Each person has a sensory threshold. That is, there is only so much sensory input that one can handle before one feels overwhelmed and out of control.
The lower one’s threshold is, the quicker one gets overwhelmed by their environment. The child with lower thresholds is either sensitive to sensory input or avoidant of sensory input where they can control it. It is important to recognize what overwhelms a child, and what overloaded behaviour looks like; because there is a big difference between ‘bad behaviour’ and sensory overload. Sensory sensitivity can be experienced by all our senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch as well as movement.
Highly sensitive children often display very strong reactions to sensory input that some of us will not even notice. Some signs to look out for include:
• Strong reactions to falling – feels pain very strongly
• Extremely sensitive to clothing tags, or socks that just don’t fit right
• Sensitivity to food textures and tastes
• Strong reactions to smells
• Easily irritated and get emotional very quickly
• Sensitive to sounds – block ears to avoid sound
• Sensitive to bright lights or flickering of lights
• Very sensitive to touch
Helping the low threshold child:
• Understand that these sensitivities are very real and not attention seeking
• Use gentle persuasion to get the child to try new things, but don’t force the child to carry on with an activity if they are uncomfortable and going into overload
• Create structure and routine – these children don’t like change at the best of times. Warn the child of changes in the timetable or substitute teachers well in advance.
• Prepare the child for intense sensory experiences, such as fire drills and war cries. Allow the child to wear earplugs or earmuffs.
• Organise the classroom space and avoid clutter on their workspaces
• Provide movement breaks – chair push-ups, stretching, deep breathing exercises, Brain Gym exercises, etc. All children need and benefit from movement during and after school, as this helps with regulation and calming of the nervous system.
• Talk softer – don’t give instructions too loudly and limit a number of instructions given at a time (break activities into smaller tasks)
• Don’t expose the child to large, noisy group activities
• Have as much natural light in the room as possible
• Allow noise cancelling headphones for quiet work time.
• Listening to calming music, using an iPod or small radio. This will help organise the nervous system of the overwhelmed child.
• Don’t overload the child with multi-sensory activities – be aware of the impact of continuously overloading the child with touch, sounds and light
• When getting the children to line up, allow them to stand at the back or the front of the line – this allows for the child to feel less threatened by the possibility of being touched or pushed by another child
• Allow the child’s desk to be at the end of a row, do not place them in the middle of the class. These children are hypervigilant and always on the lookout to see who will tease or touch them
• Create a quiet space in your classroom – honour the need for space
Sensory needs differ from child to child, so opportunities for meeting sensory needs and cravings need to be met, as well as opportunities to avoid noxious sensory input across the board. Happy and regulated children make for calm and effective learning in the classroom.
Annabella Sequeira is a Specialist Sensory Intelligence® Facilitator for Parents and Teachers.
She holds a BSc (Occupational Therapy) degree from the University of Cape Town, backed by 22 years’ experience in both the public and the private sector. She has extensive practical experience in the area of Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in children and is passionate about empowering others to improve functionality and quality of life.