Homeschooling a Child With Sensory Processing Disorder
Sometimes a nugget of wisdom punches you in the gut and completely changes your perspective. For me, it was reading a wise mother’s realization that her child – in the throes of an epic meltdown – wasn’t giving her a hard time. The child was having a hard time. That small distinction makes a world of difference when you have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder who is often overwhelmed by the world around her.
Sensory Processing Disorder is often likened to a neurological “traffic jam” in which a child has trouble taking in and making use of certain sensory information. They may become overwhelmed by some sensations while failing to detect others at all. Their difficulty processing sensory data can trigger anxiety, depression, and frequent tantrums.
Traditional schools can be torture for a child with sensory processing or integration issues. The noises, lights, crowds, and chaos can completely overstimulate their nervous systems. The sensory input is simply too much to make sense of, so behavioral problems are common. Homeschooling can help to eliminate many of these problems, but it requires careful planning to create a good experience for you and your child.
Benefits of Homeschooling for Children with SPD
There are many reasons why parents elect to homeschool children with SPD. Many kids with sensory issues are also on the autism spectrum or have ADHD. Some parents worry about how their child’s atypical behavior patterns might be perceived and responded to by other students, or by the teachers themselves. Will the child be teased? Will their unique needs steal the teacher’s focus from the other children? Will they be pushed to perform on days when they’re simply not up for it, and labeled as “bad kids” instead of kids who are having a hard time? Will school steal their joy and make them hate learning?
Homeschooling lets parents control the learning environment and present information and stimuli at a pace their child can handle. They can tailor lessons to their child’s unique needs and abilities. Homeschooling isn’t always for everyone. It can be hard, and your child will still have meltdowns on a regular basis. But for many families, the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
Tips for Homeschooling a Child with SPD
As the teacher, caregiver, and case manager, homeschooling a child with SPD is quite the balancing act— but it’s entirely possible. Here are some practical tips to make the experience effective and fun.
Stick to a Routine
All children work best with a little structure, and kids with special needs are no exception. Create a weekly routine and post it somewhere your child can see it. This helps them understand how the school day flows, and may even provide an incentive to get work done when there’s some aspect of the day they’re looking forward to. However, keep in mind that flexibility is important. Simply use the routine as a benchmark – some days you may have to deviate from the plan.
Adapt to Their Quirks
At times, it can be all but impossible to get your child with SPD to sit still and complete lessons in the traditional way. Acknowledge their limitations, but play up their strengths. If they’re particularly good at reading but need to move around, try audiobooks. Go on regular field trips that bring learning experiences to life. Take frequent breaks to dance, exercise, or play with toys and games to help them burn off all that extra energy. Create a classroom that fits their learning style. If your child prefers to stand or lie down while reading, go for it.
Create Sensory Centers
Kids with SPD generally fall into two camps – “sensory avoiders” and “sensory seekers.” Many are a mix of both, sometimes in the span of an hour. Therapy for SPD often uses structured experiences to desensitize children to different sensations and help them better integrate and understand them. Yoga balls, play dough, a plastic tub of rice with toys buried inside, and musical instruments are all items you can use in sensory centers.
Make Visual Connections
As with the schedule, things are a lot less confusing for your child when they can see them. Use a visual timer to countdown the time until a shift in activities. Include pictures in the daily routine that portray your child doing the given task, such as getting dressed, making art, or cleaning up between activities. Watch videos or films that relate back to a history or science lesson.
Since stimuli are of immense concern for children with SPD, your homeschooling environment should be one that promotes learning and minimizes distractions. Noise-canceling headphones, an area away from others in the household, and a neutral, clean, organized workspace can help your child stay on task for longer. It’s also a good idea to stay nearby, so you can nudge your child back on task if they do get distracted.
Find Alternative Resources
There are resources schools can offer like accessible facilities and a full-time school nurse that you probably won’t have at home. But a CPR certification class can help you deal with emergencies confidently. You won’t have onsite speech, occupational, or physical therapists, but in some cases, you can arrange with your school district, state education department, or health insurance to have a provider come to your home and work with your child.
Consider Year-Round Schooling
Kids with sensory needs need a school day that follows a play-it-by-ear approach at times. If your child becomes overstimulated or irritated, which may happen often, it may be wise to cut the day’s lessons short and do something else. Converting to a year-round schedule frees you from having to push your child to perform on “off” days.
Create a Quiet Corner
Your child with SPD will need a break from stimuli at times which makes it important to create a safe space they can escape to and get their bearings. This might be a beanbag in a quiet corner or comfy niche in a closet. Come up with a handy code they can use to signal to you that they need a timeout and happily oblige their wishes. This can help your child naturally learn to soothe themselves and even save some school days from being completely blown off track.
Don’t Neglect Your Own Needs
Homeschooling is a lot of work and it can be lonely, particularly if your child’s sensory issues make it hard to leave the house. Be sure to pace yourself and schedule some “me” time now and then to do grown-up activities that you enjoy.
Homeschooling a child with Sensory Processing Disorder is both rewarding and exhausting. But for many parents, it’s the best way to help their children learn, grow, and navigate a world that can be overwhelming. If this is a journey you’re already on, or one you’re considering, know that you’re not alone. There are many families in the same boat. In many cases, resources and support are just a few mouse clicks away.
Jamie Gaddy, B.S., M.Ed., Ed.D. has been a college education professor for over 17 years. Education has been an integral part of her life in both the classroom and as a principal. Six children later found her dissatisfied with traditional schooling and homeschooling became the better fit. She is also a pastor’s wife, remote project manager, and entrepreneur who now homeschools four of her six children (ages 11-17) in southern Georgia. Jamie loves to share about her homeschool experience and help other homeschoolers find success. Connect with her at [email protected]