The Many Smells of Spring – Supporting an Active Sniffer

It is that time of year again when spring is in the air…literally.  Often during these spring months, the odors are throughout the air, as trees are budding and flowers begin to bloom.  While these smells can be desired by some, they are not always appreciated by all.  

The human body can detect over 10,000 different odors.  With this many smells, it can be confusing how we often classify odors quickly to either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on our desire and tolerance for a smell.  Unfortunately, when it comes to odors, there are only two ways to completely extinguish an odor:

  1. Remove the source of the odor  
  2. Remove the person affected by the odor

There can be situations when your child may need to tolerate an odor, and these two options are not possible.  Below is some insight into your child’s behaviour and ideas how to support.

What Your Child Feels

When a child is caught off guard by a non desired smell, irregardless of it’s source – food or environment – it can be very startling to them.  Your child’s brain shifts into danger mode, using back brain thinking (i.e. fight or flight).  When this occurs, your focus needs to be supporting your child through the moment.  This is not the time to address odor acceptance with your child.

Establish an Odor Routine

The goal is to keep a child inquisitive about an odor, instead of reacting to the odor.  To do this, you must establish a odor routine.  This routine must be practiced multiple times and become familiar with the child for it to be effective.

  • The routine must be practiced with the child in a controlled situation.
  • A child should be regulated, calm and feel safe before trying this exercise.  
  • Discuss with your child how a NEW odor does not always mean a BAD odor. 
  • Use phrases like ‘I smell something new’ when an odor is detected, as opposed to ‘Do you smell that?!?’.
  • Encourage your child to use all of their senses to describe the odor, not just their nose.
  • Discuss a plan with your child about how they can handle undesired odors.  This could include holding their nose, breathing through their mouth, taking a whiff of a desired smell or leaving the situation.  
  • Set expectations for your child when you anticipate interactions with strong odors.  Remind them to stay curious to the odor and review your plan.

Travel Tips for Tactile Sensitivities

Spring break is coming! For many of us, spring means enjoying the sun over our heads and the sand under our toes. Many sensitive children, however, find trips to the beach or other exotic locations unbearable. This month, we’re going to focus on some common tactile triggers you might encounter on vacation. 

No matter what your child’s particular triggers are, remember that preparation is key. Have her help you problem solve, plan, and pack as much as possible. Try new clothing or toiletries at home and make sure she has a chance to give input on each item. Above all, be honest about what to expect in your new environment and give her as much control over her own comfort as possible.

Keep reading for some common tactile triggers and a few tips for tackling each. Also, be sure to check out our previous article for some more general tips on traveling with sensory needs.

#1 – Sunscreen, lotion, and other toiletries

  • Make sure to test every new product at home before you leave.
  • Pack enough for your entire trip–you might not be able to find certain items elsewhere.
  • Experiment with different types of applications–sunscreen sticks, shampoo bars, etc.
  • Minimize the need for sunscreen by using sun shirts, hats, and protective clothing.

#2 – Unfamiliar or uncomfortable bedding

  • Bring pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, or stuffed animals from home.
  • Make bedding smell and feel familiar by bringing your own laundry detergent.
  • Bring a favorite blanket to act as a barrier/comfortabel layer under the sheets.

#3 – Sand and unusual textures or temperatures

  • Experiment with different types of shoes–open vs. closed sandals, water shoes, etc.
  • Minimize exposure by wearing pants or gloves while playing on the beach.
  • Try playing on different parts of the beach–loose, dry sand vs. wet, packed sand.
  • Bring ice packs, hand warmers, etc. to help regulate temperature.

#4 – Insect repellant and bug bites

  • Minimize exposure by wearing long sleeves and pants when possible.
  • Experiment with different types of applications–wipes, wristbands, clips, sprays, etc.
  • Use bug zappers or burn citronella candles or sticks when outside.
  • Experiment with alternative repellants, such as essential oils.
  • Pack hydrocortisone cream or ointment to soothe bites and stings.
  • Be aware of your location–bugs are more prevalent by the water or in wooded areas.

