Trays clashing, Silverware clinking, Kids shouting, Scary vegetables, Bright lights, Weird smells, People everywhere.
The school cafeteria hits the senses with a wide array of sensory experiences all at once. Some children, especially those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), can find the lunchtime experience overwhelming because of some or all of the sensory aspects of a cafeteria. Preparing your child or student for this part of the school day can help them enjoy, not dread, lunchtime and that can positively impact their entire school experience.
- Location, location, location- Where a child sits in the cafeteria can greatly affect his or her behavior and sensory input. For example, a child who is easily visually distracted should be sat so that he or she is facing away from the entire room, which will help them to they can focus on their meal. For a child with sensitivity to smells, make sure they are sat as far away from the lunch line as possible.
- Help the child advocate for themselves- Children with SPD can feel when they’re starting to get overwhelmed by whatever sensory stimulus is bothering them, but they can have a hard time explaining it to others. Teach the child that when they start feeling bad, upset, or their “engine” is running too fast (or any other term you use when your child is escalating) they should tell their teacher that they need a break. This could be a movement break, or some quiet time in a hall or designated quiet space.
- Give the child a fidget toy- This is a small toy the child can fidget with, ideally, without distracting other children. This would be great for the child who has a hard time not touching his friends who are sitting close to him.
- Put a sensory toolkit in their lunchbox- This can vary from child to child, depending on what their sensory needs are. You could put in a fidget for the child who has a hard time sitting still, or a favorite lip balm or lotion for the child who is sensitive to smells to give them a familiar scent to help calm them down (or one to mask the smell of the cafeteria). You could put in pictures of sensory strategies as reminders of how to calm down if they’re getting overwhelmed (e.g. deep breaths, hand-pushes, chair push-ups). Sunglasses could be helpful for the child who is sensitive to the bright lights in the cafeteria.
- Familiar foods- For those children with oral sensory sensitivities who are picky eaters, make sure to pack foods they will eat. This is not the time to send mustard on their sandwich for the first time or ask them to try whatever the cafeteria is serving. Have your child help you pack their lunch so that they know what to expect, or go over the menu for the week with them and choose the day(s) they will buy their lunch.
- Regulating foods- crunchy foods (e.g. carrots, pretzel sticks) can be very regulating for children with SPD, particularly children with oral-seeking behaviors. Other great food ideas include sucking thick liquids (yogurt, applesauce) from a straw, hard candies, or gum.