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Suggestions for Teachers and Parents Helping School Children with Sensory Integration Issues

Interview with Polly Godwin Emmons and Liz McKendry Anderson, authors of the excellent book Understanding Sensory Dysfunction

How might severe sensory dysfunction cause problems for children in school?

Because sensory issues are often an underlying component of ADHD, Learning Disabilities, mental health issues and Autism Spectrum Disorders they will often manifest themselves in difficulties with academic achievement and peer interactions. For example, sensory difficulties may show up in learning, attention, coordination, activity level, developmental difficulties, poor self- esteem, and behavior…but they will show up! Often the new social, cognitive and motor demands of the school setting create even more confusion, anxiety and chaos for the child who has sensory integration dysfunction. All too often, the only way the child has of dealing with this environment is to "space out", "act out" and become more rigid, inflexible, anxious, and socially challenge.

Sensory integration is what turns sensation into perception. Perception defines reality to an individual. Sensory integration defines reality. Not your reality, not my reality, his reality and his unique perspective on the world around him. Therefore, it is our belief that everyone working with a child with sensory issues plays an important role in creating an effective and cooperative partnership on behalf of that child. We encourage teachers to learn as much as possible about the child's delay or disability, and consider possible "links" to sensory integration. In doing so, teachers may want to take a new look at assessment and begin to explore the use of adaptations and modifications for their students. We also encourage parents of a child with delays or a disability to become advocates for their child. We would like to point out to parents that it has been our experience that most teachers are doing with the best they can (often with limited training, experience and resources).

How can parents and teachers can help their children with sensory integration issues?

In order to help children with these issues parents and teachers must first put on "detective hats", learn to look closely at problematic situations, and develop useful strategies to resolve these situations. In other words, what is the child's behavior really saying…after all, behavior is a means of communication. As sensory detectives, we encourage parents and teachers to analyze the behavior by looking at the situation from the child's "sensory" point of view. Depending on the situation and the sensory needs (Proprioceptive? Vestibular? Tactile?) of the child, there are many useful strategies that can be employed. We include lengthy lists and explanations in our book.

We have been the parents of children with sensory dysfunction for a long time (over 15 years) and have been challenged, not only by their sensory issues but by time spent chasing down "appropriate" programs, services, and diagnoses. It has not always been easy, but it certainly has been a learning process for us. Instead of being tempted to simply judge and move on, we now look at our children, and other children, with a more caring and analytical eye. It is our belief that by developing a greater awareness of sensory integration/dysfunction parents and teachers can help each child reach his or her potential. As you learn more about sensory integration and its possible dysfunction, we encourage you to reflect on your own personal framework…what you already know…what you are already doing…and what information may be most helpful to you. Now is the time to bring sensory dysfunction into the forefront and begin to look at home and school, learning and behavior differently - through a sensory lens.

Looking back, what would you have done differently with your children with sensory integration issues in school?

Looking back, we would have trusted our instincts more and had more confidence that we knew our children and their needs best. We would have had a stronger advocacy role; insisting on more teacher training on sensory integration, better "matches" between our children and their teachers and facilitated more peer interactions. Positive relationships, especially in the early grades, are so critical! In addition, we would have requested more frequent team meetings so that we could have been kept more "up to date" on how things were going at school.

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