#5 – Being crowded or bumped in public places

  • Call ahead and see if your destination has accommodations for sensory sensitivities.
  • Practice waiting in line at the grocery store or other crowded location.
  • Practice deep breathing and anti-anxiety techniques. 
  • Talk it out–remind your child that people who might bump into her are doing it accidentally and are not trying to be rude or hurtful.
Sensory struggles during the winter months

Sensory Struggles in Winter

Winter is here! For many of us, winter is a time of outdoor play, indoor coziness, and creating memories with family and friends. However, winter can bring a whole new set of challenges and for families with sensory needs.

This month, we’re taking a look at some common sensory struggles in winter and offer a few suggestions for keeping your child regulated, engaged, and safe during the cold months. Have another tip? Let us know in the comments!

Challenge #1 – Outdoor Winter Activities

Winter games like sledding, ice skating, and playing in the snow are generally great for seekers, particularly: tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive. However, children with sensitivities and discrimination issues often struggle with these activities.

Proprioceptive and tactile avoiders may be unable to tolerate cold wind on their faces, fast movement, or being close to other children. Visual avoiders may become overwhelmed by the glare of snow and ice. Finally, those with vestibular, proprioception and visual discrimination disorders may have difficulty walking on snow or ice and keeping a safe distance from other children. 

Tips and Tricks:

  • Ease your child into new activities. Hold his hand and practice walking on ice and snow, slowly pull him around the yard in a sled, and help him pack snowballs.
  • Practice new or scary activities at home. Skate on the kitchen floor in your socks, have a snowball fight with socks or stuffed animals, or race to put on your snow gear.
  • Break down overwhelming or scary activities into small, manageable steps. (“First we sit on the sled, second we push, and third we lean back and ride.”)
  • Experiment with outdoor games and activities that don’t require being in close proximity to others, such as geocaching, Pokemon Go, or simply making snow angels.
  • Be mindful of seeking behavior in activities like sledding, skiing, and ice skating. If your child is being unsafe, try to figure out the sensation he’s craving and help him find other ways to achieve it.
  • Wear sunglasses or baseball hats to reduce glare from ice and snow.

Challenge #2 – Winter Clothing and Dry Skin

Even children without sensory issues can struggle with winter clothing. For tactile avoiders, however, getting into winter gear can feel completely overwhelming: sweaters are itchy, boots are heavy, coats are bulky and restrictive. They may find dry, irritated skin to be extremely painful but, along with olfactory avoiders, be unable to tolerate certain lotions or skin care products. On the other hand, those with tactile discrimination disorder and interoception discrimination disorder may not notice cracked or bleeding skin.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Avoid clothing made out of bulky or scratchy materials like wool. Stick to soft, comfortable layers of fleece, cotton, or flannel, and remember to remove the tags!
  • Have your child try on and approve every piece of outdoor gear―coats, hats, gloves, you name it. If you can, buy extras of smaller items in case something gets lost.
  • Find alternatives to uncomfortable items. Experiment with earmuffs instead of hats, hand warmers instead of gloves, or snowboarding pants instead of snow bibs.
  • Apply moisturizer frequently, especially after bathing. If your avoider can’t stand lotion, experiment with body bars, coconut oil, shea butter, or aloe vera gel.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. Add fruit slices, flavor packets, or seltzer to combat flavor fatigue.

Challenge #3 – Sensitivity to Cold and Heat

Not everyone experiences the sensations of winter in the same way. Tactile avoiders may feel unbearably cold while playing outside or uncomfortably hot in certain types of clothing. On the other hand, tactile seekers may love to play outside on very cold days, hold snow in their bare hands, or take extremely hot showers. Finally, those with tactile discrimination disorder and interoception discrimination disorder may be unable to feel extreme temperatures at all, making them susceptible to frostbite or overheating.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Check in with your child frequently, especially during outdoor play, to make sure he’s not become overheated or becoming too cold.
  • Ease your child into the colder temperatures. Use indoor sensory bins to help him get used to the texture and cold of ice and snow.
  • Be mindful of seeking behavior around extreme cold. Put time limits on outdoor play and make sure gloves, hats, and coats are being worn.
  • Combat feeling cold by taking warm baths, heating up towels or clothes in the dryer prior to dressing, and making hot chocolate after playing outside.

