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SPD Expert, Chynna Laird, Reports...The Essentials For A ‘Sensational’ Learning Environment

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SPD Expert, Chynna Laird, Reports...The Essentials For A ‘Sensational’ Learning Environment

By: Chynna Laird

NB: This article was written for parents but we felt it was something you might want to share with the parents of your kiddos

Reprinted from "OUR Journey THRU Autism," a blog featuring professional experts and warrior parents to help you on your journey thru autism.


Many children with SPD find it easier to study at home rather than in public school. As I discuss in one of the chapters in my upcoming book, At-Home Strategies for Treating Sensory Processing Disorder (How to Use Games and Activities to Create a Sensory Diet For Your Child), for children with sensory sensitivities, school can be a scary place not only because of the different kinds of stimulation that they worry will make them feel bad, but also because it is very different from home—their ‘safe place’.

Plus, they may be concerned that everything around them will be too distracting for them to settle down and get to work: These include other kids, the brightly colored pictures on the wall, people walking around the classroom or in the hallways, having to sit in a hard chair, and so many other things that other people wouldn’t even notice.

What caregivers need to remember is that the home learning environment can also trigger similar anxieties that distract from learning so setting your child’s learning area up properly is very important. Here are a few things to remember:

(1) Have a ‘sensory friendly’ space. Your child’s learning/studying space must be in an area of the house that is quiet, free from visual, auditory and olfactory distractions. The area should be away from where the rest of the family hangs out and not in the bedroom or ‘calm down’ place as these areas are for sleeping and sensory input or calmness. A room that is cool, filled with natural light (or the ability to dim the lights, depending on your child’s visual needs), not too much on the walls, no telephone, television or close to a busy street where outside noises would be distracting. There should be nothing in this space except what the child needs to study with, his sensory tools he needs to concentrate and, perhaps, a clock in order to keep track of time allotted for each activity.

(2) Sensory school tools. Just as your child would need sensory tools in the classroom so would she also need them for her home learning environment. Whether a ‘seeker’ or an ‘avoider’ a sensational child needs fidgets to keep her hands busy, headphones (if auditory defensive), a wedge or Sit ‘n’ Move or similar cushion to sit on, a lap cozy for some proprioception input and writing tools suited to her needs (eg: larger pens/pencils, pencil grips, hand support, etc.). As well, be sure that the chair she sits on is a good fit where her legs will be at a 90 degree angle with her feet propped up on a phone book or similar foot rest, if required. My daughter Jaimie also has a light hand/wrist weight for her writing hand that not only gives her some proprioception while she’s working but seems to helps keep her hand and wrist straight. Another tip to remember here is to have his working area set up specifically to his needs. For example, my son Xander can only deal with a task that has three steps, set up exactly in the order he needs to do them from left to right. So if he’s painting, the paints need to be in little containers with wide mouths and a thick paintbrush with longer bristles, then his painting area, then his water to dip his paint brush in—easy steps set up left to right. These things can make the difference between doing a task successfully ending with a sense of success and melting down halfway through the task in frustration.

(3) Give him his vestibular and proprioception input. In Jaimie’s case, she needs regular vestibular and proprioception input every 60 to 90 minutes. Be sure to give your child this input regularly throughout his work day. If he’s older, get him to do a couple of chores where he can empty waste baskets, lift some chairs or help set up for the next subject or even a quick walk around the block, a sprint up and down the stairs with a backpack on or a few wall push ups. Then be sure to have a few ‘recess’ breaks of at least twenty minutes to half-an hour. Believe me, it makes all the difference in concentration levels.

(4) Have a solid learning plan with daily, weekly and monthly goals. Be sure to understand what your child’s learning needs are. Does he learn best with visuals? Set out the lesson plans with Velcro cards or pictures. Does she need everything written down for her? Create a table with a way for her to check off each lesson or task. Does he get overwhelmed when a task has too many steps? See above for what we do for Xander. Either break the task into many tiny baby steps or see how you can simplify the task so there are no more that three or four. All children need some sort of schedule to follow but even moreso for our ‘sensational’ kids. And most of these kids really need small goals to work toward. Even if you have to break each goal into teeny tiny ones so he gets that moment of ‘I did it!’ it makes all the difference.

(5) Have field trips. We found this a wonderful way to help our ‘sensational’ kids get used to new environments, people and experiences in fun ways! Start with baby steps and in areas of interest. For example, if your child is really into fire trucks, see if your local fire department would be willing to have your child do a little tour. Start with learning about firefighters, what they do, draw pictures, write stories, play games, etc. Then make the move to the actual fire hall. We’ve gone on bus rides to the indoor playground, train rides to an outdoor waterpark, and all sorts of fun. But always have a way to decompress after such events as they can be very overstimulating.

(6) Include opportunities for social interaction. This is something that’s vital for all children learning at home but particularly for our sensational kiddos. Many of our kids develop a fear of the outside world because they are never sure whom or what will trigger sensory input they aren’t comfortable with. I know my Jaimie became so fearful of the outside world at one point, we actually had to make her go out. When she’s learning and living in her ‘safe place’, she may not feel she has any reason to go out. And that’s not good. Kids need that interaction—it gives them learning opportunities they don’t get from books alone. Plus it helps her practice the coping methods she’s learning in therapy as well as helping her figure out how she fits into the world around her. So, get her to the park when other kids are playing, take her swimming (either as a form of recess or a field trip) or arrange playdates. Every few minutes with other kids is valuable.

These are some of the main ways to make your home a ‘sensory friendly’ learning environment. The only other thing I could suggest is to make sure that the rest of the house is for play, family interactions, eating/sleeping, or sensory play. These things should be kept separate from the learning space and learning separate from the other life events so that your child doesn’t become confused or overwhelmed.

Setting up your child’s ‘sensational’ learning space to suit his learning abilities will help to get him off on the right path to academic success.

Reprinted with the express permission of OUR Journey THRU Autism as originally published on their Website (note that this site no longer exists)

OUR Journey THRU Autism was a blog featuring professional experts and warrior parents to help you on your journey thru autism.

About the Author: Chynna Laird. Chynna is a psychology student, freelance writer and author living in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner, Steve, and their three daughters [Jaimie (seven), Jordhan (five), and baby Sophie (twenty-two months)] and baby boy, Xander (three). Her passion is helping children and families living with Sensory Processing Disorder and other special needs.

She’s authored a children’s book I’m Not Weird, I Have SPD, a memoir Not Just Spirited: A Mom’s Sensational Journey With SPD and a reference book about the Sensory Diet (coming January 2011).

Tags: Article OT Sensory Processing Disorder Parental Involvement Autism