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General Ed teachers: Helping to integrate students with sensory processing challenges into the classroom

In this month’s blog I will be discussing children who are displaying behaviors reflecting sensory processing challenges, often not thought as appropriate in the classroom. Unlike children who are wheelchair users and easily receive assistance for their challenges, those with sensory processing challenges have “hidden” disabilities. They are often misunderstood and receive punishment for their behaviors. Assessment is important to identify the cause of their challenges. Once identified as sensory processing challenges, they too will need support from their teachers, aides, and other school staff throughout their school day.


It is important to understand that some of these children may also have a dual diagnosis of Autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).


Even before school starts, the child will need to have support at home, to get ready for the school day. It is important to include parents on the team! Parents, who understand their child’s sensory needs, are able to provide the sensory support at home which can make a big difference in how the child will behave upon arriving at school. Just like a good breakfast, providing pieces of the sensory diet (as seen in the  Tools for Teens handbook)  from their “sensory buffet” (as seen in the Tools for Tots book) will give the body and brain nutrition he/ she will need to “jump start” the day!


And don’t forget the travel to school! Bus drivers say they too want to know how to help children have an easier time on the bus, instead of having to “kick” them off the bus. Headsets to tone down the sound, lap pads to provide weighted comfort, and hand fidgets may all be appropriate sensory-based tools to prevent melt downs on the way to and from school.


The sensory systems provide opportunities for seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching as well as moving and using muscles (for strength and coordination). A child with difficulties processing the sensory input his/her body receives through the senses responds as best he/she can. For example: A child who is unable to handle loud sounds may keep the hands over the ears, make a face, or “explode” in fight or flight. Providing a noise cancelling headset, providing relief, may do the trick!


We are all sensory beings. If you are “typical”, you are able to adjust/accommodate as your body’s sensory systems integrate all the input/stimulation to help you make sense of the world and feel safe. However many children and adults may have some type of sensory challenge. General Ed teachers, who understand their own sensory needs, will be able to empathize and help their students by providing access to a “sensory buffet” throughout the day.


A kindergarten teacher I met in one of my Sensory Tool Kit workshops became aware of her own sensitivity to light touch. She realized that she had been labeling a student as a “behavior problem” during circle time when she was reading a story, because he wanted to be on her lap, or close to her, stroking her stockings. Once evaluated using the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM), the student was found to need additional touch and muscle input (also known as a “sensory seeker”) in order to be calm and focused.
Sometimes students who “run” into other children and don’t appear to understand boundaries can also have sensory challenges, related to the under performance of their movement and muscle systems. Providing sensory “tools” such as a body sox, concentration cushion or Pea Pod may be what is needed. A good way to help the team choose which sensory –based strategies may work across all school and home environments is to us the SPM Quick Tips. Separate intervention reports can be easily generated targeting each environment including not only home and the main classroom, but also art, music, PE, recess, cafeteria and bus.


A teacher’s classroom often reflects his/her sensory preferences. Below is a comparison of two General Ed 2nd grade classrooms with different functional environments:
• Classroom A: Many bright colored pictures, projects and streamers hang from the ceiling. The desks and tables are grouped in various ways, facilitating discussions and sharing. The space allows for creativity and movement. Though some may love the flexibility, this space may look very busy to those who may need more structure.
• Classroom B: There are very few pictures on the walls with no hanging materials. All desks are individual and organized in neat rows, facing the smart board and teacher. All books, manipulatives and tools are labeled and placed on a designated shelf, tub or cubby. One could say that everything has a “home” and is replaced in its “home” when tasks are completed. Though some may appreciate the organization, consistency and routine, others may find it to be “boring” and not stimulating enough.
Which classroom is best? Both can be. It is important for everyone to understand, including school administrators, that there is no right or wrong! We are all sensory beings with different individual sensory needs and preferences. A challenge for teachers is to create a sensory friendly environment in the classroom which accommodates both their own sensory preferences, as well as the sensory needs of their students.
I have met and visited many General Ed teachers in their classrooms during the past 14 years on Ateachabout. With additional in-service training, teachers become great detectives at observing the sensory needs of their students. Together with their occupational therapists who have expertise in sensory processing, they create unique sensory-safe spaces for all students in their classrooms.


Creating sensory safe spaces, in the classroom, playground, and at home:
Below is a schematic developed by a 4th grade Gen Ed teacher in which she included the following 4 sensory safe spaces: See links below for pictures of possibilities.

#1 Womb Space Womb%20SpaceCreating%20Sensory%20Safe%20Spaces_Diana%20Henry.pdf
– Hide out & small spaces
– Whole body contact
– Containment without restraint (snuggling in T-shirt)
– Unconditional acceptance
– Respects need to regroup
– Relaxation & reflection
– ‘Time In’

#2 Mother Space Mother%20SpaceCreating%20Sensory%20Safe%20Spaces_Diana%20Henry.pdf
– Interaction 8 to 10”
– Physical contact OK
– Sharing space
– Being validated
– Child or animal contact
– Comforting activities
– Simple language
– Sharing a book


#3 Brain Power (In a group - sharing-interactive thinking) chair balls Brain%20Power%20Creating%20Sensory%20Safe%20Spaces_Diana%20Henry.pdf
#4 Brain Power (Individual desk - each student has his / her own desk)
– Academics – Problem solving
– Expects independence…Posture is less supported
– Learning through the auditory and visual systems
– Minimal movement, touching or proprioceptive input
– Equipment - Computers, table for group activities, Smart boards, chair ball

#5 Kid Power Kid%20PowerlCreating%20Sensory%20Safe%20Spaces_Diana%20Henry.pdf
– Totally covered with mats and well padded
– Takes risks while being safe
– Dancing on the edge…Just right challenge
– Demonstrates physical power
– Climbing, pushing, pulling, lifting, stretching
– Jumping, impacting, sliding, catching
– Gravitational challenge
– Acknowledges independence
– Facilitates self-direction
Creating separate Wiggle Rooms are also an option.


For more information attend my two day Sensory Tool Kit workshop. I include a mock classroom demonstration where workshop participants become students and we discuss how to integrate sensory-safe strategies and spaces in classrooms, playgrounds and homes.


Teachers who create sensory safe spaces in their classrooms will help their student’s learning and keep them engaged throughout the day. This is a win-win for teachers and their students. This summer, take some time to think about new creative ways to develop sensory-safe spaces which will work for you and your students. Use the Teen Sensory Tools Survey in the Tools for Teens handbook to recruit the teens in your classroom to be part of designing the new sensory-safe spaces.

Creating sensory-safe spaces can be one piece of the puzzle. Students will look forward to coming to school and teaching will become more rewarding!

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