Let’s talk about some of my favorite classroom sensory tools!
Every special education class (and let’s be honest, general education classes, too) should have a sensory toolbox for their students. Our learners all have such unique needs and it can be difficult to know exactly what each of them needs. That’s why I recommend keeping several different types of small sensory tools on hand so we can be ready and offer choices to students who have sensory needs in the classroom.
- Disclaimer: All of these sensory tools have been recommended by my school’s occupational therapist and my classroom paraprofessionals and I have been trained in using each of these tools and strategies.
Sensory Needs of Students
In my classroom, there are typically two types of sensory needs that I recognize – alerting and calming needs. First, alerting activities are used for students who are understimulated and need sensory input to help them focus. Second, calming activities are used for students who are overstimulated and need sensory input to help regulate their bodies, which also leads to increased focus. Whether students are understimulated or overstimulated, each of these sensory needs affects students in different ways and is a factor in how they behave in the classroom.
Alerting Sensory Tools and Activities
Understimulation occurs when students are not getting enough sensory input. I typically know that my students need alerting sensory activities if they are laying on the floor, showing a lack of interest, stimming or flapping of hands, and/or making vocal sounds. To help my students who are understimulated, my favorite sensory tools are:
- Sensory Brushes – This sensory tool’s formal name is The Walbarger Brushing Protocol. When using the brush paired with medium-pressure strokes on arms or legs, the brush helps regulate a child’s nervous system and get their body ready for learning. This tool should be used as part of a sensory diet that is recommended by an Occupational Therapist. Only those trained in the protocol should administer the sensory strategy.
- Chewelry – Chewing jewelry is a great sensory tool to awaken the senses of our learners. I sometimes have to try several different versions of chewelry before I find what a student prefers.
- Theraputty – Theraputty is a great tactile tool that is not too messy and does not get students overstimulated. I love to have students stretch and pull this while sitting during whole-group or before working at a center.
- Orbeez Water Beads – Water beads provide wonderful sensory input for learners. Students can find objects, sort colors, or just run their hands through a bin of these. I do not recommend using these for students who put things in their mouths.
Calming Sensory Tools and Activities
Next, overstimulation in students can occur when there is too much sensory input and their bodies are having a hard time processing the input. As a result, students who are overstimulated show signs of anxiety, restlessness, excitement, hand flapping, and loud vocalizations. Additionally, behaviors such as hitting, biting, hiding under tables, elopement, etc may occur due to overstimulation. To help students who are overstimulated, I use these sensory tools:
- Sensory Brushes – This sensory tool works great both as an alerting and calming activity for students. This tool should be used as part of a sensory diet that is recommended by an Occupational Therapist. Only those trained in the protocol should administer the sensory strategy.
- Weighted Vest – A weighted vest is a great tool to use to help with focus and attention. I recommend talking with an Occupational Therapist to discuss individual child needs before trying a weighted vest.
- Theraputty – Theraputty is a great tactile sensory tool that is not too messy and can provide some heavy work for overstimulated students. Another idea is to add small beads and have students pick the beads out of the Theraputty.
- Noise Cancelling Headphones – Headphones are a great sensory tool for students who are sensitive to sound. I make sure to have at least 6 pairs of these in my classroom at all times.