For some neurodivergent kids, the school setting can be a wonderfully inclusive, neurodiversity-affirming place. And for others, it can be an uphill climb for parents to advocate for what our children need.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I want to share with you some of the strategies and tips that I’ve found helpful when advocating for supports, tools and accommodations for your neurodivergent child in the general education classroom.
What you’ll hear in this episode:
- Some common pain points you’ll hear in opposition to providing supports and accommodations for our neurodivergent students
- Scripts to use with school staff and classmates to teach about neurodiversity
- Why sensory tools are not only helpful but necessary
- Tips on how to address valid arguments against providing accommodations
Common pain points
When talking about advocating for accommodations in the traditional setting of the general education classroom, here are some of the most common concerns I hear from parents:
- “I don’t/my child doesn’t want to stand out with special accommodations”
- “I’m not sure if the teacher will allow that”
- “The teacher is concerned it will be a distraction”
- “The teacher says if they allow my child to [x], then the other kids will also want to, and it will create a problem.”
The dream scenario
A great place to start when mapping out how we want to advocate for our neurodivergent children is to imagine the ideal world; the dream scenario for how we would want accommodations introduced in the classroom, and work backwards from there.
Here’s what I see:
I imagine sometime during the first few weeks of school, the full-time school-contracted not-overworked OT (dream scenario, okay?) goes into each classroom for a 30-minute workshop. The OT would introduce the idea of neurodiversity, perhaps even with my book, A Kids Book About Neurodiversity, and focus on how all people learn differently, move differently, and have different strengths and needs: something that helps one student regulate may be dysregulating for another.
In this workshop, the OT can also introduce sensory tools that will be in the classroom, demonstrate how they are used, why they are used, and allow students to interact with them and answer students’ questions about them.
This is my dream scenario because it preempts the questions, the stares, the whispers, and helps kids understand from the get-go why their classmate is rocking, stimming, taking movement breaks, sensory breaks, etc. It teaches them at the very beginning of the year that all brains are different and all brains are beautiful. It normalizes neurodiversity.
Back in the real world, something like this takes a lot of resources and a lot of forward thinking from school staff about their neurodivergent students. But let this be inspiration to you amazing parent advocates about what could be. And let’s turn it into some real-life, actionable strategies to help our schools understand what our neurodivergent kids need.
6 tips and scripts for advocating for sensory tools in the classroom
- Teach your own child about their sensory needs and sensory tools
A great place to start is teaching your child the function and purpose of the sensory tools that will support them in the classroom: how to use them, when to use them. This should be done in the privacy of the home or in the OT clinic, for example. It’s a great idea to teach our children about their nervous systems, and the way these sensory tools will be helpful for them. This is a crucial part of building our children’s self-advocacy skills.
- Provide extra/multiple sensory tools for the classroom
If you’re a parent and you’re the one providing the sensory tools to the classroom, and if it is within your means, it’s a good idea to provide tools for your child as well as some extra for others to use as well. This can help your child in case they might feel singled out or stigmatized by being the only one using these sensory tools. So for tools like wiggle cushions, pencil grips, fidget tools, having multiple sets can help your child feel less singled out when they are not the only one using them.
- Host a workshop for your child’s classroom
Remember the dream scenario workshop above? You could be that facilitator! You could be the one to teach your child’s class about neurodiversity, introducing sensory tools, showing them what they’re for, how they’re used.
You could be the one to teach them that these yoga balls, hand fidgets, Therabands, breathing balls are sensory tools (not toys).
You could explain to them that people learn differently. Some need to move and wiggle to pay attention; some need quiet and stillness; and these tools help create that environment for them so that they can learn and participate in the class like their peers. Some tools that help one student pay attention may be distracting for another student.
You could normalize differences by explaining in neutral terms how sensory differences, communication differences and learning differences are just that – differences. They’re not bad. “Just like a student who needs glasses can’t participate if the glasses are left at home, my child needs these sensory tools to be able to participate, too.”
- Be specific with the teacher about how the sensory tools should/shouldn’t be used
Specificity is key here. Do have a conversation with the teacher about how the sensory tools are used at home, as well as the effect it has on your child.
You’ll want to make sure that the teacher understands the importance of providing open access to the sensory tools (i.e., the student shouldn’t have to ask for it, and should always know where it is)
Teachers must understand that sensory tools should never be taken away as a punishment or withheld and given as a reward for good behavior, just like a child’s glasses. Open access.
