As a family we all enjoyed flexible morning schedules, until the day my sensory son started kindergarten. The chaos in his classroom was reflected immediately in his mood when he woke up each morning, pleading not to go to school.
He became a wild beast bouncing around the entire house, melting down at the drop of a hat, screaming for the ability to have a spec of structure in his life.
I realized he needed something more stable and predictable in the morning to help his sensory system calm down so he could cope with the anxiety of his school day.
As a parent who utterly fails at keeping a rigid schedule, I found a way to have a predictable morning routine that promoted sensory regulation for my son without adding any extra stress or work for myself! Don’t worry, I’ll share my secrets with you.
But first, we need to talk what this all has to do with sensory processing.
What You Need to Know About Sensory Needs
(Need to know more about your child’s sensory system? Check out the FREE Decoding the Sensory System Workbook)
If the sensory system were a set of cups, each of them representing one of the seven senses, the goal would be to keep them all at just the right level of fullness which helps calm and regulate the body.
- Having too much stimulation in one cup can cause it to overflow and would send a child into dysregulation. Once one cup is out of balance, it is likely the others will overflow as well. The effect of that is a downward spiral of emotions, concentration, and patience.
- The same holds true for cups that are under filled. Unless a child receives the appropriate amount of sensory stimulation, the cup will be under filled and can cause a child’s attention and focus to be diverted to filling that cup to a more comfortable level.
- During a typical school day, the sensory cups can be bombarded and under filled all at the same time which makes for a really rough day.
Try learning, listening, or even looking like you’re listening when all your mind can think about is how uncomfortable the chair is, how bright the lights are, or how many 6 year olds are crinkling their paper causing a noise that can’t be blocked out. It is virtually impossible for a kid to learn when the sensory system isn’t regulated.
My son knew his sensory system would be bombarded each day at school, and would feel the anxiety of that from the moment he woke up.
I didn’t have control over what happened in the classroom. The only thing I could do was fill his cups before he left the home to get him started off on the right foot.
1. Make It Predictable
One of the best ways to promote sensory regulation (or equally filled sensory cups) is to provide predictability through routines and schedules.
BUT if you are anything like me, the thought of a rigid schedule or routine causes unnecessary stress. I’ve tried to make cute charts, schedules, you name it, I’ve failed at it. Each of those last about a week, then the excitement wears off and I just fall back into my old ways again, which results in meltdowns for my kid.
What I’ve found in my many years at failed attempts at rigid schedules, is that they really aren’t the only way to provide predictability. Predictability can come in many forms. I like to use flexible routines, or daily practices if you will…because I absolutely resist anything rigid.
Some ways I add predictability without a rigid routine are;
- Create routines the kids can count on (wake up, breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth/do hair, get snuggles before school).
- Talk about the events of the day before they happen. When my son goes to bed we talk about the events that will happen the next day. When he wakes up we do the same thing.
- Give plenty of options. I have personally stopped deciding what to make for breakfast, because it stresses my son out to not have control over what he eats. I’m more flexible, he chooses his breakfast and it makes an easier morning for all of us.
2. Add Sensory to Existing Rituals/Practices
The easiest way to calm anxiety, decrease stress, and create a better environment for a sensory kid is to add some calming sensory strategies into existing routines.
For the most part, proprioceptive (or deep pressure) activities are a great go-to as they can provide calming benefits for up to 8 hours.
The biggest benefits happen when calming activities are done before stressful situations. For us, I knew leaving for school was a huge stressor, so I added proprioception into our morning tasks as much as possible.
Here are a few ideas of great and easy proprioceptive activities for the morning routine;
- Drink smoothies from a rubber straw (double dose of proprioception with the sucking and chewing)
- We’ve tried a few different straws and have fallen in love with these because they are inexpensive, BPA free, hold up really well, and come with a brush to clean out the inside. By far the best we’ve ever found!
- Give deep bear hugs (I like to do it right when my kid wakes up to start the morning off on the right foot)
- Use vibrating toothbrushes when brushing teeth (the vibration can be calming or alerting for kids, so take note of how your child responds. If it doesn’t work, don’t force it)
- Spend a few minutes on a mini trampoline while brushing teeth or after getting dressed
3. Make It Playful
Every day was a fight for us when it came to getting my son dressed.
Many kids with tactile sensitivity have this same struggle to one degree or another. Some kids might have a hard time with getting their hair done, or putting on socks. Whatever the struggle might be, consider some of these suggestions to make it a bit more fun and eliminate the frustration:
- Talk about the weather the night before and have your child pick out clothes that evening.
- Place the clothes in the dryer for a few minutes before putting them on to give a warm, snuggly feeling when they go on the body.
- Give deep hugs or a quick massage before putting the clothes on.
- Let go of any expectations of having your child match, look adorable, or anything else you dreamed of.
- Give your child as much power over this decision as possible
- Use a toothbrush with a timer (like this one which my kids love) or songs (like this one) to make tooth brushing a little more fun
- Ask your child who will brush teeth today (you or them)
- Make it a race to see who can get the cleanest teeth in the 2 minutes you have
- Allow your child a special privilege afterwards (jump on the mini trampoline, color in a book, have story time with you, etc.)
Putting on Socks
- Consider getting seamless socks that won’t irritate their sensitive toes as much.
- Give a foot rub before putting socks on.
- Ask your child to pick out their favorite socks to wear for the day.
- Try placing them in the dryer for a few minutes to make them warm and cozy.
4. Don’t Sweat It
Some days are better than others. Sometimes being a bit late to school is better than creating an argument over getting there on time and having a sensory system being completely out of whack.
Not every day is perfect, but we do our best and try to just focus on the important things. Sure it would be fun to be able to dress my kid in the cutest, most trendy clothes every day, but reality is, he doesn’t like that stuff anyways. So I let it go. Sensory regulation is king at our house and everything else just hast to be taken lightly.
With these super simple tips, we’ve found the perfect balance. One that doesn’t leave me feeling chained down to a rigid routine, and has just enough predictability to help my sensory kid feel in control and have the sensory support he needs.
Now as I send him off to school I know his inner wild beast is tamed, and he is ready to take on all the chaos of school with a calmer sensory system.
For more information about your child’s specific sensory cups, and how to fill those sensory needs, check out the Free Sensory Workshop.
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