Special Needs: Sandstorm in the Classroom

Illustration of a panicked girl who is upset over a sand tray being taken away by her teacher
Michelle Simpson

Recently when I picked up my daughter Hope from her Sunday school class, one of the teachers asked if we could talk. She explained that Hope had experienced a meltdown as a class activity came to an end. When the teacher tried to put away sand trays, Hope had panicked and lunged for them, causing sand to fly everywhere. Hope's panic turned into a tantrum.

The teacher was frustrated, not sure how to proceed, and she was looking for guidance from me. As a parent of a child with special needs, I understand that my daughter doesn't always have words to communicate her emotions. It's up to me to be her advocate. So when I'm confronted with news of a meltdown, I've learned to respond in three ways.

Communicate clearly

I explained to the frustrated Sunday school teacher that Hope seeks opportunities for sensory stimulation. To her, a sand activity is not just a fun way to understand a Bible story. Running her fingers through the sand was a calming experience. When the lesson was over and the teacher took away the trays, Hope felt betrayed and her physical need to touch the sand took over any self-regulating behavior. As I translated what most likely triggered Hope's behavior, her teacher seemed relieved.

When others understand the situation, they can be prepared for future issues. But that happens only when I communicate my child's unique challenges.

Extend grace-filled understanding

I don't want Hope to be left out of an activity, yet I realize that the teacher needs Hope to follow her lead when the activity is complete. By reassuring a caregiver that we are on the same team and that she has my support, my response to these situations become less tense and more grace-filled.

Offer solutions

I suggested that the next time they have a hands-on activity, the teacher could let Hope know when there is five minutes left until cleanup, then two minutes, etc. This allows Hope to withdraw appropriately. I also gave a few phrases that we say at home, such as use self-control (which reminds my daughter to keep her hands still and listen to instruction).

Admittedly, it's sometimes tough to know how much information to give caregivers about my child without overwhelming them. But by offering solutions to possible scenarios and by inviting caregivers to use familiar language, I empower them to communicate better with my child.

Christina Lang is an author, speaker, blogger, wife and mother of six.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Sandstorm." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2016 by Christina Lang. Used by permission.