Tips for Sensitive Kids to Better Manage School Cafeteria Sensory Overload
Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) often find eating in the school lunchroom difficult. The overload of tastes, smells, sounds, and sights can be too much to cope with at one time. Here are sensory tips that will help your child manage this situation.
The main purpose of the lunchroom or cafeteria is for kids to eat, and children with SPD have to cope with the situation without a parent's physical presence. However, you can provide support in other ways at home to prepare for the eating scenario:
- Exploration of Food: Allowing children to explore their food with their hands sometimes helps them to become used to the textures of various items before putting them into their mouths.
- Introduction of New Foods: Once you discover foods that are acceptable, try introducing similar foods. For example, pizzas can be cooked with different toppings and crusts, and sandwiches can be presented with various fillings. Adding condiments like ketchup, salad dressing, or other sauces may help children get the food down.
- Distractions: Changing the focus from eating to another activity is often helpful, so you can tell stories, listen to music, or play with a toy. These diversions can also be used as a reward if a bite of food is taken.
- Rewards: Tokens are awarded when the food is tried, even if it's just one bite. The tokens can be accumulated and traded in for a special treat.
- Choices: Give children a choice of two new foods so they feel that they have some control over the situation.
Noise, Light, and Smell
A noisy, brightly lit place like the school cafeteria may be your child's worst nightmare, but it's a place that has to be visited and tolerated. If your child is going to a new school, speak to teachers, counselors, and lunchroom monitors so that they know your child has difficulties with these issues.
Give your child one or all of the following to take into the lunchroom:
- Ear Plugs to Block Out Noise
- Headphones to Listen to Favorite Songs or Stories
- Toys for Fidgeting or Chewing as a Stress Outlet
If possible, visit the lunchroom while the school is still closed, and then go again with some of your child's friends so that there is noise and movement in the room. Find out where the nearest bathroom is for quiet time, or arrange a special quiet place for your child with the school.
Vicks VapoRub is often successful in blocking the smell of food. Show your child how to rub a little onto his/her upper lip so that the menthol is the most apparent scent.
Too Many People
The school lunchroom is almost always crowded with kids, and if your child reacts badly to being touched by others, some games at home may assist in blunting this sensitivity:
- Hide-and-Seek in Pairs, So That When You and Your Child Hide in a Small Space You Have to Touch
- Finger and Toe Games Like "Round and Round the Garden" and "This Little Piggy"
- Piggy Back Rides
- Rubbing Your Child with a Towel
The main objective of addressing sensory sensitivities in these tips is to help your child get used to situations and items that are difficult to tolerate. Keeping yourself calm and positive helps your child to know that the lunchroom can actually become a fun environment.