Homeschooling Children with Sensory Stuff

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My 7-year-old son has struggled with what I refer to as “sensory stuff since birth. He is a tornado full of boy and is in constant motion from sun up ’til sun down. I struggle to keep up with him and yearn for just an ounce of his boundless energy. He meets criteria for ADHD and sensory processing disorder (SPD), and he is also quite the worrier. All of this “sensory stuff” can be challenging when it comes to homeschooling. 

sensory, spd, add, adhd, homeschool, homeschooling

Before I was mom to this spirited little fellow, I worked as a school psychologist. I received countless referrals questioning the presence of ADHD, often for young boys. And, do you know what? I always loved those kids! I loved their energy and enthusiasm. I’d arrive at the classroom and when I’d ask for the student, I could see the relief in the teacher’s eyes. I get it, I do. Especially now that I am a mom to one of these kiddos, it can be utterly exhausting to keep up with them, let alone get them to focus on a given task. And I’m only teaching one of these children- teachers have a whole classroom full! I find it fitting that I have been blessed with one of these little people.

So …. what have I learned in my years as a school psychologist, in addition to my years as mom to one of these kiddos? I am happy to share what has worked for us, and then I’d love to hear what has worked for you. 

Routines

All children thrive on routines, but routines are especially important for children who struggle with attention and focus. Try to set up routines in your home. Schedules can be really helpful for these kids. Post your schedule on the wall, or provide your child with a to-do list. Some of the best ideas are often the simplest. A few months ago, I read a post about using spiral notebooks for homeschooling. The idea is so simple and yet it worked wonders in our homeschool.

Each morning, I hand my son his spiral notebook where I’ve listed that day’s to-do list. He can complete the list in whatever order he’d like and he enjoys crossing off completed items. He no longer loses his to-do list, and the notebook has also decreased the amount of power struggles we have over what he should be doing next. In addition to the spiral notebook, I also give my son a folder. The left pocket of the folder is the “to do” pocket and it contains any worksheets to be completed on that day. The right pocket is the “done” pocket. When my son completes a worksheet, he places it in the right pocket. This reduces the amount of lost assignments.

Frequent breaks

Children who struggle with attention perform best when they are provided with frequent breaks. Rather than expecting your child to sit at the table for an hour of Bible lessons, why not try ten minutes and then head to the laundry room together to fold some clothes? A little movement and a break in the action can be wonderful for your child, and can work magic for your patience level too!

Does your child argue about how long he or she must work on a given assignment? My son loves to argue about time spent on a given activity. We used to have so many power struggles over minutes spent on math, or time spent on piano practice, until I tried a different strategy.

In our home, this visual timer has been a huge help. I have the timer set for twenty minutes. With young children and those who are particularly inattentive, you may need to start with smaller timed increments so that they get the hang of it, but over time you can increase time spent on task.

Here’s another tip for decreasing the power struggle over time spent on a given activity. I have to thank our piano teacher for this simple and genius strategy. Dice. Yes, you read that correctly: dice. If my son is balking against piano practice, I hand him a set of dice to roll. The number he rolls will be the number of minutes that he practices. It’s simple, it involves the child, and it decreases power struggles.

Visual cues

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Visual cues really help my son and so I have several throughout our home. My son helped me make a laminated list for his room to help with his morning routine. It reminds him that before heading downstairs for breakfast, he should get dressed, make his bed, and put his pajamas away. So simple, right? Well, let me tell you that this short list saved our mornings. It eliminated the morning power struggle from our day.

I have a similar list for our evening routine, which you can see here. Again, my children helped me to make the list so that they feel a sense of ownership. The list includes the following: put laundry in hamper, take a tub, put on your pajamas, brush teeth, floss teeth, read a book, and say prayers. Each item has words and an image so that it is easy to follow for non-readers, too!

Physical cues

Do you get tired of saying the same thing over and over and over? I sure do. An easy way to cut down on the repetition (and nagging!) is to come up with a nonverbal code. Kids love codes, and the code can be a cue to pay attention. It could be as simple as a squeeze on the shoulder or a gentle hand on the wrist, but the physical cue could let your child know that he or she needs to resume focus on the task at hand, without nagging.

Minimize distractions

It is extremely difficult for our son to focus if there is anything even remotely distracting in the room with him, and I have two other children so there is always something distracting happening around these parts. I work hard to make my son’s work space successful for him. Lately, we have had the most success setting him up to work in our dining room. Why? Our dining room is boring. There’s just not much happening in there. In addition, these noise-reducing headphones have worked wonders in increasing his ability to concentrate for longer lengths of time.

Proximity can often assist with attention and focus. Make sure your child is working near you, or at least within eye shot. If you see your child getting distracted, walk by and just tap the paper, or suggest a break. Stay on top of it if you can.

When you give your child verbal instructions, make sure your child is making eye contact with you. Ask him to repeat the instructions back to you, and provide written instructions as well, like the to-do notebook I mentioned above. The more presentations of information the higher the likelihood that it will stick.

Help your child stay organized. I mentioned our spiral notebook and folder system already, but we help our son in other ways. For example, my son loses every pencil that I give him and it was driving me crazy. What did I do? I bought a huge pack of pencils, sharpened them all, and put them all in a big pencil holder on our desk. Each time I give my son an assignment, I supply him with several pencils. And if anyone finds a rogue pencil, they now know where to put it- in the gigantic pencil holder. It may sound silly, but that pencil holder has made life easier around here. You have to find out what works for your family.

