What is a teacher to do? There are so many sensory types in a classroom and each child in that classroom has a different sensory need. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching is handling behaviour problems. Inappropriate behaviour interrupts lessons, tests a teacher’s patience and distracts the other children from the tasks at hand and from learning. And to top it all, the teacher is left feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
Sensory processing happens at all times in response to all environments, and most definitely in a classroom filled with children. Understanding the impact of sensory input from the environment will help in making the necessary changes needed to create and facilitate a stress-free space for the children to learn.
So ask yourself a few questions:
• Is there a white space to break up all the classroom decorations?
• How much artwork/posters do you have on your walls or hanging from the ceilings?
• Is the primary teaching area free of clutter?
• How much natural light is there in the classroom?
• How noisy is the area surrounding your classroom?
• Are you as teacher competing with other sounds while teaching?
• Are there any distracting smells in the classroom (flowers, scented soap, perfume, candle)?
These are very basic, but insightful questions to taking note of the environment’s impact on the sensory needs of the children in our classrooms. Doing a sensory audit every now and then, even if you ask a colleague to have a look for you, will help in designing classrooms for better learning to occur.
Let’s look at some general guidelines to help with making classrooms stress free and sensory smart.
1. Create a quiet space
– a quiet space is a space to which a child can escape when feeling overwhelmed and overloaded (will help with decreasing auditory and visual input)
– have a clear way in which a child can signal when he or she needs the quiet space
– the space can be as simple as a room corner with a small tent or a desk covered by either a sheet or blanket
– place soft toys, various sized cushions, noise canceling earphones, a small radio with earphones and sunglasses in the tent (smaller stuff can be placed into a box)
2. Visual Input
– many children are easily overstimulated by a constant visual input
– increase the amount of natural light in the classroom – do not cover the windows with artwork
– limit the number of visual distractions by creating clear and clutter-free workspaces (stores supplies and materials off the desks/tables)
– limit decorations and artwork to a designated art wall, either to the back of the classroom, away from the visual field of the children and opposite to the wall where the board is
– use desk dividers during testing and to help a child stay focused on critical desk work (or allow the child to sit facing a blank wall, with the back to a teacher and class)
– limit the amount of information on a worksheet
– allow for sunglasses for the who are very sensitive to light
3. Auditory Input
– The quickest way to calm an overwhelmed class is to quieten things down
– Play white noise while the children work – help to block out typical school sounds
– Play calming music for the whole class (for individual in the quiet space provide headphones)
– Provide noise reducing headphones
-Minimise verbal instructions – use more picture or word visuals)
4. Movement Breaks
– movement is a great way to get the whole class to regulate and refocus
– the movement used with resistance is more effective as the heavy work will give the muscles and joints calming and organising movement
– slow move from extreme positions, i.e. move from sitting on the floor to standing
– send the child on an errand – add resistance by asking the child to carry something heavy (books, backpack)
– ask the children to move the desks and chairs themselves when rearranging furniture
– chair push-ups, pushing against Thera-band (tied to the legs of chairs), handing out and collecting books, wiping the board clean, holding a heavy door open, etc. are all great ideas to combine movement and resistance into the day’s routine
– movement breaks just before testing is a great idea to help calm and regulate the children in order to focus
– use a wiggle cushion to provide movement when sitting
– who says that children have to sit to work – allow them to kneel or stand during activities
– have a specific area in your room to allow the children to stomp their feet or pace (padded carpets or foam blocks are good)
– NEVER TAKE P.E. OR BREAK TIME AWAY FROM A CHILD
5. Touch, taste, and Smell
– applying deep pressure to the body with a hug, weighted blanket or vest
– allow the child to sit on a bean bag or ball
– have a tactile box filled with little fidget toys – stress balls, beads on a string, Thera-putty, small soft toys
– allow for sports bottle with spout top for drinking water
– blow balloons or feathers
– crunchy and chewy foods help with calming, they provide deep resistive pressure through the jaw – nuts, apples, carrots, chewing gum, chewing bracelets or necklaces
– open windows to decrease distracting classroom smells
– be wary of wearing too much perfume
– keep scent –free tissues handy to provide a neutral scent
– use scent free soap in the bathrooms and at the basins
Be aware of where your children are sitting. Your sensory sensitive children will prefer to sit on the outside of a row, or at the back of a class, where they can monitor what is happening around them. If sitting on the floor, give them a designated space so that other children do not accidently touch them.
As a teacher, you will know when to adjust the environment so that you have happy and focused children. If you are not feeling comfortable within your environment and teaching is difficult, then the chances are that the children in your class are also struggling to cope with the sensory environment.
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.