Sensory Strategies to Help Kids Start the School Day

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L August 22, 2022

Sensory Strategies to Help Kids Start the School Day

Sensory Tips and Tricks to Get Your Kiddo Going in the Morning!

Does your child struggle to wake up in the morning? Do they have difficulty following their morning routine before school? Is the transition to school in the morning one of the hardest transitions of the day? If so, this article will give you some ideas as to WHY these challenges are occurring as well as some tips and tricks to help!

Waking up is hard

Many children struggle with the ability to transition from sleep to wakefulness. This is often referred to as “arousal level” and goes right along with self-regulation skills. In order for your child to successfully transition between sleep and wakefulness, they must alter their arousal level, or their state of alertness.

If your child did not get a good night’s sleep - maybe they struggle with falling asleep and/or staying asleep through the night - then their ability to move from sleep to wakefulness will be very difficult. Think about how you feel when you don’t get a good night’s sleep - waking up is definitely harder than when you get good rest! This is especially true for children, and can have even more negative effects on a child who additionally struggles with sensory processing.

If your child struggles with arousal level overall, then the task of waking up will be even more difficult. Maybe your child has a lower affect throughout the day, meaning they have a lower arousal level and may seem almost too calm or tired most of the time. Maybe they are a sensory avoider and prefer sedentary activities. Or perhaps your child has a higher affect throughout the day, meaning they have a higher arousal level and may seem hyper and very active most of the time. Maybe they are a sensory seeker and prefer to be on the move most of the time.

If your child struggles to achieve and maintain an expected arousal level for certain activities throughout the day - for example, they struggle to sit and remain calm for sit-down focus tasks because their energy level is too high - then they may struggle with the ability to move from sleep to wakefulness as well.

If this is the case, using some alerting strategies first thing in the morning can be helpful!

  • Natural lighting. If it’s sunny outside when it’s time for your child to wake up, open the windows and let that light it! Many studies have shown that natural light helps to release wake-up chemicals in the brain and is better than artificial light. If you don’t have sunlight in the morning (maybe it’s winter and the sun doesn’t come up until later), there are different lighting options to choose from that simulate natural light. Check this one out on Amazon.
  • Music. Does your child have a favorite type of music or a favorite song? Try playing it when it’s time to wake up! Fast paced, upbeat music can help to wake up the brain and might even encourage your child to get out of bed and have a quick morning dance party!
  • Alerting foods for breakfast. Try some different types of food that have alerting effects. Crunchy foods, cold foods, foods with lots of flavor. These will give the mouth and taste buds a quick jolt and help your child wake up while they’re eating. Maybe try a nice cold drink as well.
  • Movement based activities.Try incorporating alerting activities - these might be vestibular based, as vestibular activities are typically alerting to the brain and the body. Try different animal walks, swinging, jumping, or somersaults! Maybe try some yoga stretches that include head position changes. Be sure to identify your child’s sensory preferences first, in order to help them receive the ‘just right amount’ of vestibular input so they do not become overstimulated.
  • Use other senses.Incorporate other types of alerting activities that target the other sensory systems. We’ve already covered visual (natural light), auditory (music), gustatory (taste) and vestibular (movement). Additionally try alerting scents to target the olfactory system (smell) such as citrus or peppermint. You can diffuse these in the room or place a drop on a bracelet. Try alerting tactile input to target the tactile system (touch) such as vibration.

Helping your child achieve an alert state of arousal in the morning may take practice and consistency. You may need to alter or tweak the activities as your child gets older and they encounter different challenges at school. The key here: provide preferred alerting activities first thing in the morning in order to help move from sleep to wakefulness!

Sequencing and organization

Maybe your child wakes up just fine (or you’re using some of the strategies above and they’re helping! Yay!) but they struggle to complete their morning routine. Maybe they don’t know what they need to do in the morning, or they lose things, or they’re too distracted. This can cause frustration not only for you - because you’re having to remind them constantly to do what needs to be done to get out the door on time - but also for them! Our children want to do well, so when they struggle, they may also feel frustration and anxiety!

child brushing teeth

If your child is struggling to follow their morning routine before school and they seem disorganized and/or distracted, it’s likely due to challenges with executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills are a set of skills used to manage daily tasks. Things like impulse control, organization, initiation of task, memory, and attention are all part of executive functioning. If your child struggles in these areas, they will likely have difficulty following a routine, even if it’s a familiar, every day routine!

Let’s go through some ideas that can help improve your child’s success with moving through their before school morning routine:

  • Visuals. If your child struggles with sequencing and organization, using visuals is a game changer! Use a visual schedule to sequence the things they need to do in the morning. This can be pictures or a written list. Using a visual schedule does take some practice, so be sure to practice with them before expecting them to use it independently. Also use visuals to keep their items organized. Take pictures of how / where their things (like clothing, backpack, etc.) should be and put the pictures up so your child sees them when needed.
  • Visual timer.Using a visual timer is helpful so your child knows how long they have to complete a task. Instead of telling your child that they have 10 minutes before it’s time to leave, help them set the timer for 10 minutes so they can see how quickly they need to finish their routine. This is also beneficial to help learn and understand time overall.
  • Set up the night before. Set up as much as possible the night before so that the morning is quicker and easier. Instead of spending 15 minutes picking out an outfit and looking for their shoes, your child can pick out their outfit and set everything up the night before - in the morning, they’ll grab their pre-picked clothes and be ready with time to spare!

