Neurodiversity Therapists Share 10 Tried & True Strategies For All Types Of Kids
The same strategies that help neurodiverse children cope with everyday stimuli can also help kids of all types feel safe and regulated.
When my 3-year-old started preschool after a year at home, I knew enough to expect some bumps. Of my four-person family, he was the one of us who’d taken the pandemic, and social distancing, the hardest. Outgoing and social, I knew he would love to play with friends again. But I also appreciated that starting school would be a significant change. I expected tearful drop-offs and hug-filled pick-ups. I did not expect the call I got on his second day of preschool, though: My sweet son was hitting, in total meltdown, and I needed to come to get him.
It was as if, after being cocooned in the familiarity of our family for 12 months, the chaos of the classroom was just too much for my little guy to handle.
His older brother, my 5-year-old, knows that feeling well. He’s autistic. For him, morning meetings on Google Meet are too noisy. Tomatoes are too slimy. Socks are too constricting. This too-muchness can show up a lot as it did for my younger son, with hitting, crying, and running away.
But, unlike my 3-year-old, my 5-year-old has had a lot of practice dealing with this too-muchness. He’s had a lot of support, too. We’ve benefitted from psychologists, occupational therapists, and educators who know how to help autistic kids and their parents navigate a world filled with overwhelming sensations.
The good news, the experts I spoke to for this article said, is that many of the same strategies that help neurodiverse children cope with everyday stimuli can also help kids of all neurotypes as they get back into the classroom and into the world.
The same strategies work because whether or not a child is autistic, meltdowns like my 3-year-old had on his second day of preschool or my 5-year-old had during morning meetings are not deliberate misbehavior. They are responses to stress. “What’s really happening is that the child is experiencing the world through their senses as uncomfortable or stressful,” says Mona Delahooke, a child psychologist who specializes in helping children with behavioral challenges and developmental differences and is the author of the book Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.
The stress response can make a child go into fight, flight, or freeze mode — which can look like a tantrum. The key, then, to reducing re-entry-related behavioral outbursts is to help your child feel safe and regulated. Here are 10 ways to do it.
Stick To Routines
Routines, like those around bed and mealtimes, help our nervous system feel safe, Delahooke says. As your child spends more time out in the community, doubling down on your routines at home can leave your child in the best position to manage all the new things expected of them. Plus, having their physiological needs met can increase your child’s capacity to handle stress.
Prepare For Change
Surprise is stressful for the nervous system. To reduce surprise, you can prepare your child for what they can expect when they go back to school. Galo Aguayo, pediatric occupational therapist and owner of Sensory Therapeutics in Rutherford, New Jersey, recommends using social stories, a comics-like tool developed to help autistic kids know what to expect during an upcoming event. Social stories work because they keep things simple and focused on what feels most important to kids. You can find social stories that fit your situation on a website like Social Stories 4 Kids or with a Google search like “social stories for return to school.”
Practice Calming Down
Coping strategies, like muscle relaxation and deep breathing, can give your child control over their body’s stress response in the moment. But the trick is you have to practice these strategies before you’re stressed, says McAlister Greiner Huynh, a public school teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, who is a National Board certified exceptional needs specialist and known online as The Neurodivergent Teacher. Trying to learn something new when you’re already upset is a recipe for failure. Instead, Huynh’s students practice coping skills as a regular part of their day.
Huynh likes to give classic coping skills a concrete spin for her elementary schoolers. For instance, during the week they talked about hibernation, she created a breathing activity where her students would pick up each of five bears, say “shhh,” put the bear in each of five caves, and repeat until all the bears were asleep for the winter.
We keep it a little simpler in my house. For example, my kindergartener loves counting, so he practices breathing in and out and counting one, breathing in and out and counting two, and so on. Creating tools that incorporate a child’s interest is important, Huynh says. Those who work with autistic kids are used to customizing like this, but honoring individuality benefits every child.
Talk About Feelings
Children also have different capacities to understand their feelings on their own, so making sure to check in on how they’re doing is important, says Aguayo. When you help your child put a name to their experience, it can be immensely regulating. For my 3-year-old, taking time to talk about emotions during the ride to school has worked wonders. I ask him what he’s feeling — and then ask again. He’s usually sad to miss mommy and happy to see friends. Affirming him by saying, “You can feel sad and feel happy — you can be both!” seems to help him walk in the door without breaking down.
Take A Break
But what about when a child is mid-tantrum? In the moment, “our job is to connect and to help calm the nervous system of the child,” says Delahooke. Sometimes, this means physically removing them from the situation, even temporarily. A lot of people have learned to see this as caving in to a child’s whims, but the truth is that giving a child a break isn’t indulgent; it’s an acknowledgment of what’s happening. Delahooke puts it this way: “We see this is stress. This child right now is in over his head. He doesn’t have the internal resources to do, in this moment, what we’re asking him to do.”
If the moment is too much, you may have to change things up. Delahooke recommends the rule of thumb “lower and slower.” She explains this means that “we reduce expectations, and we slow down the transitions as much as possible.” This doesn’t have to be drastic. It can mean allowing for 10 minutes for drop-off instead of five.
Look Out For Patterns
Asking simple questions (such as “When is my child getting upset?”) can help you identify where that flexibility might be most useful. If your child consistently has a tantrum at the end of the day, for example, it can be a clue that they need extra support then, says Tim Villegas, director of communications for Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education Inc. (MCIE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the success of all children and youth in their school communities.
You can also encourage your child to name what they need and ask for it, both at school and at home. A big part of supporting my autistic son is helping him feel empowered to request the accommodations that he requires. So it wasn’t surprising that, when I asked him for his advice for this article as an expert on navigating overwhelming sensations, he said, “My idea is that if it’s on the iPad turn down the volume. But if it’s in real life, ask them to turn down the words in their mouth. Somehow they can actually do it.”
If things aren’t getting better for your child, don’t be afraid to get support. Reaching out to your child’s teacher is a good place to start. Villegas says requesting help from your school in writing is smart so you have documentation to refer to later if needed. You can also seek outside resources. Even though none of us have lived through COVID-19 before, mental health therapists and occupational therapists are very familiar with how to help stressed-out kids. Depending on how your health insurance works, you can start by asking your pediatrician for a referral or self-refer to a provider in your network. You don’t have to do it alone.
And you’re not alone: A lot of children are experiencing overwhelm as they return to school and activities. In fact, Aguayo says that reactions like my 3-year-old had are “very common” among his current clients.
This makes sense. Huynh notes that for young kids, especially, a large chunk of their lives have been lived under pandemic conditions. For many children, this has meant time at home with a small number of relatively predictable people who know them and their quirks. A classroom, on the other hand, is filled with lots of other, unpredictable kids — kids who also haven’t been around other kids. Usually, kids learn slowly over time how to manage this environment, she says, but now they’re being asked to learn it all at once. “I think that can be really overwhelming for all kids,” Huynh says.
This is a tall order, and it might just take more time than we expect for our kids to adjust to the bigger world. I had expected a week or two of rough mornings for my 3-year-old, but a handful of weeks in, and my little guy still needs that time in the minivan to process that he can be sad and happy at the same time. I asked Delahooke how long she thought it would take for him to get used to things.
“It could be six months for some children; it could be six hours for others,” says Delahooke. “It’s really that variable.”
That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. But, honestly, our minivan sessions can go on as long as he needs. So while on the one hand, I was disappointed at the prospect of a half year of minivan sessions, on the other, I was grateful to have something so simple that helped.
I reminded myself the way I do with my son: I can feel disappointed and grateful at the same time. I can be both.