If the sensory tools are creating a safety issue or is a detriment to your child’s learning, communication here is key. Ask the teacher to let you know so that as a team, you can come up with an alternative or replacement.
- Consider that school rules are often neuronormative and may not be appropriate for your child.
One very common argument against a sensory tool in the classroom is that it’s simply “not allowed.” And many parents have trouble pushing against this. Here are my thoughts:
School policies and rules and what’s ‘allowed’ in a classroom (other than items like weapons, or obvious safety hazards) stem from neuronormative standards. Meaning, those protocols and rules assume that everyone can easily follow them without being negatively impacted.
But if you’re neurodivergent, by definition, your needs differ from the majority in your space and so those protocols and rules may conflict with what you need.
Let’s use an example of chewing gum or chewy/crunchy snacks (which offer fantastic proprioceptive input for the jaw and can be very regulating). Schools may say “it’s not allowed.” Gum may not be allowed on campus and there may be only designated spaces and times for snacks.
Here is my response: “Gum is an accommodation that supports my child’s sensory regulation, which directly impacts his ability to learn and focus and pay attention. Denying his access to these tools is a violation of his rights to equal access to the classroom. Please reconsider.”
So yes, you are allowed to push back against established school rules.
- When “other kids will want it too,” encourage education and boundary-setting
Another common and valid argument is that if we provide this accommodation for one student, then other students will want it too and this will create disorder and distraction in the classroom.
My advice here is again that education piece about individual differences. If in a kindergarten classroom, everyone wants one student’s glasses, the solution will not be to remove the glasses from the student because they’re a distraction. Instead, just like with sensory tools, we can educate the class about why they’re helpful to one student, and that they’re not for everyone. It can take some effort and boundary-setting, but this should not be a reason to deny a neurodivergent student the sensory tools they need to be a full participant in the classroom. You are allowed to push back against this argument.
Some final words of advice
I know these conversations can be difficult. I myself am a recovering people pleaser, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable to challenge school administrators and teachers about their possible ableist thinking, or uneducated views about neurodiversity.
But I’d like to leave you with this thought, and I hope it gives you all the sturdiness and confidence you need:
When we advocate for our neurodivergent children, we are demonstrating in no uncertain terms what they deserve. And they deserve an inclusive environment. When we advocate for them, we are teaching them the words and actions that they can then use to self-advocate when they’re ready.
We’ve got this.
Laura Petix 0:00 school policies and rules, and what’s allowed, other than things that are like weapons or safety hazards, of course, but most of the other school policies around behavior stem from neuro normative standards, meaning those protocols and rules in place assume that everyone can easily follow those rules or protocol without being impacted. If you are neurodivergent, your child is neurodivergent. By definition, their needs differ from the majority in that space. And so those expectations and rules may conflict with what your child needs. Speaker 1 0:45 Welcome to the sensory wise solutions podcast for parents, where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom to Lilyana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new ot mom, bestie. I know my stuff. But I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Speaker 2 1:14 Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s turn the podcast. Laura Petix 1:21 Hello, hello, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. today’s podcast pairs well with my podcast episodes on classroom accommodations, whole body listening, and how to talk to your child about their neurodiversity. So I’m going to put all of those links below for you to access them after this episode. So this one is really for parents of kids who are in an in person classroom setting, and particularly in a classroom who that may have more neurotypical kids than neurodivergent kids. So whenever I help parents identify, we come up with a whole list of different accommodations and tools that their kids could benefit from in the classroom. And so we’re making this list and they’re like, Great, I’ll take this to the teacher, I can’t wait, this might be the thing that helps us. But that conversation, whether we pick it up later, after they talk to the teacher, or at the end of that conversation, it almost always steers to some of the following questions or concerns. So I hear things like, I don’t want my child to stand out, or my child doesn’t want to stand out with these special accommodations. I also hear I don’t really know if the teacher or the school is going to allow that. Or I’ve already asked the teacher to do this, but they said it’s going to be a distraction for the other students. Or the teacher says if they allow my child to have this accommodation, then the other kids will want it and it’s going to create a problem. So those are all valid concerns to bring up. And I think that there are some new ways for you to approach these concerns so that they won’t stand in the way of providing your child with the most optimal learning experience. But