The decision to send your child to preschool can be fraught for many parents– sending your baby away from home for hours at a time, to an environment you may not have control over, with a caregiver you may or may not know very well, and all those other kids! Will he be okay? Will he have melt-downs? Will the teacher know what to do? How do I choose the right preschool? Parents of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or of children who are just “sensitive,” may be even more reluctant to send their kid to preschool. But, because the benefits of preschool are life-long and often predictive of later academic success, it’s important for all kids to have a positive preschool experience. This post is designed to help answer your questions about what to look for in a preschool environment that can help with sensory integration, as well as how to find out if the teacher will make sure his sensory needs are met throughout the day. You will find tips on what specifically to look for in the classroom environment, daily schedule, and programming, as well as ways to help the teacher respond to your child’s cues and keep him regulated and available for learning.
What to look for in the physical classroom environment
- Space for play. Play is the “work” of childhood. There should be materials and space for: dramatic play (dolls, dress-ups, kitchen), constructive/manipulative play (blocks, puzzles, patterns), creative play (arts and crafts, music, dance), and physical play (cars, bikes, running, slides).
- Storage for materials. The classroom should be clutter-free, visually pleasing, and organized.
- Gross motor materials. Balance beams, large foam blocks, climbing structures, all these give kids opportunities to work on their balance. Exercise balls, slides, scooters, mats, and trampolines help with motor planning, muscle coordination, core strength, and resistance training.
- Vestibular stimulation is particularly regulating for kids with sensory needs.
- Enclosed spaces. Kids who get easily overwhelmed often need a small, dark, enclosed space to help them get regulated.
- Crash pads, pillows, soft areas. Opportunities for relaxation are especially important for kids who are over-responsive to stimuli.
- Areas and materials for fine-motor practice. Beading, sewing, lacing, gluing, cutting, pinching, twisting– you should see areas and materials that promote these fine-motor skills.
What to look for in the daily schedule
- The preschool schedule should include a balance of sensory calm time and large heavy muscle movement. A kid with SPD needs quiet time to relax and regroup, as well as a chance to do heavy work, exercise their muscles, work on balance, etc.
- Movement breaks between seated activities.
- The schedule should be predictable day-to-day, so that children know what to expect and have a sense of what is coming next, cutting down on confusion and anxiety.
- Lastly, the schedule should provide for a small class size for most of the day (fewer than 10 kids is ideal).
What to ask the teacher
- Has the teacher has had any experience with sensory kids? If a tantrum or break-down should arise, how will he or she handle it?
- Can you send crunchy snacks to school for your child to eat when it’s time to regroup?
- Can your child keep a water bottle in his cubby for drinking without having to leave the room?
- Can your child use a fidget toy during circle time?
- Can your child use a chewy during class?
- Does the teacher knows how to identify and satisfy seeking behavior?
- Can your child sit on alternative seating for table work or circle time?
- Are there other ways the classroom is inclusive of sensory kids?
Overall, for kids with sensory issues, the main skills needed for kindergarten readiness are not knowing the alphabet or having number sense; but the ability to emotionally regulate when needed, social skills such as co-operative play and sharing, and the ability to attend during table time or circle time. If your child has sensory needs that are not being met by his preschool, he will not be available for learning any of these skills.
For more information about Sensory Processing Disorder (previously known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction), see CSLOT’s article on Occupational Therapy.