Addressing Sensory Needs in the Classroom

SensesThe following guest post is by Dr. Penny Cuninggim, Founder and Associate Director at New England Adolescent Research Institute (NEARI) and Director of the Brain-based Learning and Resource Center. You can sign up for NEARI’s “Smoothies for the Brain” Newsletter here

Imagine your child in a world where something as basic and reliable as the sound of the school bell or another person’s touch is perceived as something foreign or threatening. Imagine that when others climb and happily slip down the slide, your child cringes, feeling dizzy at the top of the ladder, and has to back down the rungs in shame. Or imagine that when other children are eagerly examining a dead frog your child is crumpling to the floor woozy from the smell. If this describes your child, then learning is not a fresh and rewarding experience. Instead, it is fraught with landmines of all kinds.

If one’s senses aren’t working properly, learning is no fun, and school is no longer a safe and secure place to be. 

LEARNING AND BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS

Many students with behavioral and learning problems in school are unable to focus because of sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or tactile sensations that take away their attention and increase negative emotions. In addition to the traditional five senses, a student might also have trouble sensing where his or her head and body are in space (the vestibular sense), or where and how various joints and muscles of the body are operating (the joint/muscle sense). These seven “senses” need to be working together in an integrated way in order for students to learn easily.

When these senses are not working together, one or more of the following behaviors are clues that a teacher might be able to observe:

  • Hypersensitivity to noises, touch or lights
  • Distractibility, hyperactivity, or irritability
  • Aggression, excessive talking, damage school supplies
  • Spaciness, withdrawal, anxiety
  • Poor speech development, learning disabilities, social problems
  • The inability to calm down, poor muscle tone, poor coordination

These dysfunctional behaviors are the result of a student’s inability to modulate, discriminate and organize sensations to adapt to classroom demands. In effect, these children cannot integrate incoming sensory information to complete learning tasks successfully. One student might be distracted from his math work by noises on the playground outside the classroom window, the teacher’s perfume, or the clock ticking at the front of the room. Another student might get stuck on a written assignment because of the intermittent giggling between two girls seated behind him or the collar of his new shirt scratching his neck. And still another student might be unable to either answer a question the teacher asks because she is uncomfortable standing to recite or role-play an appropriate social interaction with another student.

For most students, sensory issues can be accommodated by teachers as part of a classroom learning process. In a few cases, students may also benefit from additional work with an occupational therapist. 

CLASSROOM INTERVENTION

The goal of using special sensory supports in the classroom is to a relaxed alert state in the student. Teachers and parents can use many teaching strategies and sensory tools to help children compensate for their sensory dysfunction.

Examples of strategies include:

  • Reducing outdoor noises
  • Having fewer bright visual materials posted on the walls
  • Providing order for a messy art activity
  • Refraining from talking in a high pitched tone or wearing perfume or bright, floral clothing

Some tools include:

  • Camp cushions to sit on
  • Rubber balls and other fidget tools to fiddle with while learning
  • Pressure blankets to wrap around itchy limbs
  • Whisper phones to help students hear their own voice

These teaching techniques and tools may feel like luxuries in a high stakes testing environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. For these students, time on learning is critically enhanced through the use of specific sensory techniques that address their individual issues. It is a win-win strategy.

Photo Credit: TheNickster via Compfight cc

Anxiety and the Mind

Below is an image from a Time Magazine article on the “Anatomy of Anxiety” from a few years ago. While the article is a bit dated, the relevance remains, especially for educators.

Students need to feel relaxed, safe, and welcome in order to learn effectively. If we focus only on content and raise the stakes of assessments, we increase some students’ anxiety and make it more difficult for them to learn. A reminder that our job in working with students begins, and is sustained, through relationship building and trust.

brain_stress-1

 

Image: Joel Ertola via Time 

 

What’s Up with Kate? (Part 2)

Last week we told you about Kate, a 6th grade student with some learning challenges.  Kate is earning good grades, but she really has to work hard for everything – seemingly much harder than her peers.  She struggles to retain new vocabulary words, recall information from reading passages, follow multi-step directions, and master math facts.

So what’s really going on with Kate?  We got some terrific responses to last week’s post, with thoughtful analyses of Kate’s challenges as well as creative strategies for using her strengths and affinities to help her.  Here’s what we think:

The Good News

Kate has strengths in expressive language and writing.  She is also very creative, a function of higher order cognition.  She enjoys graphic design and computers, indicators that spatial ordering could be a strength for her.  She also loves animals, especially cats.  We’d want to continue to encourage her in these areas, and take advantage of these strengths and affinities when coming up with strategies to help Kate. (See the comments on last week’s blog for some great ideas on how to do this!)

