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Sensory Processing Disorder and the School Cafeteria: Strategies for Lunchtime Success

Trays clashing. Silverware clinking. Kids shouting. Scary vegetables. Bright lights. Weird smells. People everywhere.Blog-Sensory-Cafeteria-Main-Landscape

The school cafeteria provides a wide array of sensory experiences all at once. Some kids, especially those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), can be overwhelmed by any 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!

  1. Location, location, location- Where a child sits in the cafeteria can greatly affect a his or her behavior and sensory input. For a child who is easily visually distracted, sit them so they’re facing away from the entire room so they can focus on their meal. For a child with sensitivity to smells, make sure they are sitting as far away from the lunch line as possible.
  2. Help the child advocate for themselves- Children with SPD can feel when they’re starting to get overwhelmed by whatever sensory stimuli is bothering them, but they can have a hard time verbalizing it. 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) to tell the teacher they need a break. This could be a movement break, or a break in the hall for some quiet time.
  3. Give the child a fidget- 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 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.
  6. 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.

NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview, Lake Bluff, Des Plaines, Hinsdale and Milwaukee. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates!

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Kimberly Reid

Kimberly Reid

Kim Reid, OTR/L is a Florida native who earned her Bachelors of Health Science and Masters of Occupational Therapy from the University of Florida. Kim has worked in various settings, including camps for children with special needs, retirement homes, and hospitals. She enjoys being outdoors, traveling, and spending time with her family and friends. Kim is excited to be a member of the North Shore Pediatric Therapy team!

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