You don’t have to be a Special Education Teacher to support students with sensory needs. You also don’t need a diagnosis to have occasional sensory overload. There is an ongoing commitment to identify best practices for teaching & supporting students with disabilities in the regular classroom. And one of the most significant commitments is to ensure that all students, including those with sensory needs, have access to quality education. This article will explore ways to support students with sensory needs in the classroom even if they do not have a diagnosis or an IEP. Anyone can use these tips to help all students of all abilities who may need a little extra support with overwhelming sounds, lights, and sensations.
What Does Sensory Overload Look Like in All Learners
Sensory overload occurs when one or more of your five senses take in more information than your brain can process. It can happen to anyone, anytime. Students may shut down, cover their ears, squint their eyes, hold their nose, tremble, panic or freeze. It’s important to help students find the correct sensory tools they need in that moment so they can regulate their senses and return to a productive state.
Other times, students feel the need to take in more of a sensory diet. They may be tapping their hands or feet or chewing on a pencil. You can easily replace those behaviors with more appropriate classroom tools such as fidget cubes, stretchy strings and alternative seating.
Using Sensory Toys with All Learners
Sensory materials are integral to an engaged, successful, and unbiased classroom. When appropriately used, sensory materials can help provide students with focus and calmness as they work. Popular items like fidgets and squeeze balls are often used to help students stay on task. Still, other objects such as putty, sand timers, play dough, and weighted stuffed animals can also serve as helpful when trying to provide sensory support. A great example is the application of fidget toys to manage the restlessness of learners with ADHD. Here the primary mechanic is that when an ADHD child is overwhelmed with environmental stimuli, they may seek external output to regulate and keep themselves calm. This can also happen with all learners from time to time. Everyone has sensory needs from time to time.
Another example is the Swiggle Wiggle Writer for children who need more sensory input for their writing skills. The pen vibrates on the child’s hands, thus strengthening the hand muscles needed for writing capability. These are just a few pointers to set the ball rolling, but it is essential to be mindful of each student’s needs and what will work best for them. Be sure to explore different tools to see what helps your students the most.
Using Visuals & Textures with All Learners
Children with sensory needs may benefit from enhanced visual input. For example, many Autistic children prefer high contrasting colors and strongly patterned designs. These visuals strengthen memory & provide a stimulating visual environment that can help them feel engaged. Meanwhile, providing different textures in the classroom can also be helpful for children with sensory needs. Items like bumpy fabric, furry animal toys, smooth clay, and wooden materials can provide tactile input to help students feel calm and focused. In practice, the teachers can have the students engage in modeling, like making their favorite toy using plasticine or jigsaw puzzles. The objective is to have the student make physical contact with a designated texture and describe the feeling. It’s okay to provide different materials (such as sandpaper and velvet). That way, the learner can have a tactile experience.
Using Gestures to Strengthen Sensory Processing
One way to help a child with sensory needs is through gestures. For example, when Autistic child is overwhelmed with environmental stimuli, they may respond to verbal commands rather slowly. Perhaps the lesson was too lengthy or complex, or the student felt anxious. In these situations, a teacher can use gestures to help students understand what is expected of them. If the student seems dazed and distracted, a teacher might put their hand on the shoulder to get their attention. If there was a communication issue, a teacher could point out or sign to help efficiently direct the learner’s behavior without overwhelming them. Try using simple hand gestures that are easy to follow, like pointing and shaking your head if a student does something you don’t like. This type of non-verbal communication can help a child better comprehend what to do and what not to do in a given set-up, thus aiding them in the learning process.
I have found that many of my students have some degree of sensory sensitivity on occasion. It may be situational or it may be just short term. It’s important to be intentional about recognizing the signs in ALL students and asking students how we can adapt the learning environment to fit their needs at the moment. You can also support parents and students at home by helping them create a DIY calm down corner at home.