  • For more ideas on how to help improve your child’s executive functioning skills, check out this YouTube video.


    Some children experience real anxiety about going to school. This could be due to difficulty with self-regulation, challenges with social skills while at school, or overall anxiety throughout their day. If this is the case, your child may struggle to wake up and get going, they may struggle with their morning routine, and they may have difficulty leaving the house.

    The following strategies may or may not be applicable to your child, so be sure to understand where your child’s anxiety is coming from first!

  • Proprioception. Proprioceptive input - heavy work and deep pressure - is typically calming to the nervous system. We like to call it the “all grounding sense.” Using proprioception before your child feels anxiety, and during moments of anxiety, may help them to feel more calm. Things like: a weighted lap pad while eating breakfast or while driving to school; wearing a weighted compression vest during the morning routine and/or on the way to school; heavy work activities such as pushing or pulling, animal walks, and wall push ups. You can also provide proprioceptive input with certain foods such as drinking a thick smoothie through a small straw, or hard, chewy foods that provide lots of heavy work to the jaw.
  • Personalized calming strategies. Work with your child to identify what strategies help them feel calm. Take an hour when they are happy and not stressed, and talk about what causes them to feel anxious and what strategies they can use. If they are unsure, talk about what you use to help feel calm. Then, experiment with different strategies and identify how they make your child feel. Create a list of the ones that they like.
  • Zones of Regulation. This is a great program that helps teach children about emotions. Additionally it provides opportunities for teaching strategies! Check it out here.
  • Visuals. Sometimes children feel anxiety when they don’t know what to expect. If a child struggles to project into the future - meaning they can visualize what’s coming next or later - they may feel anxious because they can’t picture their day ahead. Using a visual schedule can help alleviate some of that anxiety by showing your child where they’ll be and when. Include any after school activities as well.
  • Social skills. If your child is feeling anxious before school due to difficulties with social interactions - maybe they struggle to play with their peers - you can practice social skills at home! First, empathy! Empathize with them and talk about how they feel - this not only validates their feelings but also teaches them empathy and they are more likely to empathize with others. Try role playing different scenarios at school. This can help give your child an idea of what they can do and say on the playground or in the hallway at school.
  • Social story. A social story is a story that you and your child can create that they will use to help with challenging situations. Identify why they are struggling with anxiety before school, and create a social story to help identify strategies and solutions. You can find a free social story template here.


    Getting a “good” breakfast in the morning can be very helpful for many children! Foods that include protein and fats are a great way to start the day, and decreasing the amount of processed sugar can help improve overall attention and focus for many children.

    It’s also a great idea to incorporate as much sensory input as possible at breakfast! Provide foods with different textures - crunchy, soft, chewy - and different temperatures - cold, warm, hot. Try including a variety of flavor profiles as well - salty, savory, sweet, etc.

    child eating breakfast

    If your child isn’t a “breakfast person” and they don’t feel hungry in the morning, but you know they need something to get going, try a small smoothie and send them to school with a small morning snack. It can also be a good idea to make sure your child is drinking plenty of water first thing in the morning!

    If your child is considered a picky eater and has a limited food rapport, before school might not be the best time to trial new foods. This can cause anxiety for many children who struggle with eating. Instead, provide them with familiar, comfortable foods that they don’t have to worry about as they get ready for a long day ahead!

    Routine is key!

    Many children thrive with consistency and routine! Attempt to keep the morning, before school routine the same every day so your child knows what to expect. The first week or two may not be this way - the beginning of the school year typically comes with lots of change and can be seen as the “trial period” for your morning routine. Try different strategies, then stick with what works!

    • Use the same visual schedule every morning.
    • Provide the same breakfast (or similar if your child wants more variety) every morning.
    • Wake up at the same time every morning.
    • Also keep the bedtime routine the night before as consistent as possible.

    Positive reinforcement

    Children thrive with positive feedback. Therefore, if you can provide positive feedback throughout the morning, before school routine, your child is more likely to stick with the morning routine and head off to school with a positive mindset.

    First, you’ll need to make sure YOU have a positive mindset! Your child feeds off of your emotions and if you feel stressed and anxious, they will too! Set yourself up with a successful morning routine that you use before your child wakes up in the morning. Pick 3 things you can do when you wake up that make you feel happy and calm and do them consistently before your child wakes up!

    As your child goes through their morning routine, pick 3 things you can compliment them on. Try to keep it new every morning. If your child has been struggling with getting dressed and all of a sudden they have a small win with buttoning their pants, compliment them on their perseverance! If your child ate all of the breakfast, compliment them on sitting at the table for a full meal!

    Some different verbiage to try:

    • “I like the way you…”
    • “You did well with …”
    • “That was a great …”

    Also work towards improving their ability to self-monitor and compliment themselves. Ask them questions about how they feel their morning went. Ask them what they think they did well with.

    Remember that not every morning will be sunshine and roses! We all have rough mornings, and your child will too! If your child is having a rough morning, empathize and remind them that it happens to everyone!

    Check out these additional resources to help with the school routine!

    Check out our YouTube video about 5 Ways to Use a Visual Schedule for Kids

    Jessica Hill, COTA/L
    Jessica Hill, COTA/L

    Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialist. She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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