Challenge #4 – New Foods and Smells

For most of us, winter means tweaking our diets to include more hot and multi-textured meals like stews, soups, and crockpot dishes. Many fruits and vegetables are out of season and will have a significantly different taste or texture than they do in the spring and summer. All of these changes can be extremely upsetting to gustatory avoiders and tactile avoiders. In addition to struggling with new foods, olfactory avoiders may be bothered by cleaning, cooking, and other household smells they might not notice when the windows are open.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Introduce new foods slowly and methodically. See our previous article for a step-by-step guide.
  • Have your child help plan and prepare meals. This will get him familiar with new smells, textures, and ingredients without having to taste them.
  • Know your child’s favorite foods and have a way to make them inside. For example, you might buy a George Foreman grill or grill pan to make burgers or hot dogs.
  • Be conscious of cleaning, cooking, and other strong or unpleasant household smells. Open the windows when possible and keep the house well-ventilated.

Challenge #5 – Staying Active

We all have different reactions to being cooped up inside on a cold winter day. Vestibular seekers and proprioceptive seekers may become manic and start bouncing off the walls, while vestibular avoiders and proprioceptive avoiders may become withdrawn and almost completely sedentary. No matter whether your child is seeking or avoiding, engaging in regular physical activity is critical for relieving anxiety, improving concentration, and transitioning between activities.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Schedule times throughout the day to do jumping jacks, stretch, or run in place. This can be especially helpful when transitioning into a new activity.
  • Have a designated area of the house where “rough” play is okay. Include things like pillow forts, obstacle courses, and crash pads, trampolines, etc.
  • Play family games that involve lots of movement, such as Twister, I Can Do That!, and The Floor Is Lava!
  • Have your child help with chores that involve executive functioning and proprioceptive input, such as snow shoveling and carrying groceries or laundry.
  • Experiment with different seating options that increase movement and concentration, such as yoga balls, foam rollers, and balance beams.

Combat boredom by bringing tents, pool toys, and other outdoor equipment inside. Experiment with alternatives to outdoor games, like the Hover Soccer Ball.

Challenge #6 – Changes in Routine

Like any significant disruption, the changes in routine brought on by winter break can be difficult for children with special needs. Without external timekeeping cues such as what class they’re in or where the sun is in the sky, children with interoception discrimination disorder often have difficulty knowing when to eat, when to sleep, and when they need to use the restroom. 

Tips and Tricks:

  • Prepare your child for any changes in routine. What exactly will be changing? What will stay the same? Are there new cues can he look for to know what to do next?
  • Set timers or alarms throughout the day to remind your child when it’s time to eat, use the restroom, or shift to another activity.
  • See our article for building good transition habits for more tips on establishing routines, creating rituals, and managing expectations.

Back To School: When Your Child’s Needs Aren’t Being Met

A few weeks ago, we talked about ways to be proactive, flexible, and collaborative when advocating for your child’s special needs at the start of the school year. Now that schools are fully back in session, parents everywhere are starting to feel the true limitations of virtual and blended learning. Many children—especially those with special needs—are struggling to manage their time, emotions, and workload outside of a traditional learning environment.

Your child might not be getting the support he needs right now, but that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. Below are some possible ways you can go about addressing gaps in your child’s accommodations. Remember, each response has pros and cons, and no solution works for everyone. You might even take different approaches at different points in your child’s life—and that’s okay! As always, only you know where you are on your journey and what feels right for your family right now.

Need someone to talk to about how to structure your child’s school day or advice on how to look for outside resources? Check out our new Caregiver Coaching service!

Option #1: Do nothing.

Though it can feel hopeless and frustrating, there are a myriad of reasons why you might not choose to pursue special accommodations for your child at this time. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by his struggles and aren’t sure where to start. Maybe you believe allowing him to have a “normal” childhood is more important than addressing some minor academic setbacks. Maybe you simply don’t have the bandwidth to juggle this new project in addition to the multitude of other responsibilities already on your plate.

Whatever the reason, finding yourself on this path doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child or that you’ve given up on him. Rather, frame this time as an opportunity to observe and learn about what makes your him tick. What kind of things make him frustrated? At what point does he give up or ask for help? What kinds of things does he love to do, and how does he excel at those things? This knowledge will be invaluable if/when you do pursue accommodations in the future.

Pros:

  • Both you and your child’s teacher will be able to observe his struggles and start collecting the data/examples you might need to advocate for him within the school.
  • You won’t be forced to spend time, money, or energy you don’t have right now.

Cons:

  • If you do nothing, nothing will change and your child will likely continue to struggle.
  • Those involved with your child on a daily basis (e.g. teachers, classmates, family members) will also continue to struggle to manage and support him.