Getting at the Root of the Problem

As many of our readers suggested in their comments, memory seems to be an underlying theme behind Kate’s learning issues. While retrieving information from long-term memory is okay, getting the information into long-term memory is a challenge that is showing up when she studies new spelling and vocabulary words and tries to master her math facts. Summarizing what she reads also relies on functions of memory, including active working memory. Weak active working memory could also be making it difficult for Kate to follow multi-step directions. 

Talking to Kate

The first step we’d take is to discuss with her the reasons behind some of her difficulties in reading and the resulting academic struggles. It’s important to highlight Kate’s strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement.  As one of last week’s readers alluded to, we’d also want to foster her confidence that she can succeed in these areas.

We’d talk with Kate about the different types of memory, and tell her that she has difficulty “getting things into” her memory. We might make this idea more concrete by using an analogy such as putting clothes in a dresser or papers in a file so she can easily find them later.  We’d share with her that subjects like social studies and science have a lot of factual information and more memory demands than other subjects, which is why she struggles more in these areas.

Working toward Success

As we mentioned earlier, we’d want to capitalize on her strengths and interests when thinking about strategies to use with Kate.  Here’s a few examples:

  • Support Kate’s interest in animals by having her read about a species or particular animal and practice summarization skills and memory strategies by role-playing as a zoologist. 
  • In addition to supporting Kate’s art activities, give her the opportunity to work with experts in set-design and construction, so that she will see multi-step processes and instructions at work.

Other strategies you might try with Kate include …

  • Help with reading – Provide her with some basic accommodations in reading assignments to help her experience some success in class and to improve her learning of the content. For example, give her outlines – possibly partially-completed – from text book chapters to guide her to important information.  As one reader mentioned, graphic organizers, charts, and drawings might also work well for Kate.  Have her save these “tools” to study for tests.  These tools might vary based on the subject.  For example, in history, she may benefit from making timelines or creating cause-effect flow charts.  In math, she may benefit from making reference cards with the technical vocabulary words of an upcoming lesson.  One reader also recommended using visuals to help Kate remember math facts (e.g. the program “Nine Lines”).
  • Help with tests – Give Kate specific guidance in what is expected of her on tests and assignments. For example, instead of just asking Kate about the author’s intent in a story, provide instruction to her: “The next few questions will ask you about the author’s intentions in writing the story. Use what we learned about the author’s feelings about the subject to help you understand her intentions. Use facts in the story to back up your conclusions.”
  • Help with vocabulary – Limit the number of new vocabulary words she’s asked to learn at one time. Too many vocab words can be overwhelming for her, especially if other rules are introduced at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. Some students find it easier to practice these rules one at a time.  One of last week’s readers also suggested having Kate “visualize” her vocab words.

See the comments on last week’s blog entry for more great strategies for working with kids like Kate.  What strategies would you use?  What are some other ways we could leverage her strengths and affinities?  If you haven’t done so already, share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!

Related links:

What’s Up with Kate? (Part 1)

Last week’s blog was our last installment of our book-inspired series. We received quite a few thoughtful and inspiring comments, and we gave away five free copies of Schools for All Kinds of Minds! We hope you enjoyed the sneak peeks into some of the ideas in the book, and we hope the series inspired you to pick up a copy if you hadn’t done so already.

Up Next …

This week we’re trying something a little different – a case study of Kate, a 6th grader with a puzzling array of learning challenges. Read Kate’s story and let us know what you think is going on with her and how you’d approach her challenges. Then, tune in next week for our explanation and recommendations!

Nothing’s Easy for Kate

Kate, a popular 6th grader, earns good grades and participates regularly in class. But Kate always has to work really hard to succeed. Nothing seems to come easy, but once Kate knows something, she appears to know it well and apply it effectively.

Occasionally, Kate’s dad helps her with her homework and studying – but by both accounts, these sessions are painstaking and don’t seem very productive. Kate can go over a list of spelling or vocabulary words repeatedly for more than an hour yet retain only a few of the items. The same goes for reading – she can read a passage easily but remembers only bits and pieces.

What Kate’s Teacher Sees

Kate’s teacher is puzzled by Kate’s constellation of challenges in the classroom. She’s noticed that Kate often needs to have explanations repeated and that she has a lot trouble complying with multi-step instructions of any type. It also takes Kate a long time to copy from the board; her classmates finish when she is barely halfway there!

Kate’s teacher has also observed that Kate does much better in day-to-day class work than she does on tests.

