Supporting Students with Sensory Sensitivities in the Classroom

Categories: Sensory
It is important to understand the unique sensory profile of your students in order to effectively utilize sensory supports in the classroom.  One of my favorite ways to think about sensory input is by using the cup analogy, which you can read more about here.  In my last post, I discussed some ways to meet the needs of sensory seekers in the classroom.  Sensory seekers tend to have a large sensory cup, meaning they need a lot of input to feel ‘full’ or regulated.  But what about students who have a small sensory cup?  They will need a different set of strategies.  Today, let’s talk about how to support students who are more sensitive to sensory input in the classroom.

What does it mean to be sensitive to sensory input?

Students who are sensitive to sensory input have a small sensory cup.  They do not need a lot of input to feel ‘full’ or regulated.  Too much sensory input will cause the cup to overflow and the child to become dysregulated.  For example, I have a very small auditory cup.  Too much noise causes me to feel overwhelmed and dysregulated.  This is why I frequently choose to drive home from work in silence as my auditory cup is likely already very full after a day at school.  Remember, just because someone is more sensitive to auditory input does not mean he will be sensitive to all sensory input.

Choosing Strategies for Students with Sensory Sensitivities

In general, students who are more sensitive to sensory input can become easily overwhelmed.  If you know one of your students tends to present with a more sensitive sensory profile, having some basic general classroom strategies in place is important.  Here are some general tips:

  • Have a consistent, predictable routine.
  • Visual supports available throughout the day.
  • Prepare students for changes in routine or unexpected events like fire drills as much as possible.
  • Be aware that large, crowded activities such as assemblies and field trips may be overwhelming for a sensitive student.
  • Consider the sensory aspects of the environment or tasks. Check out this post for some tips on creating a sensory friendly classroom space.
  • Consider creating a designated calming space that a student can access.  Check out this post for tips on creating your own calming space.
Now, let’s explore some of my favorite system-specific strategies for sensitive students. Be sure to consult with your OT for more specific recommendations.  Note that the proprioceptive system is not included here, as we do not tend to be overly sensitive to that kind of input.

Vestibular

  • Provide supportive seating, such as bean bags or cube chairs, as opposed to more dynamic seating
  • Be aware that climbing playground equipment or swinging may be overwhelming, and support student engaging in activities on the ground

Tactile

  • Provide a utensil to use during messy art or play (spoon, paintbrush, cups)
  • Encourage heavy work or deep pressure activities
  • Support gradual exposure to new tactile experiences

Visual

  • Use sunglasses or a baseball hat
  • Install fluorescent overhead light covers or dim the lights
  • Reduce visual clutter in the classroom

Auditory

  • Use noise cancelling headphones
  • Reduce background noise in the environment, if possible

Oral Sensory

  • Be aware that sensitive students may have more limited foods for snack and lunch
  • Be aware that strong flavors may be too overwhelming

Smell

  • Reduce strong smells in the classroom, as possible
What are some of your favorite ways to support students with sensory sensitivities?  Let me know in the comments!

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