By: Christy from Exceptional Thinkers
Ever have a super fidgety student squirming in their chair, struggling to focus during class? Some students have sensitive sensory needs that can interfere with their ability to learn in school. Sensory issues can affect a student’s behavior, attention span, and emotional well-being. There are simple techniques that any teacher can incorporate into their day to accommodate students who need increased movement and sensory input.
Kids love running and playing. They don’t love sitting still and working for hours on end. And yet this is exactly what some teachers expect their students to do. Add to that the fact that some children have unique sensory needs which require special attention. What’s a teacher to do? Read on to find out what you can do right now to better assist students with sensory needs.
Some people with special sensory needs have difficulty interpreting the senses they take in. They may either crave or shy away certain things they see, hear, feel, smell, or touch. Children with autism are more likely to have unique sensory needs. But many individuals with and without disabilities also have overly- active and under- responsive proprioceptive systems.
It isn’t at all unusual for children to have difficulty sitting still in class, which is why I’m a huge advocate for incorporating movement and hands on learning in school. Almost anyone would benefit from some sensory integration to help regulate our proprioceptive systems!
Wait. Proprioception is a big word. What does that mean?
Our proprioceptive system regulates our responses to sensory stimuli. Proprioception isn’t a one- size- fits- all system and varies from person to person. Some individuals crave sensory input, while others can become easily overwhelmed by increased sensory stimulation.
A student who covers their ears when things get loud in the classroom is trying to cope with an overactive response to sensory input. A student who presses the inside of their wrists against the edge of their desk may be craving extra sensory input.
Students with an overly sensitive proprioceptive system may shy away from loud noises or physical touch. Or they might close their eyes and turn away from a crowded room. These students may become anxious wearing, eating, or touching different textures. They may avoid contact with textures that are displeasing to them. These are examples of coping techniques to calm an over responsive proprioceptive system.
Other individuals are just the opposite and actually seek out extra sensory stimulation. They may engage in sensory activities that provide deep pressure and other types of sensory input. Sensory seeking students may bang body parts against the wall or their desk. They may bite on their shirt collar, pencil, or even their own skin. They might enjoy touching, squeezing, or pinching everything (and everyone) around them. These are all sensory seeking behaviors.
No one sensory diet will work for everyone. That’s because every person’s proprioceptive system is personal and unique to them. While working with students with special sensory needs, it is important to first determine what those needs are.
Here are a few factors to consider:
- Is the student trying to increase sensory input or decrease it?
- Which type of behaviors is the student engaging in?
- Can you provide that type of sensory experience during class?
3 Tips to Accommodate Sensory Issues in the Classroom:
Add in Sensory Input. Some students have a difficult time sitting still while working. Allowing students to engage in sensory input activities during classwork seems counterintuitive, but can actually help increase their ability to focus.
Examples: Holding a squishy ball, sitting on a textured seat cushion, adding a fidget band to the legs of the chair,
- Avoid Overstimulation. Lately it has been all the craze to incorporate sensory input into the school day. But sometimes it can be too much. We need to be careful not to overstimulate our students.
Sitting on yoga balls, playing with fidget toys, listening to background music… These are all great techniques to add in sensory input to the school day! But some students need the exact opposite of all of that. Some students thrive in simple and quiet environments without too many extra distractions assaulting their senses. These students may be extra sensitive to sensory input and need help blocking some of it out.
Examples: Closing your door to block out hallway noises, keeping classroom décor simple and not overly crowded, wearing noise= canceling headphones, turning down the lights.
- Take a Sensory Break. For some students, a fidget toy isn’t enough. They may need to get up and take a short break from their work. Having an option to get away and relax even for a few minutes can make a world of a difference.
A quick walk, a fun movement activity, or a visit to a sensory- friendly area in the classroom can help students to unwind for a few minutes. Providing these options can decrease stress and frustration associated with classroom work.
While teaching at the elementary level, I gave my students opportunities to earn short “escape breaks.” It’s highly motivating and always amazed me how well it helps realign their attention and behavior once they return.
Examples: Sitting in a bean bag chair, doing a few yoga poses, taking a walk in a sensory sack, reading in a rocking chair.
The trick with incorporating sensory activities into the school days is to find balance. You want students to feel stimulated but not overstimulated. Our goal is to help students achieve a calm but alert state so that they can thrive in class.
I highly recommend creating a cozy space in your classroom for sensory breaks. Adding a yoga ball or two to your classroom would be a nice idea for a flexible seating option. But it may not be the best idea to get rid of all of your classroom chairs and replace them with yoga balls. Balance is key. Provide students with sensory activities when necessary, but avoid going overboard.
I always liked to provide a cozy area in my classroom for students to unwind in, even when I taught upper elementary grades. It wasn’t fancy, usually just an area rug with some alternative seating options and a few sensory items. It was just a safe spot that my students could visit when they needed an escape break.
I also kept a “fidget box” that I filled with squishy items, fidget toys, and other fun sensory things. The fidget box stayed in the cozy corner but students had the option to earn a sensory toy to use at their desk.
Incorporating sensory integration into your school day is easier than you think. It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Start off simple with a few fidget toys or maybe a quick dance break every now and then.
Once you have a general idea of what your students respond to, you’ll have a better understanding of their sensory needs. Accommodating these needs will promote growth, happiness, and increased academic success in your classroom. Well worth the effort if you ask me!
Christy is a special education teacher from New Jersey. Check out her blog Exceptional Thinkers and for more teaching tips. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram. You can also find all of her teaching resources in her TPT shop.