it’s going to it’s going to take some action and advocacy on your part, whether you ask the teacher to do some of the things I’m going to share or if you offer to do it for the teacher. But it’s going to take some action on your part part. But I have very actionable steps and like a step by step of how I would love it for it to play out in the classroom. So I’m going to first share my idealistic my utopian world view on how I wish every classroom would introduce accommodation, so close your eyes. And imagine this world with me. It would be sometime within the first week or month of school. Each classroom would get a 30 minute quote Sensory Learning Tools introduction that would be led by the school contracted ot remember, this is a utopian world where OTS aren’t burned out and overworked with their caseload, and each school has a dedicated ot that would be fantastic. So in this Sensory Learning Tools introduction workshop, the OT would introduce the class to neurodiversity as a whole. Maybe they wouldn’t even read my book, a kid’s book about neurodiversity to the class, but you know, that would just be a cherry on top, but they would focus mostly on calling out the different ways that students can learn and listen and how it can look different. Some people rock back and forth, some people stand some people fidget, some people need quiet. And in this sensory tools learning introduction workshop, the OT would demonstrate and show some of the learning tools available, and the proper way that they should be used, and really allow the kids to try them out, and or ask questions about it. What I love about this idea is that it normalizes different learning styles from the very beginning of the school year. And so that gets ahead of the staring and pointing and whispers about the kid who stems and hand flaps, and it sets the stage early in the year, and within the context of their general education classroom. Right, this should not be in the special education classroom, because those classrooms already have a lot of accommodations and sensory tools. And those kids know what those are, this workshop is really for the neurotypical kids to understand that there are different learning needs around them, and that they need to respect that. And that they need to just be okay with that. Okay, so open your eyes, we’re back to reality, I, I don’t think that that’s a standard practice in schools, at least not in the public schools in America. But I’m gonna dream that that can happen one day, if you know, someone, give me a call, let’s make it happen. Okay, so, but so that doesn’t exist. But maybe you’re the passionate parent who’s ready to advocate like hell for your child, to be part of an inclusive classroom. Or maybe you’re a teaching assistant who’s listening to this and set and you think you could start doing this in your classroom, or maybe you’re an OT who’s listening to this. And you could start talking to your colleagues and seeing how you could offer this, whoever you are listening to this, whatever your relationship is, with the neurodivergent child, I hope that you can take some of these ideas and integrate it into their mainstream classroom, whether you are the parent, and you bring this to the teacher, or if you’re the teacher or the OT, and you could bring this to the school. So what I would love is, first and foremost, this is going to depend more on the parent, make sure that your child understands the function of the sensory tool or tools, how to use it, when to use it. And the safety expectations and precautions around it. Right. So this should be done separately. So maybe at your house or maybe practicing it in the clinic with the OT. And it’s really helpful to describe to your child what the tool is for and how it will particularly help them. So for example, maybe they need a two necklace. This is your two necklace, you can chew on it like this, you can chew on it like this, it hangs around your neck, you can keep it inside of your shirt, you can keep it outside of your shirt, it stays on your body, it is not meant to be twirled around. This is something that you don’t share with friends. This is something you know how you like to bite the top of your pencil and you’re always chewing on your shirt, and then it kind of ends up making a hole in your shirt. Well, we know that chewing helps your body focus and learn. And so we definitely want you to keep chewing, we just don’t want you to keep chewing on your shirt. So we’re going to try this instead. Okay. That’s how I would sort of set that up, right. The second tip if you’re the parent, and you’re the one doing the research and saying I think this tool might help my child at school. I suggest if it’s within your resource to donate one or two extra of the same tools or similar tools to the classroom. And this can be especially helpful if you’re concerned that your child feels uncertain or insecure about using the tools in their classroom. So it can help them feel less isolated, less stigmatized or less quote, like stand stand out or less weird or whatever they’re concerned about. If they see other people in the classroom using it, or at least that it’s available for other kids to use more often so parents have donated one or two extra wiggle cushions to the classroom. And then they take it back at the end of the year and give it to the next year’s teacher. It sort of follows them. You could do the same with adaptive lined paper or pencil grips or Thera bands around the chair. If you have the ability The to do this, it can help a lot. Again, I understand some of you may not be within may not have that luxury. And that’s okay. But that was just an extra tip. Another tip is, well, this is the part where you’re going to put this into