Many students who use Switch Support deal with sensory issues that make it hard for them to pay attention or feel relaxed in stimulating environments.
When Switch Support leaders recognize their student’s need for a sensory calming and focus item and provide it to them, they can help bring a student out of their fight-or-flight state or help a student to focus by offering their mind something relaxing to do while they listen or participate. Many students will be able to participate in their small group discussions if they’re able to hold and fidget with something that acts as a distraction to their nervous or pent-up energy so they can focus on what’s being said and what they’d like to say in response.
Imagine how smoothly you can help a group’s small group discussion run when you plop a few fidget items in the middle for the kids who need them to grab! And imagine just how refreshing it will be for the student you’re supporting to see that they’re not the only one who benefits from using sensory supports like these!
Some of the students you work with might not be able to communicate to you with words. If that’s the case, you’ll need to learn to watch for signs they need a sensory break or comfort item.
How Do You Know When a Sensory Comfort and Focusing Item Is Needed?
Watch for signs of sensory discomfort like pacing, whining, refusing to enter an environment, trying to escape an environment, covering ears, or excessive blinking. It might be time for headphones, sunglasses, or a break to a quieter area. Watch for signs of a dysregulated sensory system which may manifest as fear, physical pain, irritability, defiance, and/or discomfort from the noise, movement, smells, textures, and lighting. Again, a fidget item, a break, or other sensory supports will probably help more than you can imagine.
What Is Already Available at Switch?
Switch has some fidget items, earplugs, headphones, and sunglasses lined up for you to use if you think your student (or even their whole small group!) would benefit from them.
What Are Some Other Things That Make Good Sensory Calming and Focusing Items?
Many everyday things make great sensory calming and focusing items. Pay attention to which items help the student you work with to regulate and calm, and which ones stimulate them. When you find something that works, keep it with you every week so it’s ready when you need it. Talk to your campus staff if an item listed below is something you’d like your campus to order so you can try it with your student.
- Items like gel-filled squeeze toys or stretchy silicone toys offer squeezing or stretching action. They give a good tactile sensory input to a student who needs something in their hands.
- Slow-rise squishies and putty are calming to squeeze. They’re also less messy than most clays or doughs.
Anything with lights
- Some students prefer items with a constant light, while others might enjoy a blinking light or one with lights that respond to a button or switch.
- Gently lighted toys can offer calming visual input. A student may enjoy waving the lights in front of their eyes to self-soothe.
- Lights are especially helpful if a student needs assistance integrating into a darkened auditorium. Darkness can be completely disorienting to students who have difficulty with spatial awareness. A small lantern or light can help a student see how their body relates to their surroundings. Note: If you bring your student off to the side or toward the back, a light can be very calming without being too much of a distraction to other students.
Anything with heft
- A student may feel calm with a weighted pillow or small blanket on their lap or their shoulders.
- Place a few books or a weighted blanket in a backpack and put it on the student you’re working with while you take a short walk together.
Things with (or without) fragrance
- Some sensory items are lightly scented. This can be calming for students who enjoy that stimulation. It can help them to focus if they have an item they enjoy smelling.
- Be careful about fragrances. Some people can get overwhelmed by a scent. Watch for signs of sensory discomfort like head turning, dropping the item, drooling, or gagging.
Things to chew
- If you notice your student likes to put items in their mouth often, check with their parent to see if they have a chewable item they can bring to Switch.
- Silicon chewables are a great option (especially chewable necklaces) as they are difficult to choke on when worn around the neck and chewed.
Things that block out stimuli
- It’s easy to spot when a student is bothered by sudden noises as they will vocalize, flinch, or cover their ears. Stay alert to notice any less obvious cues that a student is bothered by the general noisy commotion of a typical room of people such as withdrawal, pushing people away, and other “shutting down” behaviors like refusal to move or strong defiance against participating.
- Try headphones or earplugs and see if they help the student you’re working with. Noise-reducing headphones can lower the overall decibel level a student is exposed to while still allowing your voice to come through for communication.
- Lightly tinted sunglasses can be helpful for students who dislike fluorescent lighting or the more dramatic lighting during the main experience. It can help a student take in lighting without becoming overwhelmed by it.
Things for fidgeting
- A small pillow to bounce on or gently toss is relaxing, stimulating, and may help a student focus.
- During quieter times, a small fidget like a spinner or cube toy can help a student to listen.
- Stretchy bands or strings can be a great calming item.
- See if small interlocking toys, like interlocking blocks, a plastic screw and bolt, or magnetic toys are what help the student you’re working with to calm and focus.
The same item may not work every week. Sometimes the item you offered last week didn’t work then, but it might be exactly what’s needed this week. Try as many items as you need to so that you can help your student keep calm and focused. Keep a small assortment with you as you support your student each week. As you get to know the student or students you’re supporting, you’ll be learning what they need—and you’ll help a student find their place amongst their peers in the Body of Christ!