Recently I’ve started a new job, I’ve moved out of teaching in the classroom into a Local Authority role supporting schools with children who have Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs.
I’d always been interested in how the environment around us influences and affects our ability to access learning and had limited knowledge as a school SENCO about how pupils, especially those with Autism, often had additional sensory needs.
At a recent Continuing Professional Development day focussing on Sensory Processing needs, I suddenly became aware of how many ‘boxes’ my two boys were ‘ticking’. As the presenter talked through the seven senses and how the level to which these senses were stimulated could have an impact on a child’s ability to be able to manage in a classroom, I started thinking about all the little things that my boys complain about, or avoid, that myself and my husband thought they were ‘just being awkward’ over.
When my eldest started school, his teacher asked us to take him for a hearing test, which came back ‘all clear’. He finds it really difficult to filter out one voice over any background noise, especially in rooms with an unforgiving acoustic – yesterday we had tears because he couldn’t hear the instructions for a ball game at Beavers. He jumps at unexpected sounds and hates loud music. Finding clothes, especially socks, that he will wear has been an ongoing battle. He’s happiest when he’s allowed to run around the house in just his pants; seams and labels have the power to make him cry as he finds them so uncomfortable against his skin.
The younger of our two hates being undressed; demanding long sleeves and trousers even when it’s 27C outside. He’s very fussy about the texture of his food and would live on sandwiches containing a soft spread if he had his own way. He has always had some form of dairy intolerance, but health professionals say he will grow out of it.
Both of them are happiest when moving, especially when hanging over the garden swing, twisting the rope and then spiralling as the ropes right themselves.
The presenter suggested this book, so I ordered it and awaited its arrival, hoping that it would bring me some understanding of what my boys were experiencing. Little did I know that it would produce some revelations about myself that I hadn’t been expecting.
As I sat down to read the introductory chapter, ‘Too Sensitive for Your Own Good,’ I didn’t just see my boys, I saw myself, and many other family members of I’m honest. In addition, I could see lots of the children on my caseload. The ‘Sensory Defensiveness Self-Test’ was a light-bulb moment and, as I continued to read, I realised that some, though not all, of the mental health issues I’ve had in the past couple of years are probably down to my senses feeling overwhelmed for the majority of the time.
As I continued through the book, the author shared research about children with dyslexia and ADHD. Questions relating to my professional role started to be raised:
- What if a lot of the Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) issues we see in school are due to an impaired (with overwhelming or under-stimulating) sensory diet?
- How could a sensory diet be effectively integrated into school routines?
- How could the stimulation of the senses help learning?
- How could changing the school environment reduce sensory overwhelm?
As I read on the author began to share strategies to create a sensory diet to reduce the impact of the amount of sensory processing that my brain was having to manage. A couple of days in and these things have already had a massive impact:
- No TV in the evenings – what a difference, I fall asleep much better and I’m not as anxious by the end of the evening.
- Breathing exercises – I spend a little time every evening using a free app called ‘Smiling Mind’. It’s bite sized little chunks of meditation type exercises that leave me chilled out a relaxed. The author also suggests performing a really deep belly breath when you do a certain activity throughout the day. I chose to do it whenever I stop the car, whether at traffic lights, a junction or when I’m parking outside a school. It’s really helping me to stay relaxed.
- No radio in the car – I used to listen to the breakfast show on Radio 2, which I hadn’t thought caused me any problems. After a couple of days of silence in the car, I noticed a big difference in how I arrive at schools ready to participate in whatever activity I have planned. I’m no longer trying to collect my thoughts as I walk up the drive to the entrance because I’ve already done that as I drive.
- Reducing sugar – I have a really sweet tooth, but once I’d read about all the effects that sugar has on an already overloaded nervous system, I’m making a real effort to get my sugar hit from naturally sweet foods such as fruit.
- Movement – I’ve already realised that I’m a much nicer person when I’ve been out for a morning run, the book has made me understand why. Although I can’t fit in a run every day, I’m religiously reaching my step target and running or cycling whenever I get the chance.
As for my children’s little foibles, the book’s not really directed at them. However, a lot of the advice can be adapted for their needs and I’ve already put in place a number of strategies that are reducing the number of meltdowns.
As a result of reading the book, I’ve made a list of the further research I want to do to see how I can facilitate positive change in the schools I work with.
The author states that the book is aimed at ‘ normally functioning adults with mild to severe sensory defensiveness’ and, whilst the book may provide a deeper understanding and a guide to strategies that may help, it’s no replacement for professional support. However, I’m a big believer in the motto ‘Every Little Helps’. It’s an accessible read, easy to read a chapter as you get the chance, but beware – it may raise more questions than it answers.
What book have you read recently that’s made a change in your life?