Opinion: Avoiding seasonal sensory overload

Hannah McCormack shares practical advice on how to avoid sensory overload this festive period.
Opinion: Avoiding seasonal sensory overload
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The festive season brings together friends and family, with lots of music, lights, presents, decorations, and food. However, it can also bring a lot of sensory overload for many children and become a very challenging time for them.

With changes in the typical school and home routines, and increased sensory stimulus all around, it can quickly become overwhelming and distressing for a child. Although children with SEND are more likely to have sensory processing difficulties than their peers, being mindful of all children’s needs at this time of year is beneficial.

As a teacher/professional working with children, have you ever walked into a classroom and needed a moment to take in all the sounds, movement and general ‘hive of activity’ that is happening? For children with SEND, particularly with sensory processing difficulties, this can be an intense experience and too much sensory input to process in one go.

This could result in a sensory ‘meltdown’, leaving a child confused, frightened and over-stimulated. However, by becoming aware of some of the challenges that the festive session can create, you can implement strategies to create a sensory- friendly environment and support a child in self-regulating.

 

Plan and prepare

This time of year can bring changes in a child’s physical environment as well as changes to their routines and schedules. Without planning and preparation, these changes can be extremely disruptive and stressful for some children with SEND. Therefore, it is crucial to plan and prepare each child for these changes.

Timing is a key factor as you want to provide a child with enough time to prepare for an upcoming event or change in their schedule and ensure plenty of opportunities to reiterate it to them. Be mindful not to introduce too many changes or new activities over a short space of time as this can create a sensory overload.

Even if a child has graduated beyond the use of visual supports and timetables, it may be beneficial to re-introduce them during the festive season to help children anticipate upcoming changes or events. If it is developmentally appropriate, talk to children about the changes and what they can expect, try to reassure them by answering any questions they may have.

Plan ahead to also ensure children have access to their favourite sensory tools/objects or comfort at all times, as they may need them more than they typically would.

Listening to the child

Every child’s sensory profile will be different, and it can fluctuate throughout the day in response to changes and triggers within their environment. Some children are active sensory seekers and will show excitement and interest in festive lights and decorations, while for others it can be overwhelming and dysregulate them.

Knowing each child’s sensory triggers can help you either support and prepare the child, or where possible avoid them. It is important to listen to the voice of the child (not just their verbal communication, but their body language and gestures) and be responsive to what they are telling you.

Are they showing you that they are happy, calm, and regulated or are they becoming overwhelmed, anxious, and dysregulated? How you respond to what a child is expressing can help you effectively identify, support, and meet their needs.

Partnership with parents/carers

A significant part of supporting the needs of children with SEND is having open communication and strong partnership with parents/carers. Have conversations with a child’s parent/carers to gain an understanding of what the festive season looks like for them.

A parent/carer knows and understands their child’s SEND better than anyone else, so utilise their knowledge. Ask questions and find out what their child particularly likes and dislikes around this time of year. Share strategies that they use at home, which could be beneficial to use within the classroom.

Creating a safe space

It is important to have a ‘safe space’ or a designated quiet corner that children can easily access when they need a sensory break. Having a space or area that is calm and has low sensory stimulus can help support a child to continue to be regulated. The child may want to access this area on their own or they may need the support of an adult to assist them in co-regulating.

It is important for a child to be able to access this space freely throughout the day but for adults to additionally recognise when a child may need a sensory break and direct them towards it. During this time of year, children may need more sensory breaks then they would typically need and may not recognise this increased need themselves, so again it is important for an adult to be aware and responsive to these needs.

Returning to school

In addition to planning and preparing children in the run up to the festive season and the end of the autumn term, it is important to consider how you support them in coming back at the start of the spring term. 

For many children, the festive season brings a two week break from school and other supporting services. Again, without the routine and daily structure of going to school, this change can create a lot of anxiety for a child. They begin to establish a new routine of being at home for the festive break, for it to change again and return to school.

The classroom may have changed in terms of decorations taken down and new topics placed on display boards. We need to be mindful of how disruptive this can be for children with SEND. They may need a period of adjustment to re-establish their routine and become familiar again with the expectations.

Summary

At this time of year, we want to make the festive season a time of fun, enjoyment and provide opportunities to create magical experiences for children. However, how we envision this can be very different from the perspective of a child with SEND. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge and accept that this may mean doing things differently.

Although we want to support and encourage children to engage in new experiences, it is important not to put pressure on them to participate. A new experience can be revisited often and not just limited to a particular time of year.

We need to manage our own expectations of what the festive season looks like and ensure that whatever we do, we are putting children’s needs first and foremost.

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