As children settle into the school routine, differences in the way children process sensation may start to become more apparent to both parents and teachers.
Some children may be overloaded with the amount of sensory information an average classroom provides.
Others may not be getting enough sensory information to attend to the activities provided for them.
All children process sensation differently, therefore when a child is not functioning to the best of their abilities, this could be considered a mismatch between the person and the environment.
Helping children cope with the demands of school, therefore involves creating an environment that caters to a range of sensory preferences.
Here are my TOP 10 TIPS FOR TEACHERS in adapting the school environment to help children with sensory processing difficulties.
Seating – It is common for children with difficulties processing sensation to find it difficult to sit at a desk for long periods of time.
The ideal seated position for all children to be in is with their feet flat on the floor, with hips and knees at 90 degree angles and the seat length should allow the child to make contact with the backrest. The desk should be at about elbow height in this position. As children come in different sizes, chairs and tables should be different sizes too. Ideally, there should be a range of different chair heights so children can put their feet on the ground flat for support. If they can’t reach the ground, they are likely to either slide forward on their seat to touch the ground or wrap their legs around the chair legs for support. If there isn’t an option to have a variety of chair heights, use books or boxes under the children’s feet who don’t reach the ground. School chairs with arm rests (if available) also provide more support.
Different work positions – Consider allowing the children to work in different positions for different activities throughout the day.
For example, painting at an easle or playdough standing at the desk.
Movement breaks – All primary school children need 4-5 hours of movement every day to build healthy sensory systems.
Children with sensory processing difficulties may need even more to meet their sensory needs. Ask parents if it is possible if the children walk, scoot or cycle to school as it will help their child feel calmer from the start of the day. After school, children should also be given opportunities to move e.g.go to parks, playgrounds, swimming or play in the garden if possible. Consider opening the playground before school starts, so children can run around for 10-15 minutes at the start of the day. Within the school day, all children benefit from regular movement breaks about every 20-40 minutes. Simply moving to different workstations or giving a child a ‘job’ such as handing out milk or books may be sufficient. Others may need to be given extra breaks out of the classroom e.g. doing a message to another class or being allowed extra time on the playground.
Minimize visual displays – If the child is very sensitive to sensation they may find it easier to attend in a clutter free environment.
Wall displays and hanging ceiling displays are beautiful, but can be very attractive to the eye and difficult for a child to ignore. Think about the position of the child in the room in relation to the area where you want them to look. If they are sitting sideways on to you, but facing another child, they may find it difficult to ignore the other child and look towards you, or concentrate on their work.
Sounds – Classrooms can be extremely noisy places at times.
Again, carefully choosing the position of the child in the room (or creating quiet work spaces) may benefit both a sensitive child and a child with low registration.
If a child is sensitive to touch try and position them in a place that minimizes other children bumping into them as they are passing. When in line, they may prefer to be at the back or at the front so they only have one other person beside them.
Safe space/quiet spot
If a child gets overloaded by the various sensory inputs they receive during the day, consider having a quiet space/chill out zone for the child to access to avoid meltdowns.
Routine within the classroom – All children benefit from a predictable routine and clear rules.
It is easier to follow instructions and class routines when the children know what to expect. Using a visual schedule (one picture for each key activity planned for the day) to show children the schedule can be useful to prevent anxiety. A child who is very sensitive is likely to perceive every small change i.e. chairs moved, the teacher’s clothes, another child absent from the class etc. Prepare children for any changes as much as possible.
Educating the class about sensory diversity
Educating the class about the senses in order to give the children a vocabulary to discuss their sensory preferences ‘normalizes’ sensory likes and dislikes which helps build understanding between the children. Using ‘Max and Me- a story about sensory processing` with the whole class can provide a vocabulary for teaching the class more about sensory processing.
If a child has a sensory meltdown – A child may become upset or distressed due to sensory overload.
If this happens, remember that the child is experiencing too much sensory information to process, therefore it might be useful to:
- Keep your own voice low and calm
- Move to a quieter area
- Save any conversations about what happened or what to do next time until the child is calm.
- Give the child water or something to suck.
- Make sure they are not too hot – remove jumper if appropriate.
- Take some deep breaths.
The child’s reaction is always in proportion to what they are experiencing or perceiving, so it is important that the child is not punished for their reaction.