Option #2: Demand change within the school system.

 

In some ways, this is the hardest and longest path to change, but it also yields the highest potential benefit to your child. That being said, you have to be tenacious. You need the time, energy, and resources to educate yourself about your particular district’s programs and policies. You need to have an understanding of how these programs operate during COVID—i.e., don’t expect services in week 2 if special ed programs aren’t starting until week 3. Finally, you need to come prepared with a clear description of your child’s struggles, anything you feel might contribute to his frustrations or inability to make progress, and some suggestions as to how the team, including parents, can address them in a virtual or blended setting.

Start by assuming the school is on your side, the teachers are good at their jobs, and everyone involved wants what’s best for your child. At the same time, acknowledge that COVID has been disruptive to virtually everyone and every system. Whether or not your school is able to provide him with every accommodation he needs, you will be on the path towards a better situation.

Pros:

  • Ideally, engaging the school is the first step in building a strong, coordinated team—including teachers, therapists, and psychologists—that will rally to support your child.
  • At the very least, you will be able to collect more data/examples/documentation on your child’s struggles and what the school is either unwilling or unable to address.
  • School services are provided during your child’s regular school day and generally don’t take time away from homework, extracurriculars, family time, or being with friends.

Cons:

  • It is hard. Dealing with the school system takes a lot of time, energy, purposeful observation, and creative thinking about how to solve problems—even when it feels like solving those problems should be the responsibility of teachers or case workers.

 

Option #3: Establish relationships directly with therapists, tutors, or other outside supports.

Whether you’re looking to establish entirely new supports or supplement existing ones, finding the right outside services for your child takes a lot of trial and error. In some cases, you’ll be able to provide the needed supports at home with relatively small investments. Most likely, though, you will need to spend some significant amount of time researching coaches, tutors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, etc. Though these services can be expensive, this is the path that will have the most immediate effect on your child. 

School services are often incomplete/imperfect and might not be able to provide all the accommodations you need right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean your school is terrible or unwilling to cooperate; they simply might not be able to see things you’ve noticed in a home setting, or your child might be performing better at school—with various in-class supports—than he is at home, where schoolwork seems confusing and out of context. If you do feel the need to go outside of the school system for additional help, make sure you’re at least keeping them in the loop.

Pros:

  • You will be able to proactively, directly address your child’s issues and personally ensure that he’s getting the support and accommodations he needs to succeed.
  • You might be able to gain insight or more details about how to support your child in a day-to-day home setting, not just in an academic context.

Cons:

  • Tutors, coaches, and therapists can be costly in terms of both money and time.
  • You will become your child’s case manager. The burden of researching, scheduling, and coordinating different services now falls entirely on you, and it takes a lot of bandwidth.
  • Outside services don’t take place during your child’s school day. You will either need to occasionally remove him from class or take him away from extracurriculars, friends, etc.

Back to School: Returning to Remote Learning

While many students are now starting to return to in-person classes, many more are gearing up to get back to remote classes. Parents, having learned from the pains of last spring’s abrupt shift to e-learning, are frantically working to create the best possible at-home learning environment. Setting up at home doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful. When it comes to children with special needs, a little monetary investment and a lot of creative thinking can make a big difference in terms of focus and regulation.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been taking some deep dives into pandemic parenting tips, things to think about prior to reopening, and how to better care for yourself so that you can care for your child. Need a refresher? Take a look at our previous articles on how to advocate for your child’s special needsmanaging meltdownscreating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.

Set up your space for success.

  • Create a separate, dedicated workspace in your house for each child and, if at all possible, make sure they’re far enough apart to keep them from seeing, hearing, or otherwise distracting each other while working. Let each child personalize his space—within reason—using posters, stickers, fun lighting and seating options, etc.
  • Take care to recreate any sensory-specific accommodations the school has made for your child up to this point: flexible seating and lighting, fidget options, etc. Don’t hesitate to reach out to his old teachers or special ed teachers if you need help or ideas.
  • Recreate some more general classroom elements as well. Many stores are now selling laminated wall charts featuring the alphabet, days of the week, and the weather. You can also make your own and have them laminated at your local office supply store.
  • If you’re able, get your child pumped up by going “back to school” shopping—whether online or in-store—and let him pick out some school supplies he’s excited about. Think funny notebooks, new headphones/headsets, flash drives, pens with different colored inks, and anything with a favorite character.
  • Set aside a couple hours to make sure all your child’s technology is set up and working properly. Download apps, double-check passwords, pair Bluetooth devices, etc. A little bit of time working out the kinks now will save hours of frustration later.

