The Key to Sensory Success in the Classroom

When I first realized that my daughter had SPD I scrambled to educate myself every way possible. It was my goal to figure out how to approach this so I, as her mother, could meet her needs. It took some time but, over the course of the last five years, I feel pretty confident in my knowledge of my daughter and how SPD presents itself in her life. So, naturally I was taken aback when I would approach teachers with my input about her sensory needs only to be shot down. I was told every excuse in the book for her behavior but one..that it was sensory related. I became frustrated and tried to back up my knowledge with reports, evaluations and data. Still, the most popular response from teachers was that they “just don’t see it.” I became discouraged and figured that, as the professional, they knew best. Although, I am a special education teacher by profession, my credentials and background did not help my case. By the end of her last year of preschool (and the third school we had tried in three years) I got fed up. When her teachers and our district recommended declassifying my daughter and disqualifying her occupational therapy for Kindergarten, I put my foot down and I challenged them. For once, I was arguing that mother knows best. I was not quite sure I knew what I was doing but I could not set my daughter up to fail when school had already been such a discouraging place for her. So, I studied our state law, I consulted with every person I know who has ever had anything to do with special education, and even went so far as to call an advocacy center, an attorney, and the New York State Department of Education. I could not erase the mistakes I made in the past allowing teachers to discount my daughter’s needs but I could to my best to make sure these same mistakes weren’t repeated in Kindergarten. This was a long and exhausting task but, in the end, my daughter was set up with an IEP that detailed a proactive sensory plan in addition to her occupational therapy to be continued in school. Having this IEP gave us an insurance policy that, regardless of opinion, my daughter’s needs had to be met at school.

We started the school year as we always do, my daughter showing up to school with a big smile…a child who is eager to please her teachers and who will initiate friendships with all her classmates without exclusion. A child who is bright beyond belief, reading years above her grade level from the start. She is not a child you look at and believe there is a problem. The teachers were happy to report she was adjusting well and, due to what was required on her IEP, some minor sensory accommodations were incorporated into her daily routine to keep her at an optimal arousal level. We began a monthly parent consult with the OT where I could give my insight into some of my daughter’s more subtle sensory signs. They used my input to better recognize sensory signs in the classroom they may have otherwise overlooked. As issues arise throughout the year, such as overload do to assemblies or indoor recess, they contact me immediately and we discuss the best proactive plan we can for her in these different school environments. To date, my daughter has not had one single meltdown in Kindergarten..a year that, in and of itself, is stressful for all children as they transition from a half day of play-based preschool to an academically driven full day with little to no down time. This transition to Kindergarten was not only seamless  but she is performing far better now than she ever has in three years of preschool.

So what is different now than from school years past!? Well, to start, we have her IEP. It was written in such a way to set her up for success. I didn’t allow our school district to change or reduce her services to see if she could survive without them. But that is only the smallest part of this recipe for success. No matter what an IEP outlines, it is only as good as the people who carry it out and, in this case, my daughter has been blessed with a school team who understands what it means to have a sensory child in the classroom. Her teachers work collaboratively with the OT to provide as much sensory input for her throughout the day as they can. They are constantly asking her what she needs when they feel she is looking for something to satisfy a sensory craving. She has an OT who bridges the gap between school and home through our monthly mandated consultation. Anytime I have approached the OT with an area of concern in school, she immediately meets with the teachers to put a plan into action. This perfect collaboration of home and school is what has paved the way for my daughter’s sensory success in the classroom. For the first time in her school career, my daughter’s needs are being respected and taken into consideration in every aspect of the school day. The school team not only upholds their end of the IEP but they go above and beyond to make sure that she feels good about herself in every situation she faces while at school and this little bit of respect has brewed one confident little girl!

Somewhere along the way the relationship between parents and teachers has become strained. The parent-teacher dynamic has become less of a partnership and more of a competition over who knows best. Parents who try to offer input are often viewed as meddling and overreactive by teachers who feel that they should be trusted to do their job while parents feel teachers are dismissive of their input and get frustrated that any needs that extend beyond academics are often being ignored.  While I can make a case for both sides because I am both teacher and parent, this strained relationship causes tension and, in the end, it is the child that suffers. So much time is wasted between parents and teachers debating over who is right and whether a child’s struggles truly exist. But when the focus shifts from who is right and walls come down, a child succeeds. While teachers may be the educational experts it is the parent who is the expert on their particular child. So we should spend less time arguing over who knows best and just realize that parents and teachers BOTH know best and both areas of expertise are equally as important.

So I hope that our experience can serve as a cautionary tale for both parents and teachers. It may have taken a legal document to begin my child on the path to sensory success but that was just the start of what bound us all together much like a marriage license does for a couple. The piece of paper you get doesn’t govern the strength of your relationship but the effort, communication and teamwork on both sides does. When neither puts in effort or one feels they put in more than the other, the relationship suffers and goes nowhere.The same principles apply to the parent-teacher partnership. Both sides must work together towards the mutually exclusive goal of the child’s success. Both roles are equally as important but bring very different things to the relationship dynamic. So teachers, listen to parents because they want to work with you, not against you. And parents, understand that it may take some time but that your voice will be heard if you speak up openly and honestly. Approach each other with an open mind, free of judgement and devise a plan to use all your strength’s to create a successful relationship and, much like in a successful marriage, watch the children reap the rewards of your successful partnership!

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