#39 - How Can I Help My Child Sit Still in the ClassroomAug 27, 2023
Hello! Welcome back to episode #39 of the Food Explorers Podcast, and our 4th episode of the back-to-school series. Last week I mentioned that we would be focusing on handwriting in this episode….but as you can see from the title, that’s not the case. I’m sorry for the bait & switch, but I do have a good reason for it.
When I was planning the handwriting episode, I really wanted to do this one with a second occupational therapist, because I thought that would be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the OT that was supposed to come onto the podcast had a family emergency, and so we weren’t able to get her booked. So I planned to do the episode alone. However…last minute I connected with a new OT friend, who specializes specifically in handwriting. Which I am SO excited about. I’ve been through her website, and her social media pages, and she definitely knows what she is talking about. So your handwriting episode is still coming, but it will come out next week instead. Get excited, because I just know this is going to be such a value packed episode for you.
But don’t you worry, so is our episode today.
Today, we’re focusing on how to help a child, who struggles to sit still in the classroom. We touched on this briefly in our Sensory Strategies for the Classroom episode, but I knew there was much more for us to talk about.
Sitting still is a common challenge for children with sensory processing difficulties, for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, it often leads to them getting disciplined, yelled at, or labeled as disruptive in the classroom. Which makes them less excited and motivated to participate, or go to school.
As I mentioned in our Sensory Strategies episode, I don’t believe that schools are really set up to support the sensory system adequately. Children are expected to sit for SO many hours, and our body naturally craves movement. However, these are the demands of the classroom, and to perform well in school, children need to be able to adjust and fulfill those demands. However, if your child has an IEP, they may have an exception, where we can change the demands to meet their needs.
Now, I do want to acknowledge that there can be an array of reasons outside of sensory processing that can make sitting still a challenge, like ADHD, but those are not my speciality. For the purpose of this episode, we are going to focus on sensory processing. However, something really interesting is that there is a strong correlation between ADHD and sensory processing, so sensory strategies may still very well be helpful for children with other diagnoses, like ADHD (1, 2).
Let’s talk about a couple reasons that a child may have trouble sitting still (*hint: it’s not usually because they are just trying to be difficult)
- Their body is seeking or needs more vestibular or proprioceptive input: Depending on your child’s sensory profile, their body may crave more vestibular or proprioceptive input. For those of you who are new to me - 2 of our hidden senses are our vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Vestibular input is head and body movement, and proprioceptive input is considered compression or traction of our joints, or changes in the position of our muscles. So for example, a child who is rocking in their chair, may be trying to get extra vestibular input by swinging back & forth in the chair, or proprioceptive input from compression of their joints every time the chair hits the floor very hard. Or maybe a child’s body is feeling really sluggish and sleepy. They may be craving standing up and walking to the bathroom, or moving around in the classroom in order to wake their body up a bit. They would get vestibular input from moving forward and walking, and proprioceptive input from their feet hitting the ground with each step.
- Their muscles may not have enough endurance or strength to hold them up in their chair for prolonged periods of time: This is one that is missed SO often. Even when we’re not paying attention, our muscles are activated to help keep us upright, and from falling down. However, when a child has sensory processing challenges, their muscles may not be getting the message from the brain to stay activated, or they may not have the endurance to stay activated for long enough. In this case, we see a child who is shifting in their chair very often, maybe they’re slumped to the side, or even sitting on the edge of the chair. To a teacher, this may look like a child isn’t listening or is being disruptive, but in reality, they’re trying their best to activate their muscles, and compensate the best way they know how. And if you’re not able to sit upright and hold up your posture, it’s really hard to focus your eyes on the teacher or board.
- They may be seeking touch, sound, or other sensory input: Similar to our proprioceptive & vestibular sense, our other sensory systems like touch and sound can crave input. So a child may drum on their table, or reach out and touch the child in front of them in class. It’s not meant to be disruptive, it’s their brain and body trying to get the input it desperately needs to function, and return to that just-right-spot for learning.
- They may be over-responsive to input: On the other hand, maybe the amount of input going on in the classroom is just too much! In this case, a child may move around to avoid it. For example, maybe they’re uncomfortable with how close a peer is to them, or their clothes feel funny, or the chair is too cold. We might see a child shifting positions or moving to avoid input as much as possible.
- Their basic needs aren’t met: We don’t function well when our basic needs aren’t met. And children with sensory processing challenges often have trouble with basic needs like identifying the need to use the restroom, eating filling and nutritious foods, and getting a full night of sleep. This can impact their focus and arousal levels in the classroom.
