How to Create the Right Classroom For Older Students with Special Sensory Needs

We often hear about creating a sensory-friendly classroom for younger students, but what about students who are in their teens and have special sensory needs? Primary schools tend to be more flexible with the needs of younger students, while there seems to be some form of expectation that older students will grow out of their neurological differences or will learn to cope with living in a world that has little or no recognition of sensory needs.

Neurodiversity is for Life

The challenges of neurodiversity are not something that a child grows out of. As they mature, children usually learn to cope with their challenges better and many are successful at living the way the rest of the world lives. But that doesn't mean it's easy and every day is a struggle to cope with environments that most of us pay no attention to. Noise, lighting, colours and textures are all environmental elements that can make a crucial difference in how well an individual with special sensory needs copes.

How Well Do High Schools do at Meeting Special Sensory Needs?

Children with special sensory needs  don't graduate from primary school and enter high school a few weeks later completely cured of all of their sensory sensitivities, yet most high schools make few provisions for their needs. High schools are usually noisy, often crowded, and may be located in buildings that are many decades old, meaning that lighting, noise, layout and air quality can be challenging for sensory-sensitive students. As with younger students, behaviour issues can often be managed better when the environment is adapted to meet their needs while learning outcomes improve with environmental comfort.

Sensory-Savvy Teachers Can Make a Difference

Many of the changes that a teacher can make are not expensive or complicated but turn out to be effective. While it might take some experimentation to find what works best, sensory-sensitive students will respond to measures that meet their needs. This works in everyone's best interests with a calmer, more productive classroom and an environment that fosters learning.

Consider the following tips to create a great classroom environment for older students with special sensory needs:

Lighting

  • Choose light bulbs with a Colour Rendering Index (or CRI) of 100. These bulbs produce light that is as close to natural sunlight as possible. Artificial light can be problematic for sensitive people and aiming for natural light or bulbs that simulate it is the best option for them(1).
  • Replace fluorescent bulbs with alternatives such as halogen lighting. Fluorescent lighting is especially challenging for people with light sensitivities because of the harshness, glare, colour temperature, invisible flicker, or noise the bulb makes(2).
  • Install dimmer switches and segment the room, allowing lighting “zones” that suit the diverse needs of neurotypical students and those with sensitivities.
  • Provide individual lamps for each student so that they can control the lighting to suit their own comfort.
  • Glare can be a huge problem for sensitive students and it can come from hard surfaces, floors, computer screens or through windows. Consider tinting windows or using anti-glare screens on computers.

Sound

  • Floors are often a major source of sound stress for sensitive students, especially hardwoord flooring. Try deadening the noise with rugs or mats.
  • If your classroom is due for remodelling or you have the budget, consider some of the sound-dampening flooring available, such as sound-deadening vinyl or acoustic underlayment(3).
  • Consider hanging acoustic panels on walls next to areas of noise, such as a noisy hallway or stairs. Foam panels will not completely block noise but will dampen it and prevent reverberation.
  • For large, echoing spaces, think about installing acoustic ceiling baffles or ceiling clouds to break up the sound and prevent reverberation(4).
  • Some individuals with autism will ignore sounds, which is a problem if the fire alarm goes off. Consider installing a visual alarm.

Textures

Some individuals with autism or SPD have aversions to certain textures while others crave textural stimulation. Either way, students will want to touch everything. Try these tips for classroom textures:

  • Provide textural elements in the classroom that students can touch. This might be a textured wall hanging or artwork or a corner with bean bags and fluffy cushions.
  • Create a sensory board that is adapted to older students or the subject. Keep it in the classroom for students to touch(5).
  • Bring nature into the classroom with a variety of different textured plants. Make sure they are user-friendly in case a student wants to experience them in an atypical manner.
  • Make a collection of interesting items that are relevant to the subject. Put them in a box and allow students to take them out and touch them as they feel the need.

Smells

Some individuals with special sensory needs can find odours distressing, leading to poor behaviour or meltdowns. In addition, research has shown how important the sense of smell is for learning(6). In short, the sense of smell is a crucial memory pathway associated with learning. Consider the following tips for reducing odours in the classroom:

  • Have a policy of no food in the classroom to avoid food odours
  • Consider using an ozone generator to filter unwanted odours from the classroom. It has the added benefit of also filtering mould and microorganisms(7).
  • Try using a few drops of natural essential oil in bins or other strategic places. Choose scents that are light and unobtrusive and check if they are problematic for sensitive students
  • Get fresh air into the classroom if possible. Air circulation will help to keep lingering odours under control and will provide a better learning environment.

At Life Skills 4 Kids, we believe that everyone should be able to experience their environment in comfort, especially during the crucial life phase of learning. If you have any questions or comments about sensory-safe classrooms, feel free to get in touch. We would love to hear from you!

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