Reading and Math: A Mixed Bag

In the last year, reading has started to be a problem for Kate, especially in social studies and science. She has a particularly hard time summarizing what she’s read, despite her general ability to express herself well verbally.

While Kate is good at understanding math concepts, it’s been hard for her to master math facts, so she needs more time to complete math assignments and quizzes.

What’s Going Right

Kate seems to have a knack for graphic design. She looks forward to her computer class and has talked about being an architect one day. She loves animals and has a very special fondness for cats and has written several very perceptive reports about cats.

What do you think?

What areas are strengths for Kate? Weaknesses? How could you leverage Kate’s strengths to help her improve in other areas? What would you say to Kate?

Share your ideas with us, and next week, we’ll share our thoughts about Kate with you!

One School’s Faculty-wide Exploration of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

By Mary Mannix, Guest Blogger

Last spring, administrators at Indian Creek School, an All Kinds of Minds School of Distinction, searched for a book for summer reading for the faculty that would be meaningful and relevant to teachers across all three divisions of the school, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

Why Schools for All Kinds of Minds?

Administrators chose Schools for All Kinds of Minds because they believed it would serve as a platform for the faculty to review, reflect upon, and discuss Indian Creek’s ongoing commitment to using the All Kinds of Minds approach to teaching and learning. Group discussions would also provide the opportunity to learn how teachers in each division are using the All Kinds of Minds philosophy and framework in their instructional practice.

All faculty members were given a copy of the book on the last day of school and asked to prepare for small group discussions to be held at the start of the school year.

Framing the Book Study

Ten faculty members, designated as small-group facilitators, developed guiding questions to frame the group discussions. Throughout the summer, they shared their thoughts and reflections on their own blog. As their discussion unfolded, several questions emerged:

  • How are teachers nurturing and using students’ strengths and affinities to support learners and learning?
  • How has the teacher’s role changed with the All Kinds of Minds approach?
  • How do we help students develop metacognition and insight into how they learn best?

The facilitators agreed that the goal of the discussions would be to determine how reading the book would affect our teaching and our students’ learning this school year.

Faculty “Aha’s”

Over 80 faculty members gathered in small groups on the first day of school. A major “aha” for many was the book’s shift away from a focus on students’ weaknesses and the emphasis on using students’ strengths and affinities to support and leverage learning. Teachers perceived this to be an important change in perspective which would allow a broader implementation of the All Kinds of Minds framework and would ultimately improve the learning experience of all students.

“To build a mind requires that you understand it” was an idea that resonated for many teachers.

Teachers also felt that the book validated the importance of investing time and effort into understanding the unique minds in our classrooms. During discussions, it became obvious that while the details of how teachers achieved this goal differed according to the grade level of the students, teachers shared a belief that getting to know students is the best way to support them. “To build a mind requires that you understand it” was an idea that resonated for many teachers.  

Book Study Takeaways

Reading Schools for All Kinds of Minds as a faculty allowed us to see clearly that the All Kinds of Minds approach is a thread that weaves itself throughout all three divisions of our school. This way of thinking about teaching and learning allows us to realize the goal set forth in our mission statement: “to provide an academically challenging education in a warm, nurturing environment to a group of students with a wide range of talents and skills.”

Discussing Schools for All Kinds of Minds reenergized our teachers, deepened their understanding, and renewed our commitment as an All Kinds of Minds School of Distinction. It provided a meeting ground in which elementary, middle, and upper school teachers could learn from each other and share insights and ideas. For us, it was the right book for building bridges across three divisions.

What’s next at Indian Creek?

The book discussion was so successful that another has been planned for mid year so teachers can share how they are implementing the ideas they took away from the book. We are focusing on “small-wins” – a concept highlighted throughout the book – and sharing our success stories regularly at faculty meetings. Administrators are also giving teachers an opportunity to visit classrooms across divisions to observe the implementation of All Kinds of Minds strategies and practices.

__________

Mary Mannix is the Lower School Learning Specialist and All Kinds of Minds Coordinator at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, Maryland.  She is also a long-time All Kinds of Minds facilitator.

__________

Have any other schools out there engaged in a book study using Schools for All Kinds of Minds?  If so, tell us about it!  What were your faculty’s “aha’s”?  How will you continue to use the book throughout the school year?  Questions for Mary?  Leave a comment … we’d love to hear from you!

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  We’ve already given away several books, and this is the last week of our giveaway!  Here’s how it works: Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must (1) subscribe to our blog, and (2) share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  Remember: Non-subscribers are not eligible to win!  Subscribing is easy: just look for the “Email Subscription” box to the right.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Related links:

Teachers: What’s Your Framework?

