Sensory strategies in the classroom

Sensory processing strategies in the classroom

We’ve teamed up with Joanna Grace, a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna has written the following guest blog about sensory strategies in the classroom as part of a series of blogs.

Have you witnessed the emergence of a need for, or an expectation of, the provision of sensory strategies within the classroom? Perhaps you have fiddle toys on the desks, or alternative seating arrangements. Do you have sound cancelling headphones for students to wear? Or a zone, tent or room designated as a sensory space? Have you heard of sensory circuits; do you have students who are on sensory diets?

If you spoke to a teacher from a previous generation, they might look at you as if you are inventing a colourful nonsense talking about these things.

In this article we are going to take a look at:

  • What are sensory strategies?
  • Why sensory strategies are needed in classrooms today
  • How we can ensure the strategies are used effectively
  • What questions need to be asked around the strategies we are using

What are sensory strategies?

Every classroom has different levels of sensory stimuli. And every child has different levels that they are affected by these stimuli. Sensory strategies are designed to help manage exposure to these stimuli and thus, help children manage the sensations so they don’t impact on their ability to learn.

For some children, the aim may be to increase their level of alertness. For others, there is a need is to reduce alertness. The most common strategies employed in schools are movement breaks, wobble cushions, calm (or sensory) spaces, weighted blankets and fiddle toys. Each strategy has a specific aim for what it is trying to achieve, for example, increasing awareness).

Why do we need sensory strategies?

You would expect to find students with sensory processing difficulties within every classroom. These students may find some everyday sensory experiences too much to handle. Or they may need more sensory input than the everyday world provides.

Imagine that conversation with the teacher from long ago “But where were they in my day!” Well in short, they were not in our classrooms. We were not as inclusive in our practice decades ago. All settings are experiencing an increase in the complexity of needs of their students. And whilst in the past they were not recognised, we are better able to identify people’s differences and needs nowadays.

In days gone by a child expressing different sensory needs could well have been vilified as a naughty child. Today, we understand that behaviour is expressive. And we recognise the behaviours that express sensory differences.

Having a bank of sensory strategies that you feel confident using in your classroom therefore can enable you to provide for the differing needs of your students.

How can we ensure that sensory strategies are used effectively?

Key to ensuring the effective use of sensory strategies is to have a decent understanding of sensory processing differences and of the purpose of each strategy. All too often sensory resources are simply handed out and children are left to it. This is akin to handing out pencils and expecting children to teach themselves to write. Yes, the resources are useful, neigh essential. But no they will not be able to learn without support.

This is where you get a bit of a raw deal because no doubt you have been taught countless strategies for supporting children to develop their writing skills. I expect you’ve had access to training and can draw on a wealth of resources online. But where can you go for support in teaching sensory regulation and for the knowledge base you need to support a student with different sensory needs in your classroom?

I run a training day called ‘Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour’, which looks at sensory support strategies, and there are other organisations that can offer training about sensory differences to your school. But the likelihood is that you will have to petition to get access to such training and you’ll have to do the research in your own time. I wonder sometimes whether schools see provision for sensory needs and differences as something they are being asked to do in addition to, or on top of their pre-existing curriculum.

Imagine yourself for a moment in a sensory landscape that you would find difficult, perhaps a loud nightclub environment, or a café in a bustling shopping centre. The sounds and sights of such a place, the smells, etc. would make it difficult for you to focus on your literacy or numeracy skills.

Provision for sensory differences therefore is not a decorative add on to teaching these days, it is an essential component of it. You have a right to training and resources to support you in this part of your job.

What questions need to be asked around the strategies we are using?

The sensory needs and differences of our students are all so different, so individual to them, that there cannot be any one way of using a resource or a strategy.

Any promotion of a one-sized fits all approach should raise a warning flag in your mind. The training I provide at The Sensory Projects is all about asking questions and reflective practice. Often sensory resources are sold accompanied by great promises. If a resource says it will help someone to calm, ask yourself how you will know. If it is to help them concentrate, how are you going to judge whether it has worked? Ask how to support them to use it? Ask what role you play in their learning to use the resource? Question, question, question.

And then there is another layer of questioning: ask why the resource or strategy is needed?

For example, if lots of your students need noise cancelling headphones in order to focus, are your students generally a bit too loud? Or is the room set out in such a way that it bounces sound around? Would the introduction of some cushions and other soft furnishings help everyone?

If a student needs to leave the room to meet their sensory needs, for example going out of class to complete a sensory circuit, and then comes back and sticks it out for as long as they can before leaving again, ask whether any of those needs could be met in class. You may find that low level ongoing input reduces the need for one off big intervention. For example, a child allowed to sit on an exercise ball and rock gently throughout the day may not need to leave the classroom to leap about once every forty minutes.

This is the first of four articles, the next three are going to explore three different resources and look at how they could be used in the classroom, and why their use might be significant to your students.

By asking questions and exploring purpose we can find more effective ways to support the children in our classrooms.

About the author

Joanna Grace is a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Author, Trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Jo is an active user of social media and welcomes new connections.

We're proud to have worked with Joanna to develop a range of teaching support and sensory stories.