As you start a new school year, there is so much to think about and plan for: curriculum, visuals, schedules, IEPs, etc. ! On top of all of that, many students in your classroom may need help managing their sensory needs in order to maintain that ‘just right’ level of self regulation that is essential for learning. As you get started this school year, I encourage you to take some time and consider the sensory aspects of your classroom and schedule and how that may impact your students.
Sensory processing happens everywhere.
You now may be thinking – OK, great – I want to think about sensory needs, but I don’t have a sensory room and I don’t have a ton of money for fancy equipment. Do not fear!
I want you to remember that we ALL process sensory information and sensory processing happens everywhere, not just in a sensory room. When I attended Winnie Dunn’s course last year and she spoke those words, it really resonated with me. I think with some creativity, we can meet many of our students’ sensory needs throughout their school day without a need for tons of special expensive equipment or a separate space. Now, of course, specialized therapy equipment and designated sensory spaces can be absolutely amazing for our students. But I don’t want you to be discouraged if you don’t have access to those resources. You can do a lot with what you (or your building, coworkers or friends) have!
We all have sensory preferences.
Remember that we all have our unique sensory profiles; our likes and dislikes. This is totally normal. Some of us seek sensory input, some of us avoid it. Based on our preferences, we can choose effective sensory strategies. For even more on this – check out some of my previous posts. This post gives an overview of sensory processing. This post goes into a little more detail regarding sensory processing challenges we may encounter in the classroom. Both posts include extensive resource lists.
In your classroom, you will have students of all different sensory profiles as well. This is why it is good to think about components of your classroom and your schedule now that can meet these varied needs. This way, as you get to know your students, you will feel empowered with your tools and routines that you already have in place.
Now, let’s take a look at some tips and tools you may find helpful to meet student sensory needs in your classroom! Please remember that this information is general in nature, and always contact your OT for specific recommendations.
Movement is absolutely essential to incorporate throughout your school day. Movement targets the vestibular sensory system, which you can read about here. Movement breaks do NOT have to complicated or take an extended period of time. Even simply STANDING UP can be so helpful!
As you set up your daily schedule, think about timing during your lessons- how long are students sitting? Is there a natural way to incorporate movement into the activity the student is doing? I’ve worked with teachers who have incorporated large class movement breaks throughout the day by using tools such as Go Noodle. That may not be enough for some students. Some students need smaller movement breaks within their activities. Maybe the student works through center rotations that are broken into 20 minute sections. At the halfway point, standing up and doing some movement activities may be helpful.
Here are some tools you may want to have available in your classroom/schedule for varied movement opportunities:
- Scooter – love that this doesn’t take up much space and many schools already have them as part of PE!
- Trampoline – traditional options available as well as fold up options which are great for small spaces.
- Therapy Ball – can be either a chair version or just a simple ball.
- Swing – we aren’t all lucky enough to be able to have a swing in our classrooms, but your playground may have one!
- Variety of seating options – I will go into more depth on this below!
- Movement cards – Check out Pink Oatmeal for some awesome themed movement visuals!
Offer a variety of seating options.
Flexible seating is all the rage right now – for good reason! Giving students an option to move a little and get into different positions while working can help with focus, attention and participation. Here are some of my favorite and most commonly utilized classroom options:
- Cube chair
- Rocking chair
- Gaming chair (great for older students)
- DIY – take a milk crate and place a small ball in it – instant, cheap flexible seating option!
If you don’t have the option for any of these special chairs, try these simple positional hacks that need no equipment – have your students stand to work, lay on their tummies to read, or tall kneel at the table.
Incorporate heavy work activities.
Heavy work is an incredibly powerful tool that you can use throughout your school day. It targets the proprioceptive system which you can read more about here. Heavy work tends to benefit everyone. When you think of heavy work, think of activities that require pushing or pulling. Start thinking about how you might incorporate them into your day. Do you have classroom jobs? Can students help put up/take down the chairs, sweep the floor, carry/push the recycling bins? Think about activity setup. Instead of the adults getting out the activity bins or books, can the student help? Think about transitions between activities. Can students animal walk from one center to the other? Check out the blog post I linked above for even more ideas!
Create a quiet space.
Some students need a chance to shut out the world and regroup. Creating an area in the classroom for this can be really helpful. You can use room dividers or furniture to section off a space naturally. Consider putting some comfortable seating in this quiet space. Large body pillows, floor pillows, bean bags and blankets can be helpful.
Tents are a great way for a student to really shut out the world, but they can be too large or distracting to have in the classroom. I love this egg chair from IKEA – not only does it provide some spinning movement, it also has a screen that a child can pull down which provides some privacy. The small space and curtain can be great for calming. Some kids really crave the spinning movement, but it can be overwhelming for others. Check with your OT to see what will work for your specific student.
Provide a variety of tactile tools.
When used appropriately fidgets can be a super helpful way to support attention and participation in the classroom. There are an insane amount of options out there at stores like Target and Amazon if you simply google search. Fun and Function is another great website I have ordered things from before. I actually ran into a display of fidgets at Target in store recently. You are much more likely to find age appropriate options for all levels of students now that fidgets seem to be more available in a variety of retailers.
Consider creating small sensory boxes which can be very calming – think sand, rice, beans in small plastic shoeboxes. You can place cups/small items in there for students to find and explore with. Try having hand lotion available – sometimes the deep pressure of a hand massage can be calming.
Consider visual input.
Visual input can have a huge impact on us. Think about your classroom and the activities students do in your class. What parts of those may be overwhelming visually? What may a student who seeks out visual input benefit from? Some things you may not be able to change, but some you can. Think of the lighting. One change many teachers have made in the classrooms I’ve been in is to purchase these light covers to filter out some of the bright fluorescent light and create a more calming environment. You may dim the lights as well to create a more calming atmosphere.
Think about simplifying what you put on your desks, worksheets, walls and bulletin boards. Too many things can be distracting and overwhelming. Some sensory bottles and fidgets have interesting visual aspects that can be helpful for a person who seeks out visual stimuli, like this.
Consider auditory factors.
Schools can be really loud! Think about the noise level in your classroom, the lunchroom, outdoors and how that may impact your students.
- Noise cancelling headphones can be really helpful for some students who have difficulty with loud noises.
- The quiet space I mentioned above can be helpful for students who get overwhelmed by noise.
- On the other hand, some students may enjoy having some noise in their working environment. Consider playing background music softly during work times or having iPads with headphones available for students who may want to listen to music while they work.
Have options for oral sensory input.
Oral sensory input can be very regulating for many students. Check out this post for more information. Consider having a variety of options in your classroom for students to chew or suck – chewies, gum, lollipops. During lunch and snack times, can your students use straws and have crunchy and chewy foods? This may require close coordination with home but can make a huge difference for some kids!
With a little creativity, planning and crowdsourcing, you CAN meet a wide variety of sensory needs within your classroom environment and routines. When students (and staff!) are regulated and balanced, amazing things can happen!
This blog is for informational purposes only. The information provided is general in nature. Please consult your occupational therapist for specific recommendations.