Sensory Sensitivities: Dealing with Social and Academic Situations

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Sensory sensitivities tend to emerge at an early age where they are generally considered part of the typical development.

The number of kids diagnosed with sensory issues is on the rise and many parents are unsure of how to deal with social and academic situations, in which these behaviors showcase themselves. We talked to Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology, Indiana University School of Medicine and a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. She explains how to help your kids in school, on the playground and in other areas.

What are sensory issues?

Sensory sensitivities affect those kids who have a stronger-than-average reaction directly related to the five senses. Be it loud noises or certain food textures, these kids display strong negative behavior more so than their peers of the same age. Kids with sensory sensitivities may also exhibit some coping mechanism that may seem weird to other kids. Maybe they chew their shirt when the classroom is too loud and they feel anxious or they rock back and forth.  

The goal for parents and kids is to understand and explore coping mechanisms when it comes to these sensitivities so that kids can participate in school activities, parties and other events without added anxieties or outbursts.

Dealing with social and academic situations

If your child’s sensory difficulties make it harder for them to be successful in the school environment, then you should talk with his school to see how they can help plan for these issues and further assist your child with being successful in that environment.  For instance, some schools have “lunch bunch” a program in which selected kids eat with a school psychologist once a week in an environment where social interactions are worked on in a fun way. 

For social situations outside of the classroom, the goal is not to limit or restrict your kids from being able to participate in social situations because of their sensory issues or behavior problems, but instead finding the right activity based on your child’s needs. For example, instead of signing them up for basketball where loud sounds might be more prevalent (i.e., buzzers, people cheering) for a child who has a sensitivity to loud noises try a sport or activity that might be less noisy. Or for the child who doesn’t like large crowds, try setting up small group or 1:1 play dates instead of going to a larger venue where more people might be present.  You can slowly work on these difficulties over time, but expecting them to be successful right off the bat without teaching them other ways to “handle” or “cope” with the event may be unreasonable.

Does it get easier as kids age?

Generally speaking, for the vast majority of children who are typically developing, they grow out of their sensory issues.  Sensory sensitivities tend to emerge at an early age where they are generally considered part of the typical development (e.g., 3-4 years old).  Sensitivities associated with normal child development generally decline over time on their own or as long as parents have helped their child “get through” these situations through using positive strategies. 

There may be other kids, however, who continue to have sensory issues.  Fodstad explains that for these kids there could be clear reasons why their sensory sensitivities persist which could include that the child is impulsive, is inattentive to social cues, has trouble internalizing verbal social rules, lacks a sense of social boundaries, or the child has received outcomes he or she likes when they have engaged in this behavior in the past (they may get excessive attention from others or get out of doing something they do not want to do).

The goal for parents is to work with their kids, school, therapists and other experts (like their pediatrician) to navigate social and academic situations.  Often with practice, kids learn successful coping strategies. And for those kids where the sensitivities persist, seeing if there may be underlying issues (like ADHD) may be the appropriate next step.

-- By Judy Koutsky 

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