From preschool through high school, the school setting is filled with sensory experiences and demands.
Many students are able to successfully navigate the sensory aspects of the school environment without significant difficulty. But for students with sensory challenges, school can become an overwhelming, confusing, or frustrating place.
Today I am teaming up with the “Functional Skills for Kids” bloggers to share tips with you on the topic of school function. My topic? Sensory at School.
So how do we help students who have sensory challenges at school?
Well, without going into too much detail, let me first give you a quick explanation of what “sensory” means from an Occupational Therapy perspective.
WHAT DOES “SENSORY” MEAN?
We are constantly having to take in sensory information from outside our bodies (from the environment) and from within our bodies (from our muscles/joints & inner ear) throughout the day.
Once sensory information from these seven senses has been received, it then travels to the brain, where it must be interpreted (“processed”, “integrated”) and put to good use as a functional behavioral response. For example, if you are walking on a curb and you start to lose your balance, several senses will instantly notice this and quickly send messages to your brain, which then quickly sends messages back to your body so you can adjust your position and avoid falling.
For many of us, this process of receiving, interpreting, and using sensory information in a functional manner occurs unconsciously and nearly instantaneously. But for students with sensory challenges or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), this is not the case. When students have difficulty processing and using sensory information from their environment or their body in a functional manner, it can make school much more challenging.
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WHAT DO SENSORY CHALLENGES LOOK LIKE AT SCHOOL?
One way to understand sensory challenges is to break them into three main categories:
- Sensory over-responsive — This means a student may be overly sensitive to or even avoidant of particular types of sensory input within the school environment. Sensory sensitive students notice sensations more than others and may be significantly bothered or distracted by them, but may not necessarily go out of their way to avoid them. This is the student who notices every little noise or movement in the room and is constantly distracted. Sensory avoidant students, on the other hand, will actively go out of their way to minimize sensory experiences during their school day. This is the student who lingers on the opposite end of the room during carpet time or even attempts to escape the room because it is too loud or there is too much unexpected commotion.
- Sensory under-responsive — This means a student may not notice certain types of sensory input as much as others. You may hear OTs refer to this a “low registration” (i.e., the sensory input is not “registering” with the child, so they need more intense input for them to notice it). This is the student who falls out of the chair for seemingly no reason, walks into people and furniture as if they weren’t there, or doesn’t notice and respond when the teacher calls their name.
- Sensory seeking/craving — This means a student may be actively seeking out ways to gain certain types of sensory input. This is the student who is always tipping their chair backwards, touching others in line, chewing on their pencils, or putting themselves upside down and backwards on the floor when they should be sitting “criss cross applesauce” during carpet time.
HOW DO WE HELP STUDENTS WHO HAVE SENSORY CHALLENGES AT SCHOOL?
There are many strategies and accommodations that can be implemented to help students who are demonstrating sensory challenges at school.
Would you like to know what they are?
But first, I want to make a few things clear.
1. Reading through the below suggestions doesn’t mean you can then bypass whatever referral system you have in place in your school district for an Occupational Therapy screening, consultation, or assessment. Even though 65 is a BIG number, it doesn’t come close to all the individualized suggestions an OT professional could make if they personally know and work with your child. All these suggestions are meant to educate you and give you some more insight into whether the student on your mind could benefit from some additional strategies. A school-based OT screening or assessment will give you specific guidance as to whether your student’s challenges are truly sensory-based and what types of strategies can be used to help them participate more fully at school.
2. If you implement strategies from this post, it doesn’t mean you are doing “sensory integration” therapy and it doesn’t mean you are providing Occupational Therapy services. It means you are implementing strategies to support or accommodate a student’s sensory challenges within the school environment in order to help them be more available for learning.
3. You will find that many items in the lists below are accommodations, which means you are changing the environment, assignment, or method of instruction, not the student. This is considered a strengths-based approach. However, in your real-life situation, you may be teaching or working with a student who is working on overcoming their sensory challenges (rather than only accommodating for them) in order to more fully participate more within the school environment. For example, maybe the student is extremely sensitive to noisy environments and has a tendency to avoid or even try to escape them (e.g., crying during assemblies or running out the classroom door), but is working with school staff on being able to learn to tolerate them better. Or maybe they are a very picky eater or avoidant of getting their hands messy but, within their school program, they are working on expanding their tolerance. Those are great things to work toward. However, this post will focus more on general strategies and accommodations, since I don’t personally work with your child and I am not providing you with consultative therapy services.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the tips so you can help the kids in your life!
