Feeding Difficulties in the Schools
By: Erin Roon, MA, CCC-SLP
Children spend 7-8 hours per day within the school setting. During that time they eat at least one meal, and usually a snack. This can be an extremely difficult task for children with feeding disorders that can exacerbate the problem even more. How many of you find yourselves packing the same exact lunch every day, just to make sure your child eats something while they are at school? This can be very difficult for both you and your child.
There are several reasons why eating at school can be difficult for any child, but especially hard for children with feeding disorders.
- Sensory overload – school cafeterias can be a sensory nightmare for children with feeding disorders. If we stop for a moment and think of all of the senses that are being impacted within the cafeteria, it is no wonder that children have difficulty eating while at school. The lights are very bright and reflect off the shiny floor. The noise can be deafening, not to mention the fact that most cafeterias echo. The tables and chairs are very close together, and it is very crowded. Depending on the menu for the day, the multitude of smells within the cafeteria can be completely overwhelming. On top of all of this, your child is supposed to sit in a hard plastic chair where his/her feet may or may not touch the ground; and eat a lunch that presents its own sensory input.
- Socialization – lunch is a very social time within the school setting, and this can have a big impact on children with feeding difficulties. What happens during a typical lunch time at school? Kids sit around a table and chat. They sometimes even do silly thing with their food to try to get their peers to laugh. Not only does this limit the good models a child with feeding difficulties needs at meal times, but is a source of distraction that reduces the amount of time a child spends eating. A child who has motor difficulties that result in messy eating behavior may well encounter social stigmatization in this setting.
- Time – the amount of time to eat lunch in schools is often limited to 15-20 minutes. This is a very short amount of time for children with feeding disorders. Not only are many children with feeding difficulties slow eaters, but they feel further pressure to eat quickly based on what they see their peers doing. If children see their friends finishing lunch in a short amount of time, this may cause the child to eat only a small portion of their lunch or not eat at all.
When you take all of these factors into account it is a wonder that children with feeding difficulties eat anything while at school. There are some children who do not. As adults, we know that when we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed we have difficulty focusing and following through with tasks. In some cases, we even shut down or quit all together. This is the same experience children with feeding difficulties have when faced with eating in the school cafeteria day after day. These children tend to give up, shut down, or eat only a minimal amount of food at lunch.
It is important that parents and school staff are aware of these difficulties, and do what they can to minimize the negative effects of sensory overload, socialization, and time on children with feeding difficulties.
- Sensory – think about the layout of the cafeteria, and where your child may best be positioned for the least amount of overload. Is it possible for your child to sit at a table away from the majority of the crowd, or with his back to much of the visual stimulation? Try using noise cancelling head phones to reduce sound sensitivity. Provide a sensory break prior to the start of lunch to help the child feel calm before entering the situation. These are just some of the possible ways to reduce sensory stimulation within the cafeteria. Each child is unique, and what works for one will not work for another; so experiment, and find what works best for your child.
- Socialization – often times, children are allowed to pick their own seats within the cafeteria. This can lead to difficulties for children with feeding difficulties, and add to the stress they are already feeling. It may be helpful to assign a seat to your child to reduce the anxiety they may feel when faced with having to choose where to sit each day. Another suggestion may be to provide a lunch buddy for your child. This may be the same child for several days, or different children each day. It is a good idea to ask your child where s/he would like to sit or with whom s/he would like to sit. Including him/her in the decision ahead of time can assist in empowering him/her and make for a more pleasant experience.
- Time – it should be possible to allow for your child to have extended time to eat his/her lunch as needed. This could be set up by having your child go to the cafeteria a little early or stay a little late to provide adequate time to eat.
All of these suggestions can be easily implemented into the school setting, and make for a more tolerable eating experience for your child. Eating while at school can be very stressful for children with feeding disorders so we should assist in any way that we are able.