Learning isn’t always fascinating, exciting, or rewarding for all children. For students with sensory processing issues, the school environment can be frighteningly unpredictable and stressful. Because your children will spend the majority of their waking hours at school, it is critical to ensure their educational environment meets their sensory needs in order to optimize health, safety, and learning potential. The most common issues teachers see in children who have sensory processing difficulties are an inability to focus or to sit long enough to learn. The goal of a sensory-friendly classroom is to create a comfortable and attentive state for a student, which is optimal for learning.
What Sensory Dysfunction Looks Like in the Classroom
If students with sensory dysfunction are not placed in a sensory-friendly classroom, they may have behavior problems in school because their unsuitable environment makes them unable to cope with their teachers’ expectations. Unfortunately, educators overlook many of these sensory issues and assume students have more control over their misbehavior. Below are some specific behaviors students experiencing sensory dysfunction might present in the classroom:
- Inability to manage organizational tasks
- Fear engaging in certain classroom activities involving messy play or discomfort around strong smells
- Clumsiness or awkwardness in their fine or gross motor movements, bumping into things or falling easily
- Difficulty transitioning between activities
- Difficulty socializing appropriately with peers
- Hyperactivity OR lethargy
- Hypersensitivity to light, noise, or touch
For additional reading, visit The Sensory Processing Disorder Resource Center, which has an article with a nice list of examples of sensory dysfunction in the classroom.
What A Sensory-Friendly Classroom or School Might Look Like
Fortunately, Sensory Processing Disorder is becoming more recognized both in homes and schools, and many schools have begun to build these accommodations into their classrooms. A sensory-friendly classroom (or school) might:
- Offer breaks for children to walk, massage/brush, swing, listen to calming music, or whatever they need.
- Allow children to carry different textures in their pockets (stress balls, fabrics, etc.).
- Have desk chair accommodations with stretchy material around the front legs for children to push their shins and feet against.
- Have carpet squares or fabric underneath the bottom of a desk for a student to touch while sitting.
- Offer objects for chewing, chewy tubes, or necklaces.
- Take breaks for stretching time.
- Have gym and play time, and gross motor activities in between sitting times. Some schools have sensory rooms that all students use at specific times during the day (My son’s school calls it “Minds in Motion”). They may participate in a short obstacle course or other gross motor movement that encourages creativity and focus when they return to the classroom.
- Have teachers warning students before intense sensory experiences (such as a fire alarm) and offer earmuff provision for especially sensitive students.
- Offer weighted lap pads or vests for desk time or circle time.
- Offer alternative types of seating (balls, bean bags, etc.).
- Have a sensory room with swings, rocking chairs, and exercise balls for children who need “sensory breaks.”
- Post visual schedules and organizational reminders.
- Limit visual distractions hanging on the classroom walls (artwork is saved for the hallways).
- Have teachers who wear neutral colors or avoid bright patterns.
- Have teachers who don’t wear strong perfume.
- Encourage students to use visual props to help them focus on specific tasks, such as a piece of paper to cover up text or problems they are not currently working on.
- Allow students to use earplugs or headphones to block out sound during individual work time.
- Have a consistent schedule and expectations.
- Eliminate fluorescent lighting.
How to Advocate for a Sensory-Friendly Classroom
Advocating for your child’s sensory needs at school requires constant communication and assessment. There are a variety of ways schools can accommodate for sensory needs related to learning, but it is up to you and your child to define specific requests for sensory-friendly classroom services and determine whether or not they are effective. Below are some tips for ensuring your child’s unique sensory needs are adequately addressed in the classroom:
- Make a Guidebook– Type a guidebook for teachers and staff explaining your child’s sensory sensitivities along with strategies for how to avoid exposure to extreme triggers and ways to safely manage exposure when necessary. Distributing notes like these at the beginning of the year assists the school in establishing a sensory-friendly classroom and helps your child successfully transition into a new school year. The special education teacher can distribute copies of this book to other staff in the school your child may encounter.
- Include Sensory Needs in the I.E.P.– If your child has an I.E.P. or 504 plan, make sure specific sensory accommodations are listed on the plan. If one of these plans are not in place and your child does not qualify for one, ask for a meeting with the principal, guidance counselor, and classroom teacher to discuss your concerns.
- Demonstrate Your Competence– When you meet with representatives from your child’s school, demonstrate that you’ve reflected thoughtfully on your child’s behavior and needs and are suggesting a plan that you think will both meet your child’s academic needs and facilitate a more appropriate learning environment for all Explain that you understand that discipline is important and you are not trying to excuse misbehavior, rather you are making requests for optimizing your child’s learning environment so that there is less misbehavior for the teacher to address. During any meeting, encourage your child to participate and discuss his needs so that the teacher understands the sincerity and necessity of your demands.
- Consider Special Seating– You may have an idea of where your child can successfully participate in the educational setting. Some students work better in the front of the classroom where there are fewer distractions from other students. Additionally, there may be specific students who distract your child for one reason or another. If your child is able to articulate his needs, help him communicate this to the classroom teacher or guidance counselor. A sensory-friendly classroom accommodates optimal seating arrangements both during regular classroom activities and during testing periods.
- Ask for Class-wide Accommodations– If your child is particularly sensitive about receiving accommodations related to his sensory needs, ask that some accommodations be available to the entire class, when possible, so that he doesn’t stand out more than necessary. Simple all-class accommodations include requiring all students to improve visual focus by using paper to cover the portion of their sheets they are not currently working on, and making pencil toppers or other desk accessories that your child may use for additional sensory input available for the whole class to use.
- Ask for Daily Organization Accommodations from the Teacher– Your child may be slower to transition into the organizational responsibilities expected of his peers. Ask his teacher for help learning these important skills by checking his planner or backpack before he leaves school each day or offering verbal or nonverbal prompts to make these checks himself.
- Ask about Occupational Therapy– Most children with sensory processing disorder benefit from occupational therapy. Your child can receive this therapy both outside and inside of school. If your child is already receiving OT services in a clinic, ask his therapist to write the school a note about his specific needs. The school will conduct an evaluation to determine your child’s occupational therapy needs within the school setting. Some school OTs will conduct therapy inside the classroom and in the middle of your child’s regular school routine. Other times your child may leave the classroom to work on individualized tasks.
Even if you would rather have your child not seen regularly by an OT during the school day, it is still a good idea to ask for services because OTs can also work as school consultants. As a consultant, they observe a child’s routine, develop a customized plan for establishing a sensory-friendly classroom and school enivronment with accommodations that they communicate with the teachers and staff. They will then continually monitor whether or not his sensory issues interfere with his educational progress. As consultants, OTs wouldn’t remove students from the class for therapy, but they could still benefit from their expertise.
- Check in Often– No matter how thoroughly you try to anticipate your child’s sensory triggers in the classroom, it is impossible to truly understand his schedule unless you observe him. Try to prioritize at least one day near the beginning of the school year where you can spend the entire school day observing your child and assessing whether or not his educational team has established a successful sensory-friendly classroom and school environment. If your child is older and you are concerned this would embarrass him, then talk to the teacher or principal about how you might be able to do this in a more discreet way. If you aren’t confident your child’s sensory needs are being addressed, then seeing him in action can help you either assuage your fears or enhance his existing sensory plan.
It’s important to talk to your child about communicating his specific needs so that he can learn to cope with the demands of the educational environment. Your child should understand that you and his teacher have behavioral expectations for him, so communicating his sensory needs is crucial to assisting you and his educational team in helping manage his successful academic future.
Additional Resources for Creating a Sensory-Friendly Classroom: