The classroom and school environment is a very complex and sensory-rich and sensory-confusing and confronting environment. Having an understanding of sensory processing concepts and the reason why children may struggle with sensory processing in this busy environment is the first step in helping them.
Let’s have a quick think about some of the behaviours of children might be struggling with sensory challenges in a classroom –
- I like to touch other children constantly, be in their personal space, or I may walk past a shelf and have to touch and fiddle with everything I can (seeking).
- I struggle to hold my pencil, and find it hard to complete fine motor tasks such as cutting and gluing. This happens as they may not be receiving correct touch information to be able to complete tasks successfully (under responsive)
- Before I arrive in class, I have been bumped and jostled in the playground and when lining up to. I hate being touched. Even a small bump feels like a punch and sometimes I react by hitting back and I get in trouble (over responsive / sensory defensive)
- I am always chewing something or have something in my mouth. I chew pencils, my uniform collar, the top of my drink bottle. I find that chewing helps calm me and gets me into the “just right” zone. This helps me concentrate better in class. (seeking)
- I put too much food in my mouth when eating (under responsive)
- I’m a really picky eater and sometimes find it difficult to eat at lunch time. (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).
- I love things that move. I love flicking light switches on and off and watching shadows move. This is really distracting to me, but my body just can’t seem to help it (seeking).
- I get lost on my homework or math page and don’t know where to start and find it hard to keep on track (under responsive). I find it really helpful to have parts of the page I’m working on either highlighted or covered over, so I can just concentrate on what I need to do right now.
- I hate bright lights and prefer to be inside in a room without the lights on. I find fluorescent lights too much (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).
- I love making noise and experimenting with different sounds (seeking).
- I find it hard to hear verbal cues and I’m better off if you get my attention visually first before you ask me to do something (under responsive).
- I hate loud noises which might not seem loud to you. Or I might get distracted or anxious by small noises such as the air conditioner or a car driving past. Sometimes I might look like I’m making a lot of noise myself, but I’m really making my own noise so that I feel safe in this environment as there is so much other noise. When I make sounds myself I feel safe and in control. (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).
- I love smelling everything! I might like to smell the paint or the glue. I find smelling things is stimulating and makes me feel good. (seeking)
- I don’t pick up or recognise smells usually (under responsive)
- I notice smells a lot and I find it difficult to be around people with a strong perfume on. I find the smell of the glue, paint and playdough really hard to take. It really bothers me. (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).
Other senses that may not be thought of commonly also include:
- I love lifting, pushing, pulling, moving things! I really love recess and lunch time so I can hit the playground and use my body. Sometimes I get in trouble in class as I find it hard to concentrate and am kept inside, but really, I need to get lots of muscle input so I can concentrate in the next learning session! (seeking)
- I find it hard to get going in the morning. Adults sometime label me as lazy as I can’t get going. My OT says I have low muscle tone and this makes me tired sometimes. I need activities organised so I can have some muscle input every couple of hours to help keep me in the “just right” zone (under responsive)
- I don’t like climbing as I don’t like the feeling in my joints when I pull against gravity (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).
- I love big swings, big rides, running around a lot. I’ll be the first one you notice in your classroom! I often get in trouble for walking around the room, and sometimes you’ll keep me in for mis-behaviour, but really, I need to be out in the playground getting more muscle and movement input so I can listen and learn in the next class! (seeking)
- I find it hard to get going. I need regular movement breaks during transitions to help keep me focused and on track. (under responsive)
- I prefer to stay still. I don’t like swings or playgrounds. I like my feet on the ground. It may look like I am shy in PE and on the playground, as I don’t want to participate. I prefer quiet indoor play it feels safer to me (Over responsive/ sensory defensive).
The School Environment Sensory Checklist developed by Debbie Hopper is an easy to use tool to look at any classroom (preschool, primary school, elementary school, high school) and look closely at how to create a more sensory-safe learning environment for ALL children.