Creating A Sensory Smart Classroom

What is sensory Processing:

Sensory processing difficulties are highly prevalent in children with ASD and ADHD and occur in 5 to 16 % of all school aged children (this is as many as 1 in 6!). Sensory processing is how our brain registers and interprets information from our sensory systems:

  • Tactile- what we touch
  • Auditory- what we hear
  • Visual- what we see
  • Gustatory- what we taste
  • Olfactory- what we smell
  • Vestibular- how we are moving
  • Proprioceptive- how our body is positioned

Sensory Thresholds:

Each of us have a sensory threshold, this is a limit of the amount of sensory input that we can tolerate.  Sensory sensitivity occurs when normal sensory input levels exceed a child’s threshold.   Conversely, under-registration occurs when a person needs greater than normal levels of input to register.  If there is a mismatch between our sensory preferences and our environment our performance is inhibited.

What is happening at a brain level?:

We are constantly being bombarded by sensory input both from our environment and from within our bodies. Our brain filters the information and decide whether to:

  • Screen out- input is deemed as unimportant e.g. dust particles in the air- always there but we tend not to notice them.
  • Habituate- if input doesn’t change much over time it is ignored e.g. wearing a ring.
  • Notice and assign the relevant level of importance e.g. a car honking at us as we cross the road and needing to respond immediately.

If the sensory input is beyond what we can tolerate then the situation releases cortisol in our brain and elicits as fight/fright/flight stress response which causes:

  • Breathing gets faster
  • Heart rate increases
  • More oxygen is pumped to muscles
  • Appetite suppressed
  • Prefrontal cortex shuts down (responsible for attention, planning, decision making, judgement, impulse control, retrieval of memories, learning)

Overall state of arousal:

Overall state of arousal is impacted upon by many factors:

  • Sensory preferences
  • Sleep
  • Hunger
  • Sickness
  • Anxiety
  • Prior events of the day

This means that a sensitive child might be able to cope with something one day but the next day they might completely fall apart.  An under-responsive child might be calm and in control one day but the next they might be completely unpredictable.  Bear in mind that these changes are not a behavioural choice but purely the result of a nervous system that can’t cope that particular day.

What does it look like:

  1. Signs of sensory sensitivity:
  • Cover ears
  • Become upset in response to loud noise.
  • Easily distracted/overwhelmed in busy environments.
  • Avoid messy play.
  • Hesitant to try new foods
  • Bothered by clothing fabrics, seams in socks, wearing long sleeves.
  • Dislike grooming tasks such as having hair brushed, washed or cut.
  • Cautious on playground equipment
  • Highly emotional
  • Increased anxiety
  • Tantrums/ meltdowns
  • Avoidant behaviour
  • Aggressive behaviour
  1. Signs of under-responsivity- Sensory Seekers:
  • Runs into things
  • Fidgets
  • Constantly moving/ can’t sit still
  • Impulsive
  • Over excited
  • Too rough in play
  • Invade personal space
  • Chew on clothes/objects
  • Poor attention
  • Disorganised
  1. Signs of under-responsivity-Low registration
  • Passive
  • Lethargic
  • Tires easily
  • Off with the fairies/ day dreamer
  • Misses instructions
  • Hard to engage

What can we do?

I have found the most success with taking a 3- pronged approach to managing sensory challenges.

  1. Provide sensory calming/organising activities to ensure the nervous system is in an optimal state.
  2. Utilise cognitive strategies to build self-regulation and coping skills.
  3. Set up the classroom environment to maximise predictability and reduce sensory demands.

Sensory calming/organising activities:

Types of input that can help to prevent/counteract a stress response and also provide input that under-responsive kids benefit from:

  • Heavy work- (which stimulates the proprioceptive system) impacts on serotonin levels in our brain. Serotonin helps to regulate our level of arousal/alertness. These chemicals can remain for 1.5- 2hours. Activity ideas include:
    • Yoga poses
    • Chair push ups & dips
    • Wall push ups & squats
    • Animal walks such as crab walks, bear walks, caterpillar creeps, bunny hops etc.
    • On-the-spot exercises or gym circuit activities such as scissor jumps, star jumps, sprinting on the spot, high knees, crunches, push ups, squats, marching, planks.
    • Whole body Theraband exercises
  • Deep pressure touch- releases dopamine in the brain which reduces cortisol. This relaxes the brain so that we can focus and attend. Activity ideas include:
    • “Milkshake Breathing”
    • Breathing prompt: Sniff a flower/blow out a candle
    • com:
      • On & Off
      • Bring It Down
      • Rainbow Breath
  • Deep breathing- essentially tricks our brain and body into thinking that we are calm. Activates our parasympathetic nervous system which helps us to relax.  Activity ideas include:
  • Body socks
  • Bear hugs
  • Bean bag chairs
  • “Sausage rolls”- rolling child up in a blanket
  • “Pizzas”- rolling over child with a therapy ball

Cognitive strategies:

  • Use body and brain diagrams to discuss how the sensory system works. It is amazing how teaching kids to understand what is happening in their body and brain can help them to develop their own self-regulation skills.
  • The Zones of Regulation Program & The Alert Program- How Does Your Engine Run? I like to draw on aspects of both these programs.
    • Make a whole class Speedo using the four zones colours.
    • Discuss when it is OK to be in each zone.
    • Brainstorm how we might look/behave in each zone and how this impacts upon others.
    • Generate strategies for what to do in each zone.
  • Books to support self-regulation:
    • We Thinkers! Volumes 1 & 2 by Michelle Garcia Winner – 10 part series including topics like:
      • Whole Body Listening
      • Expected and Unexpected Behaviour
      • Flexible and Stuck Thinking
      • The Size of the Problem
    • Superflex by Michelle Garcia Winner
    • Ant patrol Series by MASTER Institute
    • The Panicosaurus by Kay Al-Ghani
    • The Red Beast by Kay Al-Ghani

Classroom environment suggestions:

Provide as much structure and predictability as possible:

  • Visual schedules
  • Predictable daily routines
  • Timers
  • Social Stories (give warning about what to expect, how to act and what to do if they are overwhelmed). Homemade Books to Help kids Cope by Robert Ziegler is a helpful resource for writing these

Where possible reduce sensory stimulation:

  • Minimise visual clutter around the room.
  • Use page cut outs to display small chunks of visual input at a time.
  • Provide priority seating where possible.
  • Turn off the lights during quiet breaks.
  • Set up a quiet retreat in the classroom (tent or reading corner). Sometimes it can also be helpful to have another location in the school available for lunchtime incidents.
  • Have earplugs or noise cancelling headphones available to block out noise.
  • When lining up, allow sensitive kids to have a special place at the front or back of the line.
  • Use carpet squares for each child when sitting on the floor to keep them in their own space.

Allow opportunities to seek input in an acceptable way:

  • Munch and crunch
  • Chewelry/ Chewy tubes
  • Drink bottles to sip on
  • Fidget toys
  • Place Velcro dots under the lip of the desk
  • Provide options for seating:
    • Move n sit cushions
    • Weighted lap cushions
    • Low tables to sit on the floor
    • Standing desks
    • Bloom stool/Hokki stools
    • Hawdahug chairs
    • Beanbags
    • Ball chairs

Helpful links and resources:

Kate Kleinau- Occupational Therapistkate headshot

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