How To Recognize Signs of Sensory Overload in Children, and What To Do About It

We find ourselves living in a world where we barely have enough time to stop and smell the roses. Our day-to-day lives are filled with ever-changing and continuous thoughts of what is happening next. How often do we find ourselves laying in bed at night unable to fall asleep because our brains are working overtime and we are thinking about all the things we still need to accomplish? This level of overload and constant stimulation is occurring more and more, not only with adults, but also with children. Their developing brains are trying to differentiate and weed out all the noise, chaos, and commotion, but this can be hard for some to do. This overabundance of stimuli can be described as many different things, including sensory overload. 

In response to the pandemic, we went from a world of limiting the amount of screen time our kids have to absolutely everything being delivered virtually. Now, many of our students are going to step away from the computer and go back into the classroom. This level of change can be hard for our children to digest and understand. They may be lacking a sense of normalcy and the new and unknown can only increase their feelings of overload. As our student population is slowly returning to the classroom, teachers need to be cognizant of these warning signs and red flags.  

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory Overload can best be described as when one or more of our five senses are heightened. There are many different causes of sensory overload; for example, when there is too much noise in the classroom and it is impossible to concentrate or process information.  

What are some common symptoms that most people who suffer from sensory overload display? 

The intensity of symptoms related to sensory overload varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Some may experience auditory overload and some may experience it visually. Although there are other symptoms related to sensory overload, some of the most common ones are: agitation, lack of focus, irritability, and even panic attacks.  

What is the difference between adults and children who suffer from Sensory Overload?

Adults have the capacity to realize something is triggering their sensory overload and can remove themselves from the situation. Children on the other hand may not have the same skills or be able to express what it is they are feeling. This is important to keep in mind when children return to the classroom. Being confined to a classroom with an excessive amount of people, noises, smells, and so on, may be significant triggers to a student.  

What are child-specific symptoms of Sensory Overload?

  • Crying
  • Screaming
  • Covering their faces or ears
  • Shutting their eyes
  • Shutting down completely

If a student is exhibiting any of these symptoms, use a quiet and calm voice to support them. Take notice of the activity that could have led to the outburst to try and eliminate any future breakdowns.

How to build coping skills for students with Sensory Overload 

  • Routine

When trying to eliminate and/or support our students who display signs of sensory overload, it is important to continuously provide them with coping mechanisms. Creating and sticking to a routine helps maintain stability. Some students’ sensory overload is caused by unavoidable triggers, and having a routine will help eliminate or manage the intensity.  

  • Triggers

Pay attention to your student’s behaviors, body language, and demeanor. If, as educators, we are aware of what can cause sensory overload, we can be proactive and help decrease the number of situations we put our students who suffer from sensory overload in.  

  • Breathe

Deep breathing and meditation are phenomenal skills to teach all students at a young age, especially those who can become overstimulated. This will help relax the mind when feeling overwhelmed.

  • Create an optimal space

Creating an optimal space for students to feel comfortable, safe, and at ease allows them an opportunity for success. If possible, keep the classroom free from clutter, loud speakers, and harsh or bright lights. Although the elimination of some of these things may not always be possible, they can truly go a long way for someone who suffers from sensory overload. 

Getting through tough times with calm and consideration

It has been nothing short of a difficult year and our students have certainly shown their resilience and ability to adapt. As more and more students return to the classroom, we, as educators, need to be aware of how to best accommodate their needs. Students who have been receiving virtual learning are now entering back into an environment where there are many different things that are not in their control. It is important to try to create a safe space for all students, including those with Sensory Overload. Sometimes the smallest attention to detail can make the biggest difference in a child’s life. Be aware of the noise, notice the smells, pay attention to the lights, and focus on what they may touch. Let’s work together to make this upcoming school year a positive one. 

If your child is struggling with any of the issues and symptoms described in this article, reach out to the Da Vinci Collaborative team to figure out a plan together to help your child thrive. 

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