How to Prevent Sensory Overload at School

How to prevent sensory overload at school

We live in a fast-paced world. Take New York City, for example. With millions of people bustling around the same city limits, loud sounds battling for attention and LED visuals competing to stand out, it can be a lot to handle.

Sensory overload can happen to anyone, even those who live a quaint life comfortably in the middle of nowhere, but some are more prone to sensory issues than others.

At school, we should be aware of the possibility of sensory triggers that can lead to meltdowns or triggered flight-or-flight responses. Students deserve a comfortable space to learn. Here, we explain what sensory overload is and outline ways to prevent common triggers, so your child or student can feel comfortable in their learning environment.

If you are a parent or caregiver, consider consulting an Occupational Therapist for personalized help tailored to your child’s specific needs.

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What Causes Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is caused by a specific sensory trigger. We are all familiar with the five basic senses — sight, sound, smell, taste and touch — but these senses extend to vestibular, proprioceptive and inner-body types, too.

Sight Triggers

Examples of visual triggers are:

  • Bright lights.
  • Flashing lights.
  • Vibrant colors.
  • Clutter.
  • New environments or people.

At school, some common visuals that may display these triggers are bright infographics, toys, fluorescent lighting, disorganized workspaces, projectors, television screens and computer monitors.

Sound Triggers

Examples of auditory triggers include:

  • A large group of people talking at once.
  • Loud or triggering music.
  • Background noises.
  • Sudden, alarming sounds.

Hallways may be particularly challenging to navigate for those with sensory issues. Other common auditory school triggers include static sounds, fire alarms, distracting noises outside of the classroom and noisy classmates.

Smell Triggers

Examples of olfactory triggers are:

  • Potent smells.
  • Unfamiliar smells.
  • Strong chemicals.
  • Perfume scents.

Common olfactory triggers at school include perfumes or colognes, chemicals used during science experiments, lunchroom smells and gym locker rooms.

Taste Triggers

Examples of gustatory triggers are:

  • New flavors.
  • Intense flavors.
  • Displeasing flavors.

At school, these triggers are most likely to happen in the lunchroom, especially when students buy hot lunches from the cafeteria.

Touch Triggers

Examples of tactile triggers include:

  • Unfamiliar textures.
  • New fabrics.
  • Sudden contact.
  • Environmental conditions, such as rain or wind.

Some school-specific examples of tactile triggers are bumping into other students in the hallway, being approached from behind, playing outside on a particularly windy day and engaging in dramatic play with costumes.

Vestibular and Proprioceptive Triggers

Examples of vestibular and proprioceptive triggers are:

  • Oscillation, like when swinging.
  • Carrying heavy objects.
  • Changes in air pressure.
  • Sliding.
  • Spinning.
  • Climbing.
  • Jumping.
  • Confinement.

Students with sensory issues may find recess or select playground equipment particularly challenging. Other examples of school vestibular and proprioceptive triggers include being surrounded by a large group of students and doing certain gross motor movements, like dances associated with an educational song.

Inner-Body Triggers

Examples of inner-body triggers include:

  • Hunger.
  • Thirst.
  • Being too hot or cold.
  • Sudden changes in temperature.
  • Having to use the restroom.

Some students may experience inner-body triggers at school when they have to use the restroom but are too nervous to ask. It can also occur when entering a room that is recognizably colder or warmer than the one they were just in.

How to Prevent Sensory Overload in Children

Identifying possible sensory triggers is the first step in preventing sensory overload at school.

Using this knowledge, you can take the appropriate precautionary measures to prevent triggering a sensory meltdown or flight-or-fight response. Doing this promotes a healthier and more inclusive learning environment for all students. Here are a few tips to start:

Beware of the school environment

1. Be Aware of the School Environment

At school, a large portion of students’ time is spent in the classroom. Creating a school environment that recognizes sensory overload triggers requires communication between teachers and parents or caregivers.

For teachers, you can:

  • Minimize your movements or gestures.
  • Avoid wearing perfumes.
  • Get your students’ approval before incorporating any scent, like essential oils, into your classroom environment.
  • Try your best to approach students from the front.
  • Avoid overly complicated visuals.
  • Replace fluorescent lightbulbs, which are prone to flickering or making noise.
  • Keep the classroom organized and free of clutter.