Exercise

I do not think it’s possible to over-estimate the importance of exercise, sleep, and nutrition for all children, but I feel it is especially important for the children who have a surplus of energy and who struggle with attention and focus. I’m seven years into this parenting gig and our best days are the days during which my son has ample time to run and play. The more outside time we have, the better.

…and more exercise

Like I said, it’s impossible to overstate. And on those days when we cannot get outside due to weather or an ill sibling? Well, I have some indoor strategies, too! My kids’ favorite indoor activity, by far, is this trampoline:

Also, please don’t expect your child to sit still. These kids can’t sit still. When my son is working, he moves a lot and that’s fine with me. He can do his work standing, sitting, on the floor- wherever.

In the past, my son used to wiggle so much in his seat that he would literally fall out of it- multiple times. This was disruptive at meal times, as he’d often fall out of his seat while holding a beverage. Spills galore, folks! What helped us during that time was a wiggle cushion and like the one you see here. The cushion provided him with a way to wiggle while allowing him to stay [mostly] in his seat during meals.

Provide a calm space

Yes, these kiddos need oodles of exercise, but they also need to learn to calm down. Some children can benefit from direct instruction of mindfulness and meditation. Learning to calm yourself down is an important life skill, one that will help you to manage stress and cope with life’s challenges.

A few years ago, we created a calm down space in our son’s room. If he is feeling overwhelmed, or just needs a break, I will often ask him if he’d like to go there for a bit. One of our latest parenting successes has been the implementation of a worry basket for him. The worry basket can be found in his calm down space and it contains objects, books, and other materials that soothe and calm him down.

Catch them being good

Children who have trouble sustaining attention and sitting still can often feel like they are bad and that they are always doing something wrong. This can have a negative impact on their emotions and self-concept. It is so important for us, as parents, to be patient with these kids and to catch them being good.

I have one of these kids and I know how difficult it can be to parent and to teach a child who is highly distractible and in constant motion. When he’s actually quiet and working, the last thing I want to do is to interrupt him. However, it is so important to catch them being good. A simple, “Oh my gosh! I love how hard you’re working right now!” can make your child feel good and proud of himself. That alone may increase his motivation to stay on-task.

Accept it

One thing that has really helped me as a parent to a child with ADHD is to accept it. We all have strengths and weaknesses. My son has many strengths but his weakness is attention and executive functioning. It is what it is, folks, and there’s no sense in getting frustrated about it. He will probably need assistance with attention, focus, and organization until he is heading off to college and then some. 

Once I accepted the ADHD for what it is, it made life easier. Then I could focus on helping my son to focus, self-montitor, become more organized, and to grow in independence.

More information for you

Between my school psych training and my seven years parenting my tornado-full-of-boy, I have read a lot of books on ADHD. Here are some of my favorites:

Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Ratey, M.D.

Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel

Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential  by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare

Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) by Lucy Jane Miller

Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents by Russell A. Barkley

The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz

Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals: A Practical Daily Use Handbook for Parents and Teachers by Angie Voss, OTR

More information for your child

Bibliotherapy can work wonders for young kids. If one of my kids is struggling with worries, or attention, or separation anxiety, or anything, I often head to the library and grab a book as the starting point for family conversation. Thankfully, there are a lot of great books out there on attention challengings and sensory difficulties including these:

Calm Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick

I Just Don’t Like the Sound of No! My Story About Accepting No for an Answer and Disagreeing the Right Way! by Julia Cook

I Just Want to Do it My Way!: My Story About Staying on Task and Asking for Help (Best Me I Can Be!) by Julia Cook

It’s Hard to Be a Verb! by Julia Cook

My Mouth Is a Volcano!

Squirmy Wormy: How I Learned to Help Myself by Lynda Farrington Wilson

Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears? Dealing with Sensory Overload by Jennifer Veenendall

You’re NOT alone

I don’t know about you guys, but I like to know that there are other homeschoolers out there who are struggling with the same challenges. Here are some homeschool sites and posts on homeschooling distractible children with “sensory stuff” like my little guy:

Adapting {Home} School for Wiggly Kids and Psychomotor Overexcitabilities: Helping Your Child Thrive ~ Raising Lifelong Learners

Homeschooling with ADD/ADHD Children ~ Teach Beside Me

How I Teach Active LearnersTips on Teaching Highly Distractible Kids ~ Adventures in Mommydom

Labor of Love: How to Homeschool and ADHD ChildMy Child Has ADHD, Now What, and Reasons to Consider: Should I Homeschool My ADHD Child? ~ Harrington Harmonies

Lemon Lime Adventures On this site, Dayna shares her experience as an educator-turned-homeschooler and mom to children with unique learning needs. She writes quite a bit about sensory processing challenges.

Look! We’re Learning On this site, Selena writes about a variety of subjects, including ADHD. Selena, her husband, and their three children all have ADHD and they homeschool through it!

You CAN Homeschool an ADHD Child ~ Hip Homeschool Moms

Do YOU have a child who struggles to focus and sit still? What strategies have you implemented at home? Do you have any tips to share? 

Follow Misty Leask’s board Homeschool : Sensory Activities on Pinterest.

 

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