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Sensory Kids in the Classroom: 6 Tips for Teachers
by Monica Fuglei
One child gnaws holes into the collar of his t-shirt while another covers her ears anytime the bell rings. Maybe you have these students yourself. These actions can be symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and can be a tricky to manage in the classroom. Because some children with SPD can be sensory craving, their behavior can be disruptive and can be mistaken for Attention Deficit Disorder.
Other hypersensitive children tend to withdraw, even hiding under their desks at times — making them difficult to teach as well. The Sensory Therapies and Research Center notes that between five and 16 percent of the population exhibits sensory symptoms. As such, it’s likely that the average classroom will contain one or more sensory kids. While many districts have support to help a teacher best teach SPD children, some in-classroom solutions can help.
Six ways to help sensory students in your classroom
Sensory Processing Disorder can be difficult to explain or diagnose. Simply put, the STAR Center refers to SPD as a neurological traffic jam that prevents the brain from understanding and responding to various sensations. SPD manifests in a variety of symptoms. Students with diagnosed SPD should follow a sensory diet treatment plan as outlined by their occupational therapist, but any child who is sensory seeking or avoiding can benefit from some of these suggestions.
1. Develop a crash/quiet corner
Sensory-seeking students should have a place to get out some energy, and a corner with a few pillows can be just the place. This allows them a place to seek more physical sensory input by falling or crashing on the pillows. For further sensory input, you could even provide a heavy blanket or weighted lap pad. This would allow a sensory-seeking student the physical sensation they crave. On the other hand, an overstimulated student can escape to the same quiet corner. Consider arming this corner with sunglasses or hearing protection for the sensory-avoiding student.
2. Consider heavy work
Sometimes sensory seeking students need a bit of “heavy work” to give them sensory input. It may be as simple as moving a desk or a stack of books — but it gives the sensory seeking body some big-muscle exercise and can result in a well-balanced sensory student. Consider teaming up with another teacher and having your sensory-craving student move books from one classroom to another, or have a sensory-seeking student help you put up chairs at the end of the day. Alternatively, remember that a sensory-avoiding student might need a break from large body movement.
A hypersensitive child might be overwhelmed at the sights, sounds, and even smells of the classroom. Don’t be afraid to give them space and time. If they are consistently overwhelmed by the closeness of their fellow students, giving them a special spot in the classroom that maximizes their personal space can help. Consider the hypersensitive child’s visual environment as well; while most children love a brightly-colored classroom, a particularly sensitive child might need a view that is a bit more barren.
Use recess to your best advantage. Encourage hypo-sensitive children to run and swing, making large-muscle movements that will help them balance their sensory needs for a calm body in the classroom. At the same time, allow hypersensitive children to withdraw from the noise and activity of their classmates and stay inside to read or relax.
Sensory seekers often have roaming hands. Keep those hands full or busy — arm sensory seekers with stress balls or provide a small strip of rough aplix attached to the bottom of their desk. Some sensory seekers enjoy wearing rubber-band bracelets or have special pencil holders that give them the input they crave.
6. Take a seat
Some solutions for sensory seekers can be implemented right where they sit. A large rubber band or exercise band around the legs of a desk can provide a sensory-seeker an opportunity to push, bounce, or pull at the band and decrease other movements that might disrupt the classroom. Some students respond well to the sensory input of bumpy seat cushions. Some teachers have even replaced all of the seats in their classroom with exercise balls, which allows all children to work out their wiggles during the day.
Whether seeking or avoiding, children learn best when their sensory systems are well-balanced. A few well-placed tricks can help with classroom management and also allow opportunities for enjoyment of education in students who might not otherwise learn well. These solutions can work not only for diagnosed sensory students, but for any student who might benefit from them.
Resources for information on Sensory Processing Disorder
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.