Working to help children with sensory processing disorders (SPD) at a young age can have an invaluable, positive impact on their ability to cope in education as they grow older. The relative freedom that the nursery and pre-school environment affords children makes it the perfect place to help them to learn both the intellectual and practical skills that will set them up for primary school and beyond.
SPD is not one thing, rather, it describes a group of similar sensory disorders. To make matters more complicated, it is not yet recognised as an officially diagnosable illness by psychiatrists - they are not convinced at this time that diagnosing SPD is the best way to treat the symptoms.
However, anecdotal evidence from parents whose children have been treated for SPD strongly suggests that it’s a condition that needs wider recognition. Once a child has been identified as having some form of SPD, there needs to be a concerted effort from occupational therapists (OTs), their family, and their teachers to give them the best opportunity to succeed in education.
Diagnosing SPD is tricky with younger children, as it can take time for families and educators to recognise that there is something wrong. While SPD is obvious in some, the varied nature of the different disorders that comprise it means that there will be other children whose behaviour will simply be dismissed as ‘acting up’.
This means that parents and educators need to be especially vigilant for signs that young children might have some form of SPD. Such signs could include children finding their clothes restrictive or uncomfortable, not responding to sensory stimuli (such as pain), or struggling to focus on something because they keep getting distracted by things that other children don’t notice.
Understanding SPD treatment
If a professional identifies a child as having a sensory disorder, there is treatment that they can receive. While this professional treatment will take place outside of education, it is important for staff at the child’s nursery to know what’s going on so that they can make sure the child’s experience is consistent across their home and nursery lives.
The most important thing to do if you want to help a child you know has SPD is to talk to their parents, and their OT if possible, to understand the child’s form of SPD and what you can do to help.
Occupational therapy treatments can involve sessions in sensory gyms, which are areas designed to give regulated sensory stimulation, and various exercises and massage techniques for the child to engage in at home. The stories from children who have been treated in this way show some incredibly encouraging results, and the child’s time at nursery and pre-school shouldn’t take away from the treatment they’re receiving outside.
How nurseries can help
Once you understand the needs of the child(ren) you’re working with, there will be things that you can do to help them. The rest of this article is examples and suggestions of what might be helpful, but this is just a starting point to generate some ideas. Each individual child will respond to different things, so work with their families and OTs to make sure you’re doing the best thing for them.
One of the most important things you can do is find a balance between helping children learn, and discouraging them from harmful behaviour. As a baseline, you never don’t want to fall into the trap of telling the child off for doing something that is a result of their sensory disorder. However, humans learn behaviour through reinforcement, and if a child with SPD is doing something harmful, like hurting another child, they need to understand that this is something they can’t do.
But trying to force a child with SPD to do what every other child does is unlikely to work, and it could lead to the child becoming frustrated and confused. Instead, think about what you can do that is good for them and the other children.
If the child finds sitting still for too long particularly uncomfortable, then try incorporating more activities that involve standing up and moving around into their day.
For children who need more sensory stimulation, think about activities that involve new sensations, like playing with sand or play dough.
If a child is fidgety, then it’s okay to let them fidget. Fidget toys or sensory tabs on furniture can give children something to play with that is not too distracting for other children, and having access to these things can help them to relieve stress.
Finally, something that is common to a lot of children with SPD is that they struggle to cope with a quick change of activities. If you know this to be the case, make an effort to wind down one activity slowly, and to build slowly into another, rather than making an abrupt switch.
There is so much that a nursery can do to make a real, positive impact in the life of a child with SPD. By taking some time to understand each child’s needs and implementing practical measures to help them, you could set them up for a happy and successful time in education.