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We Need to Give Teachers the Tools to Understand Kids With Sensory Processing Disorder

I knew it all.

I’m a list maker, a goal setter. And since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a teacher and a mom. I went to college and earned a masters degree in education. I put 110 percent into my classroom every day. I was asked to mentor teachers starting out. I worked with student teachers. I wrote curriculum. It was my passion. I knew it all.

I was childless, and yet, in my overconfident, young mind, I knew everything about raising children. The child study team of one of my students suggested I have him carry heavy books between my sixth-grade double period language arts class. Without even a conversation, they handed me a printout that explained the heavy work would help regulate his sensory system. I wondered, what could carrying a few books in the middle of my class really do? 

And then, a few years later, I became a mom to a little boy, and I realized I knew absolutely nothing.

My son Jake entered the world in chaotic fashion, perhaps a signal of things to come. Looking back, there were so many signs. At the time, they were just “quirks.” He froze on metal playgrounds and had to be carried down. He covered his ears with loud noises. He hated water in his face. He had an extremely limited diet and could vomit just looking at a food he found unpleasant. He couldn’t catch a ball or pedal a bike with training wheels. His body seemed to always be in fight-or-flight mode, often both, and his meltdowns were more intense.

But he also had amazing qualities that were more intense, too. His vocabulary and intelligence were off the charts. His sense of humor and mayor-like personality often overshadowed his challenges.

However, one particularly tough day when Jake was about 3, I sat down and listed all these “quirks” on paper and realized we needed help.

We waited seven months for an appointment with a developmental pediatrician. After a long evaluation, the nurse took Jake out of the room to give him a prize. The doctor sat down with us, diagnosed Jake with ADHD and noted he had “sensory over-responsiveness.”

In all my education and professional development, I had never once heard the term “sensory processing disorder.” I did not know an estimated one in 20 children have sensory processing disorder (according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation). It is especially challenging because these sensory problems present in many different ways. A child can be under-responsive, over responsive or both. It can affect any combination of your seven (yes, seven, another thing I did not know) senses. His reactions to sensory input are not always consistent.

Too often, both parents and educators simply do not understand this disorder. I know from my own experience, many teachers are simply not educated about it.

Because of this, there are kids with sensory processing disorder who are being labeled “defiant” or with “behavior problems.” Their parents are being labeled as “failing.” They are judged as their child melts down. Their teachers who aren’t quite sure what to do with them are going home exhausted or frustrated.

If one in 20 students is affected by sensory processing, there is a good chance there is one child in every classroom, yet many teachers have no formal training on sensory processing disorder.

I feel immense guilt over being a teacher who once didn’t understand, for rolling my eyes when it was suggested a student carry heavy books, as I’ve seen that very same activity help my son. As I’ve learned more about Jake and his challenges from the team of experts who work with him, I pass that on to his teachers. Luckily, his teachers have been open and supportive, and our days are all better with this understanding. Hopefully, all children will receive this compassion, all these parents will have support and all these teachers will have the tools they need for everyone to understand these kids and keep any from falling through the cracks.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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