Some children are overwhelmed by stimuli that others view as innocuous. Others have trouble focusing or staying alert when they don’t have the right kind of proprioceptive or tactile input. They may distract classmates because they’re constantly moving: seeking stimuli that provide them with sensory experience or input about where their body is in space. Over- and under-stimulation can both lead to repetitive behaviors like rocking; these may become social impediments. In short, sensory issues can create both learning and behavioral issues, and teachers often need to provide modifications for children who are over- or under-responding to stimuli in any of their sensory systems.
Fortunately there is an ever increasing number of tools to help even those with high levels of sensory dysfunction – children who wear labels such as autistic, learning disabled, or “other medical impairment” — function within an inclusion classroom. Professionals work to provide students who have sensory challenges with a “sensory diet” which includes experiences that meet their unique needs in a way that is safe, appropriate, and predictable.
Some students have modifications to their seating. They may sit on a cushion that provides them with tactile and proprioceptive input as they move. Some sit on a wobble chair or a specially designed bouncing ball chair instead of a traditional one. They use a weighted lap pad or have resistance bands attached to the legs of their chairs.
One thing these tools have in common: They may make it easier for children to stay in their seat! They can provide greater proprioceptive input from relatively small motions and can be alerting. Some seating modifications, for example, a ball chair, can also be soothing for students.
Children may have the opportunity to sit in more than one type of chair over the course of the day. Some children benefit from being allowed to work standing, whether at an easel or table. The classroom may include a nook with a hammock or rocking chair.
Decreasing Sensory Stimulation
Many classrooms offer noise canceling headphones that students can wear in the classroom or in other problem areas such as a noisy school cafeteria. Some teachers use white noise to mask those little classroom sounds that may not seem so little to children with autism or related disorders. A study corral, meanwhile, can help those who need to tune out distracting visual stimuli.
Many children find that something weighted helps them soothe themselves or organize sensory input. They may wear a weighted vest or utilize a weighted shoulder animal or snake. An occupational therapist is the person best suited to determine weighting needs of particular children, but some basic weighted materials may be kept in the reading corner or other accessible location.
Teachers have long used errands — sometimes fake ones — to help children who need to burn off energy. Sometimes carrying something moderately heavy to another room provides a useful break.
Other Sensory Tools
Many children benefit from fidgets or tactile materials such as clay or silly putty. Some utilize textured materials taped to their pencil or under their desk.
While many people grew up hearing “No gum in school!, some children see benefits from a bit of chewing. It can be alerting. Some teachers keep gum tucked in away in a cabinet. Others allow their special needs students to visit another school professional (counselor, therapist) for a stick of gum.
Teachers often have no problem normalizing the use of sensory tools. In fact, it’s often the case that non-disabled students, far from looking down on their use, want to try them themselves. Many children who don’t meet definitions for educational disability have some level of sensory issue. They, too, may benefit. Children are more likely to over-respond to sensory input than adults – often displaying some very strong aversions — and are more likely to have trouble keeping their hands and bodies still.
Some teachers allow children wide access to some tools, but set ground rules about how they are used: Headphones, for example, are not to be worn when the teacher is giving directions! It’s often inadequate to say, “Fidgets are to help you concentrate, not to use as a toy.” Students may need direct instruction about what this means. Some students need to keep their hands busy during a lecture, but would use the materials as toys during productive work times.
Teachers will need to give some thought to what fidgets are within easy reach. They may for example, want to avoid those with faces and animal-like characteristics that might be an invitation for play.
Even children who have major need of adaptation may need some limits – or need to regulate their own usage and decide when they need them most. Special education teachers and other professionals also help students understand the purpose of tools and learn self-regulatory behaviors. Students with severe sensory issues often see an occupational therapist. Therapy may help the brain learn new ways of responding. Occupational therapists can also be a good source of information for classroom teachers.
The Knowledge Network for Innovations in Learning and Teaching (KNILT) website includes a mini-course in sensory integration in the classroom (http://tccl.rit.albany.edu/knilt/index.php/The_Importance_of_Sensory_Integration_in_the_Classroom).
The STAR Institute has provided information about brain differences in children with sensory processing disorder (https://www.spdstar.org/basic/latest-research-findings).
The Sensory Processing Disorder website includes many resources, including lists of classroom modifications (http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/problem-behavior-in-the-classroom.html). Teachers can also find vignettes that give a sense of what these disorders feel like from the inside.
The Centre for Autism is among the most comprehensive resources. Teachers will find descriptions of over and under-responsive behaviors, as well as lists of intervention strategies and videos that spotlight different sensory modifications (http://sensory-processing.middletownautism.com).