How To Prevent Sensory Overload In School


Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach

Sensory overload in school is a serious issue that can lead to multiple problems ranging from difficulty in concentrating, to massive meltdowns in class. According to research, 1 in 6 children experiences sensory processing issues. This affects their everyday life, including their schooling and other learning activities. 

The best way to deal with sensory overload is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Wondering how to prevent sensory overload in school? Well, there are multiple preventative measures that you can take to provide a sensory-balanced, stress-free environment to children at school where they can learn and grow.  

What is Sensory Overload?

To put it simply, sensory overload happens when a person gets more information through the five senses than the brain can process at a time. Think of it as a “traffic jam” in the brain that prevents the brain from receiving the information that is required to interpret sensory input.

The brain feels stuck and can’t prioritize the right sensory information to focus on. The brain gets overwhelmed by all the information it is receiving, putting the body in a panicky, fight-or-flight mode. 

As a result, children with sensory processing issues find it challenging to integrate sensory information. The things that they see and hear at the same time, like a person speaking or video with audio, may seem out of sync to them. All of this translates into difficulty performing everyday tasks. 

The good news is that there are certain things that you can do to prevent sensory overload in school.

But before we dive into how to prevent sensory overload in school, let’s take a look at some common symptoms of sensory overload in children to learn more about sensory processing issues.  

Symptoms of Sensory Overload in Children

Some common symptoms of sensory overload in children include: 

  • Confusion or difficulty focusing 
  • Strong urge to cover ears or eyes with hands to block sensory input  
  • Feeling irritable or extremely excited 
  • Feelings of stress and fear 
  • Discomfort or restlessness
  • High sensitivity to clothing or accessories that rub against the skin, including fabric, tags, etc.  

Preventative Measures: How to Prevent Sensory Overload in School 

As a parent, there are multiple steps that you can take to mitigate the risk of sensory overload at school.  

Manage Sights and Sounds 

A school is often a vibrant, colorful place. With so many children learning and interacting in the same space, schools can be noisy and bright. Such environments can trigger a sensory overload for some children. Luckily, you can take certain measures to prevent sensory overload problems caused by sights and sound. 

For instance, you can provide your child with ear protection or noise-canceling headphones to reduce audio sensory information. You can also opt for slightly tinted sunglasses to bring down the intensity of fluorescent lights and other colors. This helps in reducing visual input, which can otherwise lead to sensory overload.    

Appropriate School Dress 

While most parents focus on managing sights and sounds, “touch” is an important sense that we often overlook when it comes to preventing sensory overload. Children who experience sensory overload are generally extremely sensitive to things that may rub against their skin, including their clothes. 

It is important to understand that clothes define the personal space for the child. So, it must be as comfortable as possible. Take the time to learn more about the best solutions for clothing sensitivity in kids as dressing up your child properly can be the solution to preventing sensory overload in school.  

Follow a Routine

A surprise or any unexpected event can trigger sensory overload in children. While you may not be able to control and pre-plan everything that happens at school, you can certainly reduce the element of surprise by developing and following a pre-school routine. Practice waking up, having breakfast, and getting ready for school at the same time each day. You can also incorporate activities like light exercises in the morning routine. 

The idea is to provide some structure in life. So, when an unexpected event happens at school, the child will have a familiar routine to lean on and cope with it. Remember, developing a routine may take some time and a lot of effort and patience on your end, but it’s totally worth it!  

Talk to the Teachers 

This is one of the most important steps that you can take when it comes to preventing sensory overload at school. If you know that your child experiences sensory processing issues, don’t wait for the teachers to find out on their own. The earlier you talk to the teachers, the better they will be able to accommodate your child. 

Teachers can employ certain techniques in the classroom to minimize the chance of sensory overload. Some of these include: 

  • Avoid wearing perfume or using scented paints or essential oils. 
  • Help keep classroom noise at a reasonable level.
  • Create a quiet, stress-free space where students can retreat when feeling overwhelmed.
  • Remove or hide complicated classroom decorations or patterns. 
  • Turn off bright or flickering fluorescent bulbs
  • Provide frequent breaks to students at regular intervals. 
  • Try appropriate proprioceptive activities in the classroom
  • Allow the student to skip school assembly if needed. 
  • Allow fidget toys in class. 

Consult an Occupational Therapist (OT)

There are no medications to treat sensory overload. However, there are certain therapies that can help prevent sensory overload at school. So, if you think that your child’s sensory processing issues are disrupting their life or education, it is advisable to consult an occupational therapist.

OTs are specialists that work with children who experience sensory processing issues. 

Quick Question: Are All Children with Sensory Processing Issues Autistic?

While most autistic children struggle with sensory processing issues, not every child who experiences sensory overload is autistic. Sensory overload is also prevalent in children with OCD, ADHD, or other developmental delays. However, experiencing sensory overload doesn’t necessarily mean that the child has a related condition.

Don’t let sensory overload stand in the way of your child’s education. Now that you know how to prevent sensory overload in school, you can help your child have an enjoyable learning experience at school.

Follow these tips to prevent sensory overload in school and encourage happy schooling! 

vincenza

Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education and Deaf Studies

Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.

Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

References 

https://www.spdstar.org/sites/default/files/file-attachments/Sensory_Over-Responsivity_in_Elementary_School_Prevalence_and_Social_Emotional_Correlates_2009.pdf

https://childmind.org/topics/concerns/sensory-processing/


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