Focus on creating good transitions.

  • Create a weekly schedule for each child and hang it in an obvious place. Include a list of each class or subject, preferably color-coded, and a brief description of what your child should be doing in the few minutes between subjects (“Do 10 jumping jacks and get a glass of water,” or “Use the bathroom and move to the desk for math time.”)
  • Consider single-use timekeeping devices such as digital watches, timers, or alarm clocks. Whether it’s an old-school egg timer or a multi-sensory alarm clock designed for children with special needs, having a dedicated way to track time will keep your child from picking up his phone and becoming distracted throughout the day.
  • Further avoid distractions by using dedicated apps rather than bookmarks in your browser whenever possible. (Here are some ways for Mac users to turn web pages into dedicated desktop applications.)
  • Develop some strategies to help your child transition between activities that have to be done in the same space. Consider using different devices for different subjects, changing the lighting for math, facing another direction for social studies, putting some desk items away for reading, or simply hanging a sticky note with the current subject name above the desk. If you color-coded your schedule, make sure folders (both physical and digital), notebooks, and pens for each subject align to those colors.
  • Remember to keep moving! Remote learning likely means your child will be sitting in one or two spots for the majority of the day therefore won’t have as many natural breaks to get up, go outside, move up and down stairs, etc. Start the day with a walk or some exercise, and remember to build in frequent movement breaks.
  • Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let him sleep later than he would for in-person classes, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
  •  

Back to School: Returning to In-Person Classes

And we’re off! For many students, the transition from August to September means masking up and returning to in-person classes. This year is sure to include all the usual jitters and so much more. Below are a couple more things to think about as your child starts to navigate a blended or in-person schedule.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been taking some deep dives into pandemic parenting tips, things to think about prior to reopening, and how to better care for yourself so that you can care for your child. Need a refresher? Take a look at our previous articles on how to advocate for your child’s special needsmanaging meltdownscreating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.

Be collaborative.

  • Find a good mask. Get your child’s input on what kind of mask looks cool, which fits the best, ties vs. elastic bands, etc. Remember, the more she likes her mask, the more likely she is to leave it on. Consider experimenting with face shields or making your own from an old t-shirt featuring a favorite character, color, or pattern.
  • Once you’ve found the right mask, have your child practice wearing it for longer and longer periods of time, gradually working your way up to something that approximates a school day. Have her practice both talking through her own mask and listening to others talk through theirs. 
  • Talk about the importance of keeping at least six feet between your child and her classmates. Find quick, tangible ways to help her gauge and measure it in the real world. (“Six feet equals six tiles on the floor or six big steps,” or, “If you can reach out and touch your friend with your arm, you need to take some steps back.”)
  • Talk about and practice appropriate/right-sized ways for your child to ask for more space when someone around her is standing too close or not wearing a mask. Have her focus on her feelings and use “I” statements. (“I feel like I need some more distance,” or “I’m uncomfortable, so I’m going to take some steps backwards” as opposed to simply, “You need to move away.”)
  • Redundancy is the best policy. Send your child to school each day with two clearly marked bags—one full of clean masks, and one for dirty masks. Buy several clip-on bottles of hand sanitizer and stash extras in her locker, desk, cubby, and lunchbox. 

Pay attention to routine and transitions.

  • Remember, returning to school in this climate is sure to be emotionally taxing, even if your child only goes for a couple days a week. Have patience and empathy. All the normal back to school exhaustion and transition pains will be the same, if not worse.
  • Give your child some time immediately after coming home from school to relax and recenter. Don’t force her to talk about her day, run through her chores, or pick up the backpack she just dropped on the floor—at least not until she’s had time to transition back into being home on her own, in her own way.
  • On the same note, be conscious of scheduling after school activities, especially at the start of the year. Forcing too many activities—even things she typically enjoys—and too many transitions will only make her more exhausted and deregulated.
  • Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible, even on days when she doesn’t attend in-person classes. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let her sleep in an extra 30 minutes on at-home days, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
  •  

Back to School: Managing Anxiety and Setting Goals

Back to School is officially underway, and reopening plans and procedures are changing rapidly—sometimes from one day to the next. Parents and children alike are struggling to navigate the nuances of in-person vs. online classes, and we’re all dealing with the stress that comes with figuring out how to properly socially distance and keep the ones we love safe. 

