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.

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Image: Joel Ertola via Time 

 

Topography of Diversity

Below is a pretty cool topographical map of a brain from UNIT SEVEN. While it is not to be taken as scientifically accurate, it does serve as a fantastic metaphor for thinking about students’ minds.

We know that while the major structures of the brain are largely the same from one cranium to the next, the specific architecture of individual minds varies person to person based on experience. The splendor of minds and their (sometimes confounding) behavioral manifestations, as with ecosystems such as forests, deserts, and wetlands, lies in their variation, not their standardization.

The diverse topography of strengths, affinities and challenges evident in each student must be celebrated, embraced, and leveraged to strengthen and enrich our schools, communities, and, most importantly, their learning experiences. In honoring and demystifying their differences, we empower them to discover new vistas, hidden glades, and cascading rivers. Such metacognition helps them “draw” a map of their brain that will serve them as they navigate far beyond the walls of the classroom.

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