Now let’s talk about some specific strategies to help organize the body, and improve a child’s ability to sit in their chair:
- Incorporate movement before and after school: A couple weeks ago on the podcast we talked about sensory diets & sensory toolboxes. And this is a great example of where this would come into play. Something really cool about movement is that it can be used both to wake up and calm the body by offering both vestibular and proprioceptive input. It’s truly a game changer for children who crave more input. This could look like incorporating jumping jacks, obstacle courses, or crashing on pillows before school. Other kids love being rolled up like a burrito. Use some trial and error and see which kind of input your child not only enjoys, but also which kind organizes their body.
- Ask the teacher to incorporate movement at school: While we can incorporate movement before/after school, the school day is long, and your child may need some movement breaks in between. Speak to your teacher about how you can accommodate this without disrupting the classroom. One strategy I love is teaching a child how to use a card, or hand sign, that lets the teacher know their body needs some movement. This movement can be an entire class game, a class break to move around the room, or something more individual like allowing the child to walk to the bathroom and back. Each teacher is going to feel different about this, so speak to them about what works for their classroom.
- Work on improving strength/coordination: Unfortunately, we don’t get a ton of referrals that specifically ask to improve strength, endurance, and coordination. However, on most of my evaluations, I usually see some kind of strength deficit impacting a child’s ability to sit in the classroom. By improving their muscle strength and endurance, your child will better be able to hold themselves up in their seat, without shifting positions constantly. In these cases, I definitely recommend getting an occupational therapy evaluation, so your child’s unique needs can be determined. If OT isn’t an option for you, I also love after school activities like gymnastics and karate.
- Provide alternative seating: As we discussed in our Sensory Strategies episode, alternative seating may be a useful tool for your child. Wiggle cushions allow a child to achieve a bit of movement without getting out of their chair, as do therapy ball chairs. Additionally, both of these options promote waking up of the postural muscles, to help children stay sitting upright, as opposed to slumping or shifting.
- Consider weighted lap toys: If a child is craving deep pressure or proprioceptive input, weighted lap toys can give them that input, and allow them to focus - instead of rocking in their chair or banging on their desk. However, it’s really important not to choose a toy that is too heavy for your child, so I recommend working with an OT, or asking for the school OTs input on this.
- Teach your child how to check in with their own body: One of my favorite tools to use in occupational therapy sessions is the book How Does Your Engine Run. The focus of this book is helping children become aware of how their body is functioning throughout the day, and request strategies that help them return to that just-right-spot. Teaching your child to identify when they’re body is feeling like it needs something, can help them fulfill that need, and move on to focusing in the classroom. This includes basic needs like hunger, need to use the restroom, and thirst. It may also be useful to speak with your teacher about providing reminders for these.
- Deep breathing: We vastly underestimate the power of deep breathing. When our body is too hot on our sensory thermometer, deep breathing can help kick our body back into rest and digest. When it’s feeling too cold, it can help wake it up. I love teaching kids how to use deep breathing when they’re feeling out-of-sync.
- Allow standing: We touched on this in our Sensory Strategies episode, but sometimes, kids might do better if they are allowed to stand during activities. Especially children who are still working on building up their strength and stamina for sitting. Teachers may initially be worried it might be disruptive, but there’s a chance it could be the exact opposite for your child.
- Minimize distracting input: If there is certain sensory input that is distracting to your child, discuss with the teacher how this can be minimized. For example, some children benefit from blinders around their desk, so they can focus squarely on the teacher. Other children may need some extra room between themselves and their classmates. Consider which sensory input is distracting, and how we can decrease it, so your child can focus on the task in front of them.
- Fidgets: Again, we discussed this briefly in our Sensory Strategies episode, but fidgets are a great way to provide tactile, visual, and proprioceptive input to children. It takes some trial and error to figure out which ones may be best for your child. I love using pop-its, fidget cubes, play-doh, or even doodling.
Keep in mind - you can also practice these strategies at home with your child, when they’re doing their homework. You may be tempted to ask them to sit still the entire time, but keep notice of whether this is challenging for them. A quick movement break may help your child be able to better focus and complete their homework at a more rapid pace. The more you practice this with your child, and teach them the skills, the better they will be at carrying it over into the classroom with their teacher.
That brings us to the end of our episode, I’d love to know what you thought of this episode. Head over to @DrSamGoldman on instagram, send me a DM and let me know if any of these strategies resonated with you.
As I mentioned a couple episodes ago, keep your eyes open because we will be having a new guide for school coming soon - and it’s going to be awesome.
I’ll see you back here next week for our handwriting episode, I CANNOT wait. See you then!
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