The 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.
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.