If you wanted to design a place that would be as uncomfortable as possible for a child with sensory integration disorder, you couldn't do much better than some contemporary classrooms. Many are so cluttered, with assignments on the wall and writing on the board and piles of books and papers all around, that even people without any problems with visual perception and organization may find it difficult to concentrate.
An increasing emphasis on standardized tests means your child has to spend longer hours sitting at a desk, with less time for physical education or recess or less restrictive subject matter. Overcrowded classrooms have made teachers less able to allow students to move or make noise or learn in individualized ways. And if you can't behave, you lose recess — the sort of break kids with proprioceptive or vestibular problems most crave.
If your child needs movement to be calm and comfortable, stress to your child's teacher that the one thing she should not do to discipline your child is take away recess. Withdrawing recess will almost surely make his behavior worse. Suggest some alternatives if you can, and give the teacher some information on sensory integration disorder to back it up.
Although there are many obvious distractions and discomforts in the classroom, the things that upset your child with sensory integration disorder may be less apparent. The slight flickering or buzzing of fluorescent lights may disturb her. The sound of cars going by a window, a squeaking seat, or a classmate's scratching pencil may grate. Smells from a lunchroom or the odor of the teacher's perfume may distract or irritate. The fact that your child is confined to one place for most of the day, with no ability to make adjustments that might make her feel more comfortable, will tend to magnify these problems.
While you may not be able to do much about your child's classroom environment, it may be worthwhile to try. Let the administration know that your child will do best in an uncluttered classroom with a lot of structure and predictable routine, and in some cases you may be able to get your child assigned to a teacher who is well-suited to his needs.
You might also request that your child be seated far away or facing away from distractions such as windows and doorways. Sitting close to the teacher may be helpful for your child if it keeps him from being distracted by other visual information, harmful if the teacher's tone of voice or personal style is a distraction in itself.
Make sure that your child's school supplies don't provide a distracting source of clutter in and of themselves. Go through your child's backpack each night and remove unnecessary material. Have a clearly marked place in a folder or binder for your child to store her homework so that it's easy to find the next day. Make sure the homework is there when she leaves for school in the morning. Get a single binder to hold all subjects, or color-coded folders and spiral notebooks, or whatever system seems to work best for your child.
If organization is a problem for your child, go ahead and help do the organizing for her as much as you can. As she gets older and less distracted by sensory integration problems, you can teach her the techniques that work best for her.
Back to School Night is often a good time to get a useful impression of your child's classroom and teacher and pinpoint some areas that may be problematic. Follow that up with a meeting with the teacher to suggest some simple changes that might make it easier for your child to succeed in the classroom.
Dress for Success
Make sure that you're not adding to your child's classroom stress with the clothes and accessories you're sending with him. Comfort is more important than fashion when it comes to clothing. If he's most at ease in sweats, don't sweat it. Stay away from scratchy fabrics and high collars if those things are a problem. On the other hand, if your child struggles with the proprioceptive sense and likes to bite or chew on his shirt collars, a tight crewneck might be a good choice, since it's harder to bite on. Or choose a button-down shirt; chewing doesn't show as much on buttoned collars as it does on rounded ones.
Choose shoes with care, too. If shoe-tying's a problem, pick a cool pair of slip-ons or Velcro-fastened sneakers, or replace regular shoelaces with the curly, stretchy variety that don't need to be tied.
You should be able to find curly elastic shoelaces in shoe stores like Payless, but they can also be ordered from Life Solutions Plus or Therapro. The laces come in a variety of colors and patterns. If the teacher complains that your child is slipping his shoes off in class, try a pair that won't slip off easily, like high-tops or boots.