BY: Heather Campbell
I knew before my son even walked down the steps of the school bus that day, preschool had been a struggle for him. I could see it in the bus driver’s eyes, I could see it on the face of my other son, and I definitely could hear it from Braxton. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this day would forever be etched into our brains because it was the day we finally realized a little bit of what my son Braxton would need to better help him function successfully in life, school and socially.
I couldn’t figure out if Braxton was hurt, or if something happened, and it didn’t matter what I tried, it wouldn’t work. He was in tears, and I was on the brink as well. I was trying to calm someone who was inconsolable. Finally, I sat on the laundry room floor, having him on my lap where I just started to hug him tightly, kind of like a squeeze. This was the only thing that kept him from flailing his arms and hitting himself or me. It took several minutes of squeezing, but I could literally feel the stress and energy release from his body. Slowly he stopped screaming and instead, he started to relax. After an hour of sitting on the floor holding him tightly, we had gotten to a point where we could move on with our day.
He was never able to communicate with me what happened that day, or what set him off, but I finally knew there was a way I could help him to release his emotions and frustrations. I finally understood my son and his needs better.
RECOGNIZING and ACKNOWLEDGING SPD
It was a year later that a specialist diagnosed Braxton with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Between that day on the ground in my laundry room, and now, 6 years later, I have done everything possible to learn about his sensory needs and how to help him be successful in school, at home and in life.
Who was going to give him the little squeeze he needed if he was at a friend’s house? What happens when he goes to school and the teacher doesn’t know how to help him? My brain constantly tries to prevent a situation which would cause a behavior to happen. I am constantly hoping we don’t get to the dark place we had been before, when we didn’t know how to help or what to do. I know it’s unrealistic to prevent everything that may trigger him, but I can educate the teachers and help them better understand what they can do to help make school a positive experience for everyone.
We have been blessed with teachers who are willing to work with us, to help him be successful in class. Learning about SPD has been eye opening for me, as well as the teachers. There are countless times when they have said to me, “I bet my other students would benefit from this too.” Or, “I can’t believe I didn’t know this when I had ____ in my class, it would have helped them so much.” The modifications we made with Braxton weren’t time consuming, they weren’t difficult, but they were life changing for him. There are definite things that helped his classroom teacher more than words can say.
FACING IT HEAD-ON
First, we recognized that Braxton liked small, tight spaces that seemed to hold him tight. We noticed that he would often hide if there were too many visitors at our house, or bundle up in a blanket if he was needing to calm down. When he was only three years old, we were at his grandparents’ house, and we all swore he was lost. After searching for who knows how long, we found him in the couch - literally in the couch between the cushions and the couch frame. Braxton felt safe in areas that were small and confined, and this is exactly what he found IN the couch.
Figuring out these strategies and how they work at home is one thing, but trying to incorporate them into the school day is something completely different. Knowing that he needed some extra pressure applied to him to assist with the release of stress and anxiety, we tried using a weighted blanket in class. He wouldn’t need to be snuggled up in the blanket, he just had it draped over his legs, while he sat at his desk and worked.
Weighted blankets look like a normal blanket, but are just heavier. The one we use is about six pounds, and is the perfect pressure to give him the sensory input he needs without being distracting to others around him.
To him, this blanket works in the exact same way as a hug would or tight squeeze. It is the exact pressure that he needs to bring in the sensory input that is necessary for his brain to reset. As a parent, there is nothing in the world we want more than for our children to be successful in their life, whether it is mentally, emotionally, socially, academically, you name it! The blanket did just that in the classroom, it helped him be more successful.
In addition to the weighted blanket, we also used different seating for him as well as getting him up and moving. Both of these strategies ensured that his sensory needs were being met and he was able to stay focused and complete his work. As we met with the specialist, we learned that most people just need to move a tiny bit to refocus. For example, moving your head from side to side, or adjusting the way you sit, even just the slightest bit, is enough for most to refocus.
Eventually we set up a Sensory Diet for Braxton to make sure he was getting all of his sensory needs met when it was most important. He is now in fourth grade and can communicate when he needs a break, when he feels himself getting that buildup of emotions that are difficult to control and explain, and he is learning how to self-regulate. The self-regulation has been our ultimate goal from day one.
Learning how we could help Braxton at home as well as at school has been challenging, but it has also been one of the best things for me as a teacher, and as a mother. I recognize that each child needs something different in order to be successful.
I know that those things that “work” don’t work forever, so you need to have a whole toolkit in your back pocket in case one tool suddenly stops working. I also understand that if I do small things, like give him a weighted blanket, or have a specific material for his pillow case, it will set him up for success. I never realized that the smallest change would make the biggest differences.
Heather Campbell is a mother, wife, and a 4th Grade teacher in Utah.
Follow Heather on Instagram: @seriousgiggles