A certain level of fear and apprehension is probably inevitable at this stage, but having a set of clear, defined goals and a path forward that accounts for the wants and needs of everyone in the family is the best antidote to anxiety. Below are a few things to think about as you gear up for the new year.

A couple notes:

  • Remember, you need to take care of yourself before you can be helpful to others. See our previous post for some tips on managing your own anxiety.
  • Everyone has bad days, but some of us need more help. Know your own threshold and watch your child for signs of depression and anxiety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional if you think you or your child need it. (Learn more here.)

 

Build your plans and priorities together.

  • Hopefully, you’ve been talking to your child about your family’s re-opening and back to school plans for a while. If not, start now. Talk about why your family has decided on your particular plan and what specific, tangible things will be different about this school year. Make sure he has time to process and come back to you with questions. Have him repeat the plan back to you in his own words, and ask him what he’s nervous or concerned about. Be prepared to have this conversation many, many times.
  • Develop a hierarchy of priorities and address each new concern or development in relation to these. For instance, priority #1 is making sure everyone in the family is physically healthy, priority #2 is making sure everyone in the family is emotionally healthy, and priority #3 is making sure everyone can have some time to focus on jobs or schoolwork. These are your core objectives—be prepared to drop, modify, or postpone anything that interferes with them.
  • Set aside a time each day or week to meet and discuss your family’s goals and concerns, take stock of what’s going on in the outside world, and plan what you’ll do next. Keep the time and place of these meetings as consistent as possible. Give your child time to ask questions and follow up with specific questions of your own. Knowing he can count on these meetings will help give him a sense of security and resiliency.
  • Use these talks as an opportunity to start shifting some responsibility for self-soothing and self-regulation onto your child. Work on helping him “listen to his body” and matching physical sensations with his emotions. Talk about how he can know when he’s anxious and develop strategies he can use to make himself feel okay in uncomfortable situations.
  •  

Give your child a voice and a vote.

  • Make sure to give your child a voice in your daily/weekly family discussions. Ask him what he needs to meet each of the three core objectives (happy, healthy, and productive) and how you can help with each. Focus on tangible things, like setting aside some time so he can ride his bike and get exercise, or ordering some new headphones so he can better concentrate on schoolwork. He might not always get exactly what he wants, but he will feel heard, respected, and more in control.
  • Remember, not all learning happens at school and not all productivity happens at work. Give your child the space and support to pursue some non-academic goals when possible. Skateboarding is a great way to work on balance and get some exercise, for example, and drawing can help him learn to process emotion and work through anxiety. Focus on the need or goal that is being met, not necessarily on the specific way he’s going about it.
  • That being said, giving your child a voice does not mean giving him total control. The goal is to incorporate what he wants into the things you know he needs as much as possible—it is not to make him superficially happy at all times. He may want to play video games for eight hours a day, for example, but you know that works against his best interests physically, emotionally, and relationally. As the parent, you have the right and responsibility to set healthy limits. 

Back to School: Revisit Your IEP and 504

If you’re a special needs parent, you know how important it is to advocate for your child’s needs at the start of each school year. You probably already know that the partnership relationships you form with teachers and administrators in the fall will form the foundation of your child’s success throughout the year. Whether you’re gearing up for homeschool, distance learning, in-person classes, or some combination of the three, now is the time to take another look at your child’s IEP/504 and to ensure that your child’s entire support team-—including you—is aligned on expectations regarding academics, behavior, and teacher-parent communication.

What new accommodations need to be made to best support your child in this new environment? What old accommodations are irrelevant or impossible during COVID? How will you partner with the school staff to identify and address problems and celebrate successes? How can the school support you as a parent, and how can your parenting support the school? Below are a few tips and things to think about as you prepare for the start of the new year.

Be proactive.