SCHOOL STRATEGIES FOR STUDENTS WHO ARE SENSORY OVER-RESPONSIVE
For students who are overly sensitive to sensory experiences at school, it can be helpful to build structured patterns of sensory experiences into their school day. This helps make things more predictable and, hopefully, less distracting or overwhelming so they can be more available for learning and participating at school.
General Strategies for the Sensory Sensitive Student:
- build breaks into the student’s daily schedule, help the student learn to “chunk” larger tasks into smaller parts, help the student learn to place items in sequential order (i.e., in the order they will be needed for an assignment/school day), have the student use a checklist and check off each task as it is completed, help the student make a plan for a task and identify the important steps and things to keep in mind before getting started, help the student establish routines throughout the school day
Sensory-Specific Strategies for the Sensory Sensitive Student:
- Proprioception (Body Awareness): provide student consistent seating area, encourage child to engage in heavy work activities during the school day (e.g., pushing library or lunch box cart, holding door open for class), try using a weighted lap pad or weighted shoulder pad to provide more calming input
- Vestibular (Movement): provide access to a rocking chair for calming rhythmic input, minimize the number of steps a student is expected to learn when learning a new movement activity
- Tactile: use “deep pressure” touch rather than light touch (deep pressure touch is less alarming to the body), do not seat the student in front of a fan that blows on them, provide the student an opportunity for a little extra space between their seating area and another student’s
- Visual: teach the child to systematically scan (e.g., left/right, top/bottom) when doing worksheets or scanning pages, cover or visually block extraneous visual information on the page
- Auditory: limit the amount of steps/information you give verbally at one time, decrease the volume or number of auditory sources in the room if possible, allow student access to visual instructions that go along with verbal information, seat the student in a quieter part of the room (i.e., not next to the pencil sharpener or classroom door), consider allowing the student to chew gum (chewing gum can help reduce over-responsiveness to auditory input)
- Oral/Taste + Smell: minimize unnecessary/noxious scents in the learning environment
For students who actively avoid certain sensory experiences at school, it can be helpful to decrease the frequency and duration of sensory experiences throughout their school day. Avoiding sensory (and emotional) overload can help them be more available for learning and participating within their educational environment.
General Strategies for the Sensory Avoidant Student:
- maintain consistency as much as possible, allow the student access to a “quiet” area when needed and help them establish comforting routines or strategies, be intentional about building “breaks” into the student’s schedule, find opportunities for small group or one-on-one interaction rather than large group (when possible), provide the student advance notice of changes in routine when possible (visual schedule, verbal warning)
Sensory-Specific Strategies for the Sensory Avoidant Student:
- Proprioception (Body Awareness): have student identify preferred places/positions to sit in and allow access to them during the school day
- Vestibular (Movement): allow student to be able to take breaks during group physical activities as needed, build routine and repetition into movement activities (e.g., similar warm-up for P.E. or Brain Breaks between assignments)
- Tactile: help other students understand the avoidant student’s need for a little extra personal space, don’t place student in front of a fan that blows on them
- Visual: teach the child to occasionally close their eyes if they become overwhelmed visually, minimize clutter (e.g., on or in the desk, on the walls)
- Auditory: provide access to a quiet work space (especially during times where more focus is needed), minimize long unstructured time in large group settings (e.g., extended free play time in multi-purpose room or playground), provide written instructions to go along with verbal ones, allow student to chew gum (can help decrease over-responsivity to auditory input)
- Oral/Taste + Smell: minimize unnecessary/noxious smells within the learning environment
SCHOOL STRATEGIES FOR STUDENTS WHO ARE SENSORY UNDER-RESPONSIVE
For students who are sensory under-responsive (low registration), it can be helpful to increase the intensity of sensory experiences in their daily activities at school. Which type of sensory experiences to intensify will depend on which sensory systems appear to be under-responding.