By Craig Pohlman, Ph.D., Co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds and Director of MindMatters at Southeast Psych, a learning program in Charlotte, NC

In some circles, All Kinds of Minds has become equated with the neurodevelopmental framework it uses, but this framework is only one aspect of their approach to understand learning and learners.  All Kinds of Minds is really about a set of principles for education, such as leveraging strengths and affinities.  So the framework itself is not nearly as important as having a framework.

The Value of a Framework for Understanding Learning

As we note in Schools for All Kinds of Minds, gathering and then making sense of clues about learning is made easier with a framework for sorting and organizing those clues.  In the same way that artists or musicians know their influences, teachers should know what pedagogical theory guides their instruction.  Louis Pasteur once wrote, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” A framework prepares the mind for understanding learners.  A framework is a conceptual structure or mental scaffolding that can be used to organize observations from multiple sources.  It is vital equipment for an educator because it clarifies what to look for and then guides how to interpret what is found.

A framework facilitates communication.  When teachers, students, and parents use similar terms to describe learners, collaboration is made much easier.

Learning plans are more readily handed off to different teachers.  Also, using a common vocabulary helps teachers support each others’ thinking and problem solving.

Our Framework

The neurodevelopmental framework used by All Kinds of Minds is an organizing structure through which all learners can be understood.  Developed with an eye towards linkages with academic skills, such as reading and writing, it is similar to neuropsychological frameworks and draws from disciplines such as speech-language pathology.  Its structure and components are well-supported by the research literature.  Its major aspects, or constructs, are attention, higher order cognition, language, memory, neuromotor function, social cognition, spatial ordering, and temporal-sequential ordering.

Frameworks Can Be Eye-Opening

Using a framework is not confining.  Rather, it is liberating in how it opens one’s eyes to new sources of data and more sophisticated levels of understanding.  Put differently, patterns and themes emerge more easily with a framework.  Also, a conceptual framework can and should be adaptable; it’s not acceptable for one’s framework to remain ossified in the face of new thinking and research.   The All Kinds of Minds framework has certainly evolved over the years.

If you are new to the AKOM approach, take the framework out for a spin.  You’ll probably find it comprehensive, yet user-friendly.  Most importantly, it will prepare your mind.

Craig’s  previous books are Revealing Minds and How Can My Kid Succeed in School?

Note from All Kinds of Minds: Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Related Links:

>      Schools for All Kinds of MindsRead book excerpts, purchase the book, download book extras, and more!

>      All Kinds of Minds neurodevelopmental framework

Building Schools for All Kinds of Minds

In our recently-published book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds: Boosting Student Success by Embracing Learning Variation, our CEO Mary-Dean Barringer makes the point that Educators, school leaders and policymakers … talk around learning but not about learning,” and she notes that equipping educators with current knowledge from science about how we are wired to learn is essential to the future of education.

But how can educators access this knowledge?  And once they have, how can they translate what they’ve learned into practical solutions in their classrooms, schools, and districts?  Providing answers to these questions is a big part of our work here at All Kinds of Minds.

Schools for All Kinds of Minds

Reading Schools for All Kinds of Minds can be a great first step for educators seeking this expertise.  This book gives school leaders insights, examples, and tools to help them use the All Kinds of Minds approach to transform their classrooms and schools and ultimately help their students learn and thrive.  It highlights schools that have made real progress in building their learning expertise for the benefit of their students and shows educators how taking even small steps can help them meet their long-term goal of ensuring that all students find success.

We invite you to join us on our blog over the next few weeks as the book authors share some ideas and tips from the book as well as personal insights around the book’s content.

Win a Free Book!

But that’s not all.  Each week that we discuss an aspect of Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!

To be eligible to win a book, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about the blog entry by posting a comment.

Check back next week for the first Schools for All Kinds of Minds-inspired post.  We look forward to sharing elements of the book with you!

To learn more about Schools for All Kinds of Minds or to read excerpts, visit our website.  Here’s a preview of what you’ll find there:

More than ever, America needs the kinds of minds that generate new perspectives, seek solutions, and discover emerging opportunities. Those are the minds of many of the students in your schools today who, at first glance, look a lot like the struggling student I was in school. I invite you to take a second look at the individuals who walk through your school doors. Join us in helping as many kids as possible become more aware of their unique talents and more confident in their learning abilities—and help us rescue the wonderful potential that may otherwise be lost.

— Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s
(excerpted from the Schools for All Kinds of Minds Foreword)

 

Have you read the book?

If you’ve already read the book, we’d love to hear what you found compelling, how it’s influenced your thinking, or how it’s changed your practice.  Leave a comment below!