action. So you would ask your child’s teacher, if you the parent, or if the teacher could introduce the sensory tools to the class, I’ve actually had a fifth grade student of mine actually introduced the tools himself to the class. And that was really, really such a huge confidence booster to him to get to teach the kids about autism, to teach the kids about what it means to stem and how it feels for his body. And he got to do sort of like a show and tell about his sensory tools. And the kids asked him what it does for him. And it was a really, really wonderfully inclusive, like, powerful thing and moment for that student, and open up the discussion about sensory tools. But you know, maybe your your, your child might not want to do that. But the point is, find a way to have somebody introduced sensory tools to the class as a whole. And here’s how I would talk about it. First, I would show them the tools. So using wiggle cushions, maybe a basket of hand fidgets, Thera bands for under the chair, a yoga ball, a breathing ball. But specifically, label it or talk to it as learning tools. You can even ask the whole class to repeat back. These are learning tools, not toys, right? So you want to teach them that these learning tools are intended to help each student feel comfortable learning and focusing. And so then you’re going to talk about each tool specifically, and how it might help. So you might say something like, did you know that there are some brains and bodies that need to move in order to learn and listen to the teacher, this wiggle cushion is something that you sit on. And some kids really, really like this wiggle cushion to help them listen and learn. For other kids. This might distract them even more when they wiggle. So this cushion would not be a learning tool for those kids. You might say, some brains and bodies like less volume, or voices in the room and can’t focus if there’s too many sounds. So these headphones, let them feel safer and better able to focus. Other brains and bodies would maybe find these headphones distracting or not helpful for them at all. So you’re really trying to normalize the differences here. You want to normalize every difference in learning style, in communication and different sensory preferences. And these should all be stated as neutral as possible differences are just differences. That’s it, there’s nothing bad about it, everyone is different from each other. Not she is different from the rest of us. And that switch, that narrative can make a huge difference for a child who’s needing to rely on accommodations in the classroom. I would also teach the kids in this using this analogy would say, using headphones to block out a noisy classroom is no different than someone wearing eyeglasses, you wouldn’t make fun of someone wearing eyeglasses with you. This person may need eyeglasses to see, but if you wore their glasses, it might look blurry to you so it’s not going to work for you. This is the same as how sensory tools work. Then I would show where some of the tools are going to be stored and talk about whatever the procedure is for being able to access them. And this goes for the rest of the students right so you’ll say okay, these wiggle cushions are in this bucket and you can feel free to use them anytime we are doing reading or silent work at the desk. Here is a basket full of fidgets you can feel free to use these whenever you feel like you need them. You don’t need to ask or whatever the procedure is. But as the the parent who is doing the advocate advocacy for your particular child, you do want to make sure that they always have access to their tools, specifically so maybe find a way to discuss with the teacher the places in the classroom that that it can be designated for your child. And I say this because I once consulted with a family who Whew, they the classroom had so many wonderful sensory accommodations. And the teacher already had a lot of flexible seating options. But there was only like two yoga ball seats. And my client was, like just bouncing off the walls, he needed to bounce and move constantly. So I said, he needs a yoga ball seat. And the parents said, Oh, they have one in the classroom, I said, Great. Let’s talk about the teacher allowing him to use it. And the teacher said it is open access. But what was happening was, the other kids were starting to use it too. And then it became a issue of like, well, who needs it more, because it was just kind of a classroom tool. So if you are maybe if your child is on a 504 plan, or if you are the one who was donating the actual seat or wiggle cushion, you need to make sure that one is designated specifically for your child, so they get open access to it whenever they need it. And that, if you are showing that there’s other available tools for the rest of the class to use that they kind of have a more like general access area for other kids to try things out, if that makes sense. Back to my point about talking to the teacher, right you so you want to make sure you have a discussion with your teacher about having open access to the sensory tools for your child. But you also want to find some ways to discuss with the teacher, the specifics of your child using this tool. So I will talk about things like how you use it at home. So you want the teacher to know that you’ve already tried these, say I’ve introduced it at home, we’ve talked about how they’re supposed to use it, I’ve noticed that it really helps around homework time or whatever. So give those examples to the teacher. And again, stress that you want your particular child to always have open access to it like they should not have to ask permission for the teacher to use it or to ask where it is, because that’s an extra step, we