
When do you suggest that home based activities be initiated ?

Before, during and after is the best time to initiate a sensory diet. Before an activity that requires attentive focus, consider the swing option or a crash pad activity. During the lesson, consider playing soft music or complete quiet depending on the child’s individual needs. Offer crunchy foods and thick drinks through a straw. The oral sensory helps a child retain focus. Make the lessons short and in bite size pieces. After, offer reward time. Allow the child time to play a favorite video game, watch a favorite TV show or head outside for a favorite activity. Let the child choose as this offers a greater sense of control.
Determine when the child will perform best at a given subject. Let parents know that they can be flexible with homeschool lessons. If the language arts component does not get completed during the morning routine, that is OK. Consider getting the book on CD and listening to the story in the car on the way to a therapy session.

When is the best time to offer lessons?

The best time to offer lessons is when the individual child will be the most receptive. The advantage of homeschooling is that lessons can be spread out throughout the day. Remember, learning is an ongoing process and extends beyond “classroom” time. For example, the language arts component can be woven into a bed time story. Science activities can be done at bath time, especially water activities or on a nature walk. Math can be done in the car on the way to a therapy appointment by counting signs, finding shapes, etc.

Some kids will blow through an entire schedule of the days lessons in one and half hours. This same child may not be able to do this the next day. Homeschooling allows for flexibility and creativity and an occupational therapist is an integral component to homeschool success!

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