You never thought it would come to this. You certainly had no intention of schooling at home. But the new school year stops for no one – not even Covid-19 – and here we are. You’re not alone in wondering just how we can make distance learning work for everyone, including children with sensory needs.
Maybe you saw a preview of your child as a student last spring, when school transitioned suddenly to virtual learning. Maybe it was harder than you expected. You might have developed a newfound respect for your child’s teacher and support staff.
Were there morning meltdowns? Refusals to participate in the classroom Zoom call? Did it feel like a battle to get your student to sit down and complete just one reading passage? (Not to mention the worksheets that were intended to follow it.)
Focusing can be hard for some children. (Heck, it can be hard for some adults, too.) Focusing while distance learning can be even harder. And it can be especially challenging if your child has sensory needs or a learning difference of some kind. Maybe he or she has a sensory processing disorder, an autism spectrum disorder, an attention deficit disorder, an anxiety disorder, or a combination of the four?
Let me give you the good news.
If your child struggles to stay focused, there is hope. Focusing is a skill that can be learned and taught. In a school setting, an occupational therapist (OT), often in collaboration with a child’s teacher, helps support children to stay on task.
With school happening at home, kids and parents need all those same OT tools and tricks, but adapted for the home environment. But first, so we’re on the same page, let’s chat about focus.
What Is Focus Anyway?
Humans are constantly bombarded with sounds, smells, feelings, and other sensations. “Focus,” or attention, is the result of a process our brain uses to determine which information in our environment is important.1
Until I draw your attention to it now, you probably weren’t noticing the feeling of your shirt against your skin or the buzz of city traffic outside your home. That’s because your brain helped you focus, instead, on this text and the concepts in this article.
Sometimes, the brain’s attention mechanisms struggle to filter all of the sensory information around us, and this is often true of children with sensory needs.
An OT’s Top 5 Tips to Make Distance Learning Work for Children With Sensory Needs
You need some strategies. Let’s talk tried-and-true tips and tricks for keeping your child focused in a home-based and virtual “classroom.” Together, we can make distance learning work for all children, including those with special sensory needs.
Take frequent breaks and move.
Brains need breaks. During the traditional school day, kids get breaks from deskwork during recess, PE, and lunchtime. Their brains get a few minutes of rest when they transition from the classroom to the library, from their reading groups to the math stations. At home, there may be fewer naturally occurring opportunities for breaks and movement. Build them in! (It’s simple!)
As often as needed, or at timed intervals, encourage your child to stand and stretch, jump around, run in place, or get outdoors. Pushing, pulling, or lifting heavy items can also help get bodies and brains ready to learn! You can even DIY a crash pad. Whether your child needs to expend excess energy or increase alertness, a movement break is a good place to start.
Give fidget tools and toys
That little gadget that your child enjoys carrying around and fiddling with? It just might be helping him focus. Even small motor movements help the brain attend to what’s important, so fidget toys are excellent tools to support engagement during desktop activities. In September’s Sensory TheraPLAY Box, you’ll find three fidget items that are designed specifically with students in mind.
- Bouncyband’s foot tapper has a resistive fidget button that your child can press their toes or heel down onto, and its bumpy texture provides added sensory input to bare feet.
- Mesh-It’s unique pen has a built-in marble pouch, allowing students to squeeze, roll, squish, and slide. And the best part: it’s silent, so you won’t need to worry about distracting peers on Zoom!
- Also included in the back-to-school September box is a calm strip. It attaches to a binder, notebook, or laptop and provides easy access to calming sensory input for fidgety fingers.
Provide a weighted lap pad.
Something heavy in your child’s lap can help him focus during distance learning. The weight provides a certain kind of sensory input, called proprioceptive input, that is related to body awareness. It typically has a calming effect.4
Weighted lap pads are available online, but you can easily make one yourself at home! Take some uncooked rice or beans, fill and zip plastic baggies, and use duct tape to cover and connect them until there’s enough surface area to cover your child’s lap.
Minimize environmental distractions.
Now more than ever before, family members are working, living, and learning in the same space. This may mean that your home is also louder, more chaotic, and more cluttered than usual. Pay careful attention to the visual and auditory aspects of the environment. Is the lighting too bright? Are materials and toys haphazardly scattered about, drawing the gaze of little eyes? Maybe the dog won’t stop barking, or the cell phones in the house chirp back and forth.
For your distance-learning child, carving out a calm space for “school” can make a big difference. Maybe this space is in a quiet nook of the kitchen or at a desk in their bedroom. To decrease visual clutter, try confining a work area using a tri-fold “privacy shield.” (DIY with a cardboard box, and even enlist your child to help!) To reduce noisy distractions, try using continuous white noise from a phone app or fan.5
Practice deep breathing.
Deep breathing exercises help the body achieve a calm and regulated state.6 If you see your child struggling to attend to his schoolwork, encourage him to take a slow, deep breath in while counting to five. Then, instruct him to release his breath, counting again to five or higher. Repeat this breathing pattern three or more times.
If you have a very young child for whom breathwork is abstract, teach the same skill with a more concrete approach. Find a flower and a candle (or a picture of each) and encourage him to “smell the flower” and “blow out the candle” as you count to five.
Be Proactive with These Tips!
It’s tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, but it can come at a cost. Don’t risk disengagement and distress. Don’t wait until your child is off task, agitated, and fed up with distance learning. Try the strategies before everyone is exasperated. Let’s prevent the headache and set kids up for success!