If you’re a parent, you can:

  • Pack your child’s lunches.
  • Encourage your kid to bring a jacket or cardigan.
  • Provide sensory-overload suppressant tools.
  • Empower your kid to talk to their teacher when they’re experiencing a problem.

Most importantly, parents should communicate with their kids about any potential triggers they might be experiencing at school.

For kids prone to sensory overload, parents or caregivers may consider touring the classroom and school environment. You could also provide recommendations to teachers on how they can enhance certain precautionary measures.

2. Maintain a Consistent Schedule

Surprises or sudden changes in daily routine can be a huge trigger for students. To combat this, try your best to stick to a comfortable daily routine and inform your student or child when you know there will be a pattern break.

For example, schools are required to perform fire drills to practice evacuating the school in the event of an actual fire. Teachers can notify the students and take preventative measures to make sure the sudden alarm sounds or mass groups don’t trigger a sensory overload response.

3. Have Sensory Breaks

Teachers, parents and caregivers are becoming more and more aware of children’s holistic and mental well-being. Incorporating sensory breaks into students’ daily routines helps them practice coping techniques, almost like hitting the pause button on their triggers.

During sensory breaks, encourage students to:

  • Practice deep-breathing exercises.
  • Take a moment to be silent.
  • Get up and stretch their bodies.
  • Take a moment to sit still.

Students prone to sensory overload may find it hard to relax in a classroom with other students. Establish an open line of communication and find a safe, quiet place for them to go whenever they’re feeling overwhelmed.

How You Can Help Children With Sensory Overload

Although anyone can experience sensory overload, some individuals are more likely to experience it than others. Types of people who are more sensitive to sensory triggers include those who have:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Tourette syndrome.
  • Autism.

In addition to the precautionary measures already outlined, help these students feel more comfortable in their learning environment by practicing these additional safeguards:

1. Learn From Their Triggers

Sensory triggers aren’t universal. Some students react differently to certain stimuli. Using your established line of communication, talk to students about their potential triggers and make the necessary adjustments to their academic environment.

Communication between teachers and parents or caregivers is equally important. Teachers may notice certain triggers as they get to know a student. Parents or caregivers can supply guidance based on the student’s home-life sensory triggers.

Avoid overscheduling activities

2. Avoid Overscheduling Activities

Just as sudden changes in a student’s daily routine can feel triggering, stuffing too many activities into their day can provoke the same response.

Encourage students to participate in after-school activities. Guide them to choose activities that can be easily managed or are specifically tailored to students with sensory issues.

If you notice your student or child is starting to feel overwhelmed when balancing their daily schedule, find ways to reduce this feeling. You can do this by either rescheduling activities or supplying various coping techniques.

3. Consider Sensory-Overload Suppressant Tools

In addition to behavioral coping techniques, your child or student may find it helpful to keep a sensory-overload suppressant tool with them at school.

Tools you may want to consider include:

  • Sensory socks: Sensory socks are loose-fitting body socks that allow children to move and stretch the fabric. They create a gentle “hugging” compression for soothing.
  • Sensory headphones: Silencing hundreds of students at school can prove to be a challenge. Some students may find it useful to keep sensory headphones with them to soften loud noises while working.
  • Weighted vests: Particularly helpful for students who struggle with proprioceptive triggers, a weighted vest keeps controlled, gentle pressure on a student’s body. It sends signals to the brain that keep them focused and calm.

For teachers, it may be a good idea to keep sensory-overload suppressant tools in your classroom in case any student feels the overwhelming — and at times surprising — effects of sensory overload.

Create an All-Inclusive Playground With Miracle® Recreation

Sensory exploration plays an important role in child development. At Miracle Recreation, we recognize this can be challenging for kids who struggle with sensory issues — but that does not mean they cannot experience thrilling adventures at the playground.

We have earned our reputation as a trusted leader in the playground industry with our innovative and all-inclusive equipment and sensory play equipment. We are inspired to keep expanding our selection of products from seeing firsthand the positive impact our playground equipment has on kids with sensory issues.

If you are ready to start designing an all-inclusive playground that fits your community’s needs, contact a Miracle Recreation Customer Service representative today!

Note: At Miracle Recreation, we’re aware of the ongoing debate in the autism community over the use of identity-first (autistic person) and person-first (person with autism) language. We understand the choice is a highly personal one, especially for individuals in the autism community, so we’ve decided to use a combination of person-first and identity-first language.