  • Now more than ever, your child’s success requires a proactive stance. Don’t wait until school starts to come up with a plan, or the district might have already implemented concrete processes that are very difficult or impossible to change.
  • Create a document that lists your child’s strengths and weaknesses, how these have impacted her academic performance in the past (both at home and at school), and how you predict they will impact her performance in her new learning environment. Include any current accommodations, and re-assess the needs they are addressing in light of COVID. Be as specific and concrete as possible. The school’s staff should have already read the existing documentation, but that’s not always the case—think of this as a cheat sheet to get everyone back up to speed.
  • Schedule a pre-school meeting with your IEP/504 team, and don’t be afraid to track them down via email or phone if you’re told they’re not available until school starts. Talk openly about your expectations, questions, and concerns. You don’t need to walk into—or out of—the meeting with all the answers. However, it is important that.everyone on your child’s team is on the same page and following the same game-plan, even when that means acknowledging that some concerns remain unaddressed and that some answers will unfold over time.
  • Develop a good communication plan. As the parent, you should be forewarned of any changes to your child’s schedule, curriculum, or physical surroundings. Set up frequent check-ins with her teacher and IEP/504 team and talk about the best way to keep you informed so that you can better prepare and socialize these changes at home.
  • If your child is physically returning to school, request a tour of the building before her first day so you can start prepping her. Pay attention to changes in the classroom and the location of bathrooms. If possible, have her teacher accompany you on the tour.

 

Be flexible.

  • Accept that any existing plans and accommodations will probably need to change—in fact the whole idea of “success” or “optimal performance” might need to change, especially for special needs children. You and/or your child’s teachers may not be able to evaluate certain things remotely, like how well she’s able to focus in class or on Zoom, so be willing to exchange observations and insights with school staff and to adjust your goals as needed.
  • Schedule frequent check-ins with your child’s teacher to discuss what’s working and what needs to change. Make sure to give each plan of action enough time to tell if it’s truly working, and agree on what the markers of success are and what will cause the plan to shift.  (“We are agreeing now that we will all start the year by trying Plan A. If my daughter meets this Goal by this Date, then we will all continue Plan A. If not, then within one week we will all switch to try Plan B.”)
  • Consider novel solutions to old problems. There may be cases in which your school simply can’t support your child to the same, pre-COVID level. Be open to bringing in outside coaches or tutors, and don’t hesitate to reach out to other parents for advice. (Need some advice? Check out our new caregiver coaching service!)
  •  

Be collaborative.

  • Remember, you are part of the educational team now—you’ve spent a lot of valuable time with your child in quarantine, and you have unique insight into her that no one else has. You have a voice and a vote in these decisions.
  • Also remember that your special relationship with your child means that your child may respond differently to teachers and peers than to parents and siblings—for better or for worse! This is normal, especially after everyone in your household has all been through an intense spring and summer together. Be emotionally prepared to observe these differences in behavior, and try not to take them personally. Acknowledge what you observe, share it with the team, and maintain your focus on identifying your child’s needs and on partnering effectively with the school to ensure those needs are met.
  • Don’t shy away from sharing your experiences and talking to your team about any specific strategies or solutions that have worked for you—and what hasn’t worked. At the same time, be honest when you don’t have an answer. You don’t always have to.
  • Keep in mind that districts and teachers are struggling with how to manage COVID, too. Give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they all care about your child’s success and doing their jobs well.
  • That being said, teachers and admins are definitely overwhelmed. Approach things with a spirit of collaboration, but remember things will slip through the cracks and you will have to be tenacious.

Teaching Your Sensory-Sensitive Child to Ride a Bike

Spring has sprung, and it’s time to break out the bikes! Learning to ride a bike is a right of passage for many children, and it’s a skill they can take with them their entire lives.

While SPD and other sensory issues present some unique challenges, you can help your child feel safe and confident by breaking the process up into small, simple steps and allowing him to go at his own pace. Below is a method we’ve found successful with our own children–feel free to use it as a starting point and modify as needed.

Above all, stay positive and remember to celebrate the small victories. Good luck!

Sensory Challenges

The Issue: Sensory Overload

Becoming irritated or overwhelmed by physical sensations like the wind blowing in his face, uncomfortable safety gear, or the sight of objects whizzing by quickly

What to Do

Let your child pick out his own helmet and pads and add extra cloth or padding if needed. Introduce new textures and sensations slowly.

The Issue: Vestibular Processing

Problems with balance, motion, or spatial orientation, such as feeling out of control, unsteady, or too far away from the ground

What to Do

Consider getting a tricycle, scooter, or balance bike first. Practice balancing and moving with speed before making the leap to a regular bike.