want them to just be able to easily grab the tool. And we want to make sure that the teacher does not use the sensory tool as a reward or to be taken away as punishment. If the tool or whatever this sensory thing is, starts to become an issue, like maybe the child is misusing the chewy or misusing the Fidget and safety becomes an issue. They’re throwing it around. Now, instead of squeezing the ball, they’re throwing the ball. I agree that something needs to change, but they need to be given a replacement. And they should communicate with you directly, like immediately that day, right? So after school that day, they should send a letter home or talk to you and say, you know, I know we were really trying to squeeze ball today, he you know, would rather throw it then squeeze it and it was becoming a safety hazard in the classroom, we need to look at something else to provide him to squeeze. I specifically want to talk about the common concern that parents have about classrooms or schools. Like not allowing something and when the teacher says a certain accommodation would be a distraction or like if I do this for this kid that all the kids are going to want it like I know as a as a recovering people pleaser. It’s really hard to go against the policies and the rules that are set in place. And it’s really hard and not natural for us to really question that. Because I’m the same way like oh, that’s a rule. Like they said, you’re not allowed to do this. So we’re gonna follow the rules. And that’s that’s totally me. But it becomes a different conversation when we’re talking about our child’s right to access public education. So school policies and rules, and what’s allowed, other than things that are like weapons or safety hazards, of course, but most of the other school policies around behavior. stem from neuro normative standards, meaning those protocols and rules in place assume that everyone can easily follow those rules or protocol without being impacted. If you are neurodivergent, your child is neurodivergent. By definition, their needs differ from the majority in that space. And so those expectations and rules may conflict with what your child needs. So, let me give you an example to make it more concrete. I often recommend things like access to gum, or access to crunchy or chewy snacks for kids who have who are sensory seekers. who seek more proprioceptive input or for some kids recently who have been having gi stuff that impacts their digestion. And so their eating schedule is off their interoception sensations are off. So they don’t recognize hunger cues, and they’re going like the whole day without eating and becoming so dysregulated. So I’ve advocated for them to be able to keep a granola bar at their desk or, or smoothie things that they could eat inside the classroom, when it’s not necessarily recess, or lunchtime, right. And gum and like snacks in the classroom are a pretty common, no, no rule, right, like not allowed rule for a lot of classrooms as a standard practice. And so, the concern that I hear from parents or what parents are getting from teachers, as you know, we don’t really allow gum in the classroom or gum isn’t allowed on campus. Or if I let him eat a snack, then everyone’s gonna start asking for a snack. And, okay, I am sure those things are true. And I say to them, gum is an accommodation that supports this child’s sensory regulation, which directly impacts their ability to learn, and focus and pay attention. denying their access to these tools is a violation of their rights to equal access to the classroom. Please, reconsider. So you could also ask your teacher for a trial period, if, if they’re like coming back with pushback and like, No, we’re not allowed to, you could say, you know, I understand that this is against school policy. But we found them to be extremely regulating for him and nothing else replaces that. He understands the rule about gum, we use it all the time, he knows it only belongs in his mouth or in the trash can. Could we trial this for two weeks, and then reassess at a later time. So those are some ways to get around it. But I want to really empower you parents, that you can still advocate just because something says that’s not allowed, you’re you can question that and say, without this, or with this particular rule, my child is unable to be successful in this environment. And that is not an inclusive environment. So you have my encouragement and my full support behind you to question those standards, and to ask for accommodations. It is not okay to deny a neurodivergent child access to accommodations only on the premise that will other kids are going to ask for it to that just really relies more on setting the proper boundaries around the accommodations to begin with. Which again, leads back to my original idea of this is why the classrooms need to be introduced to sensory tools to begin with, so that they understand this isn’t something that works for everybody. And just because this person uses it doesn’t mean that you need to use it too. Unknown Speaker 23:17 Okay, that’s it for today. I Laura Petix 23:18 hope that these tips were helpful. Maybe you can implement some of them already with the last few months of the school year. Or maybe you’re going to carry them over into the beginning of next school year. Either way, I hope it was helpful. And I will see you not next week, because we are going to take a break for Christmas but I will see you at the beginning of 2024 I hope you all have a fantastic holiday season, and we’ll talk soon. Speaker 1 23:51 If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider reading it and leaving a review which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time. Transcribed by https://otter.ai