General Strategies for the Sensory Under-Responsive Student:
- vary routines, provide opportunities for multi-sensory experiences (e.g., hands-on learning, movement embedded in learning activities)
Sensory-Specific Strategies for the Sensory Under-Responsive Student:
- Proprioception (Body Awareness): provide “heavy work” opportunities to carry or move heavy objects (e.g., collecting books, pushing library cart)
- Vestibular (Movement): be intentional about providing the student with heavier objects for playing, teach the student to use their visual sense (e.g., watching where they are, where others are, where objects are) to help them be more aware of their body in space during movement activities
- Tactile: add texture to objects when possible (cups, pencils)
- Visual: make visual cues stand out more (e.g., highlight line to write or cut on, alternate sentence colors in the model when students are copying from the board), label toy bins, use a mirror when eating in order to see mess on face
- Auditory: write down verbal information so student also has visual access to it (e.g., directions for assignment, homework for the night, etc.), have the student repeat or explain the information back to you so you know he or she accurately processed what was said, have the student use an alert or alarm for reminders
- Oral/Taste + Smell: provide student with foods that increase sensory input such as unusual combinations or more intense flavors (e.g., sour)
SCHOOL STRATEGIES FOR STUDENTS WHO ARE SENSORY SEEKERS
For students who are sensory seekers, it can be helpful to increase the intensity of sensory experiences in their daily activities at school as well. However, just because you are increasing sensory intensity for low registration students and seeker students doesn’t mean that they are the same. With under-responders, you are increasing sensory intensity so they will notice and be able to use sensory input more effectively. With seekers, you are essentially giving them more of what they are seeking, but in a more intentional, appropriate, organizing way.
General Strategies for the Sensory Seeking Student:
- look for ways to incorporate novelty into their day
Sensory-Specific Strategies for the Sensory Seeking Student:
- Proprioception (Body Awareness): have the child carry or hold items during transitions (pull and hold classroom door open, carry ball/equipment bag when going to/from recess or P.E., push/pull lunchbox wagon when going to/from lunch room), provide an opportunity to engage in a heavy work activity before needing to sit down and concentrate (e.g., yoga poses, do 20 chair push ups, 30-second plank hold before sitting for a lesson or test)
- Vestibular (Movement): give the child “jobs” that allow him to move around during the day (passing out papers, putting lunch boxes away), provide an opportunity to engage in a movement activity before needing to sit down and concentrate (e.g., windmills, jumping jacks, yoga poses that place the head in different positions), allow the child to stand while working when appropriate, allow the child a “dynamic seating” option that will allow movement while sitting (such as sitting on an exercise ball or ball chair, sitting on an air cushion or Kore wobble stool, tying a stretchy band around the bottom of the chair legs to bounce feet on (like Thera-Band), sitting on a child-sized rocking chair made specifically for school use)
- Tactile: incorporate touch with others (partner activities) or the environment (hands-on learning activities)
- Visual: allow them to use bright colors during projects, vary where the child sits to provide novel visual input
- Auditory: incorporate sounds into daily activities when appropriate (songs, humming, background music)
- Oral/Taste + Smell: chew gum for additional oral proprioceptive input (here are 5 tips to help kids who chew on everything), teach student to apply scented lotion or chapstick at appropriate times of the day
Looking for suggestions for your sensory seeker at home? Here’s my ultimate list of toys and gifts for sensory seekers.
Please let me know if you have any questions about anything in this post. Though I cannot provide individualized consultation regarding your student, I do want to make sure the information has been helpful to you. Have a great school year!
MORE HELPFUL INFORMATION RELATED TO SCHOOL FUNCTION
Here is more information in this month’s series to help you support the students in your life!
How Do Gross Motor Skills Affect Academics? | Your Therapy Source
Brain Breaks to Help Concentration in the Classroom | Your Kids OT
Things You Can Do at Home to Help Your Child in School | Therapy Fun Zone
Tips for Following Directions in the Classroom and Home | Growing Hands-On Kids
Positioning In The Classroom | Miss Jaime OT
10 Transition Strategies for Kids: Preventing Tantrums | The Inspired Treehouse
The Case for More Play in the School Setting | Kids Play Space
Dunn, W. (2014). Sensory Profile 2 User’s Manual: Strengths-based approach to assessment and planning. Bloomington, MN: Pearson, Inc.