The Issue: Motor-Based Problems

Difficulties maintaining stamina, determining the order in which to make certain movements, or coordinating different muscle groups

What to Do

Break new skills down into small, simple steps and use repetition to reinforce new concepts. Physically guide your child through the process.

The Issue: Sensory Discrimination

Inability to properly gauge the distance between objects, the different shapes of street signs, or how much force is being used to pedal or turn

What to Do

Practice telling the difference between the shapes of two signs, the distance between two toys, or whether  he’s going fast or slow. Make it a game and have him try to “trick” you.

The Issue: Fear

Meltdowns, anxiety, or refusal to practice caused by any of the above issues

What to Do

Be supportive and patient. Make sure your child is regulated before you begin, and allow him to go at his own pace.

Note

Learning to Ride

  1. Have your child sit on the bike and stand directly in front of him so he can see everything you’re doing and knows you’re in control. Slowly move the handlebars left to right, back and forth, so he can both see and feel the movement.
  2. Have him practice getting on and off the bike while you continue to hold it steady.
  3. Slightly tilt the bike in either direction, as if it’s going to fall, and have him practice “catching” himself by leaning and putting his foot down on the correct side.
  4. Continue to hold the handlebars and have him practice getting on and off as you tilt. Make sure to practice on both sides until he’s comfortable.
  5. Stand behind the bike and repeat step #3 using the balance bar. When he’s comfortable with his footing, start tipping the bike farther–just enough so that he must catch himself.
  6. Use the balance bar to push the bike slowly forward. Have him practice steering while you keep the bike upright and steady. Move on to pedaling and braking when he’s mastered steering.
  7. Continue to hold on, but encourage him to go faster. Make a game of seeing if he can “make Mommy/Daddy run.” Let him be completely in control of speed and stopping. 
  8. Tell him you can let go whenever he’s ready–and when he tells you to let go, do it! Practice pedaling and stopping over and over until he doesn’t fall and can confidently control the bike on his own.
  9. Start working on turns. Place cones or toys in a parking lot or other open space and have him weave around and through them. Focus on slowing down and making wide swings around objects, and move the objects closer together as he gets comfortable.

Have another suggestion? Let us know in the comments!

Spring Break Tips: Traveling with Sensory Needs

The holidays are just barely over, but Spring Break is already coming up fast! Whether you’re planning on relaxing at home or flying off to Disney World, accounting for your child’s sensory sensitivities can feel overwhelming–but, with a little extra thought and careful planning, it can be done!

See below for a few of our favorite tips on tackling spring break and traveling with sensory needs.

Tips for Traveling with Sensory Needs

  • Don’t stop at online research. Call up the resort, park, or club and talk about your child’s specific needs and available accommodations. (Disney, for example, has a wide variety of services for patrons with disabilities.)
  • Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you can, rent a house or Airbnb instead of getting a hotel room. This will give you more control over meal prep, baths, and sleeping arrangements.
  • Practice good transitions. Take the few minutes between activities to make sure your child has a bathroom break, a snack, or even just a few deep breaths.
  • Pack for your child’s sensory triggers. Helpful items might include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, smelling jars, or a picky eater’s favorite snack.
  • Plan your stops. If you’re driving, pack a cooler and eat at rest areas or parks instead of restaurants. Build in time to let your child run around and burn off excess energy.
  • Keep your own expectations in check. Leave plans open-ended whenever possible. Rather than trying to stick to a rigid schedule, try to do just one or two things each day.
  • Make sure your child knows what to expect. Print out maps, brochures, and photos from Google or Yelp and go over them together. Practice waiting in line and develop strategies for dealing with overwhelming situations.
  • Build in downtime. Each member of the family should have time to go for a walk, read a book, or do whatever calms and centers them. Remember, taking time for yourself will allow you to be more present and able to fully enjoy your time together.

Some Tips for Staying Home

  • Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you do need to change up your family’s schedule, talk to your child about how this week will be different than usual.
  • Take day trips. Shorter, focused outings are generally cheaper and allow you to maintain more control over meals, timing, etc.
  • Look for less trafficked alternatives to popular destinations. Check out smaller train or art museums, or go see your local minor league team instead of the Cubs.
  • Know when other schools are on break. Keep in mind that play places and other popular destinations will be much, much busier than usual.