Classroom Solutions for Sensory-Sensitive Students
Montessori Life, Summer 2017
By ALICIA NODDINGS, PhD
[Editors’ note: This is the second in a series of articles examining the role of sensory integration in early childhood. Read part 1 first and part 3 after this article.]
In the first article in this series (“Supporting Sensory-Sensitive Children in a Sensory-Intensive World,” Volume 29, Number 1, Spring 2017), we defined terminology related to sensory issues that frequently appear in young children, in addition to exploring how sensory processing disorder (SPD) can relate to academic performance issues and conditions such as autism, ADHD, and anxiety. This article will explore how to create a sensory-friendly school environment.
WHERE DO WE START?
Montessorians have long been proponents of children mastering self-regulation early in life, whether by managing their biological needs, directing their social interactions, or promoting their concentration by determining for themselves how much time is needed for an activity. In addition, we believe that the connection between child and nature is of critical importance and that children need to be actively and physically engaged with any material or concept they are striving to master. These characteristics of Montessori classrooms are a natural fit for environments designed to promote sensory integration (SI) in young children.
Human sensory systems typically calibrate themselves following a predictable progression over the first 6 to 8 years of life (Kranowitz, 1998). This means that Early Childhood and Elementary classrooms need to be structured to promote healthy sensory development for all children, not just those with sensory challenges. And beyond 8 years of age? Most children have fairly mature sensory systems by that time, but each person has a unique sensory profile, with tendencies toward hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities in each of the seven senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, tactile sense, vestibular sense, and proprioceptive sense). It is important that children of all ages are given opportunities to further fine-tune and maintain their sensory health.
The logical place to begin promoting SI in the classroom is by providing children with frequent chances to move—ideally through whole-body, unstructured play multiple times daily. However, that is not the only parameter for ideal SI-friendly movement, as the variety of movement opportunities available is important as well. Children are naturally compelled to run, jump, swing, climb, and spin, preferably outdoors. They need to be upside down, to bounce, to crawl as well as walk, and to stretch, slide, and use active tools such as bicycles, scooters, and skates. And yes, sometimes they even need to take developmentally appropriate risks in active play (Ferreras, 2016), which ultimately will help them to develop confidence, problem solving abilities, and resilience.
Soon after No Child Left Behind legislation was signed into law in the U.S. (2002), an increasing emphasis in schools on high-stakes testing performance resulted in a decrease in recess and movement time, including physical education for Elementary students (Ohanian, 2002). Not long thereafter, focused research began documenting the cognitive benefit that children receive from unstructured play time, including better academic performance (Zygmunt-Fillwalk & Bilello, 2005; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005), giving credence to parent outcry over such developmentally inappropriate educational practices. Increasing numbers of discipline issues in Early Childhood and Elementary classrooms and increased ADHD diagnoses have been seen over the past 15 years, as opportunities for movement and play have continued to decrease. But allowing children, especially boys, the ability to move and exercise frequently can ease ADHD symptoms and behavior challenges even as it improves academic performance (Preidt, 2014; Reddy, 2014).
Our children also need to physically engage with their work, separating from the screens that have so dramatically curtailed their hands-on learning and outdoor time. Since the hazard of unmonitored television time was first explored by Marie Winn in The Plug-In Drug (1977, revised 2002), the allure of screens too early and too often has only become an increasing challenge for both parents and educators. Over the past 10 years, numerous authors have written on how increased separation from nature has negatively impacted our children’s development (Louv, 2008), as well as their ability to be healthier, more effective learners (Hanscom, 2016).
Providing dedicated time for movement and nature are important general guidelines for parents and educators to remember, but there are also classroom-based tools available that teachers can implement into the school day to promote sensory health and positive behaviors in their students. Some of these tools are used organically by Montessori educators, such as floor time (including tummy time for infants), carefully observing children to identify their unique needs, appreciation of individual learning styles, and a focus on balance among various types of activities and settings (e.g., indoor/outdoor, quiet/active, individual/group, structured/unstructured). As we explore classroom-appropriate supports, we will also examine how all of these pieces can fit together to help us construct and promote appropriate behavior expectations for young children.
TOOLS FOR THE CLASSROOM
As we evaluate our classroom environments for sensory friendliness and diversity, it is important to reflect on the role of healthy sensory development in a child’s learning. Ultimately, all learning occurs through our senses. If one of our senses is impaired, it affects our ability to learn and must be accommodated for, a process that takes time, practice, and patience. So while our goal as educators is to provide classrooms that support the broadest possible spectrum of learners, we must also realize that not all of the tools shared here apply to or work for everyone. Consider your environment, consider your students, and then thoughtfully try out some of the suggested techniques, observing as you implement them to see if they improve your students’ focus, concentration, and behavior. To begin, use the table below to assess your classroom environment. Then continue observing as you fine-tune techniques that best support your students’ needs.
TABLE 1: ENVIRONMENTAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE CLASSROOM
|ENVIRONMENTAL FACTOR||POSSIBLE IMPLEMENTATION/VARIATION|
|Room layout||Variety of spaces for individual vs. group activities, spaces which are noisier/quieter.|
|Variety of activities||Provide choices for students, including activities with varied levels of stimulation, physical engagement (e.g., gross vs. fine motor), and interaction with others.|
|Lighting and visual organization||Natural and incandescent lighting, at a variety of heights and levels of intensity (minimizing fluorescent lighting when possible). Examine walls for balance of white/quiet space with visual stimulation, varied throughout the classroom. Consider visual stimulation outside the classroom. Provide a well-organized/ordered environment that children can help maintain.|
|Available seating options||Chairs, stools, and floor seating, with a variety of textures, heights, and levels of firmness. Alternative seating, such as ball chairs, slant cushions, standing desks, seating discs, or rocking chairs.|
|Active unstructured play||Multiple times per day, ideally outdoors, in all weather (dressed appropriately), in environments that stimulate tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses.|
|Structured movement||Built into the daily curriculum via “brain breaks,” PE classes, yoga, dance curriculum, obstacle courses, music/ rhythm activities, age-appropriate sports, or active games.|
|“Time in”||Quiet, individual space in the classroom, where a child can go to “reset”—perhaps equipped with a rocking chair, headphones (with or without music), fish tank, and fidgets.|
|Taking care of personal needs||Access to water, snacks, and bathrooms that can be utilized without assistance (as developmentally appropriate).|
|Other sensory factors||Awareness of nearby environmental sounds and smells, controlling/accommodating for them when possible.|
Some additional clarification related to structured movement and “time in” factors may be helpful. Structured movement opportunities can occur in many ways at the Early Childhood and Elementary levels, and as teachers recognize the benefits that frequent movement provides their students, more resources and curricula are becoming available. “Brain breaks” can take less than a minute or up to an hour; the most important guiding factors for teachers to consider are the level of stimulation they want to give their students’ central nervous systems (i.e., how much they want their students “revved up”) and how they want the activity to focus their students’ attention. General classroom fitness resources such as GoNoodle and ABC for Fitness focus on providing frequent group movement breaks (Reddy, 2014), while curricula such as Brain Gym(Dennison & Dennison, 1994) or How Does Your Engine Run? (Williams & Shellenberger, 1996) have sensory components built in to their design. Yoga can provide proprioceptive benefits as it also helps students to self-calm and embrace silence.
While utilizing a “time in” or quiet area in your classroom is an idea promoted in a variety of classroom management curricula and programs (Nelsen, 2006; Brady, Forton, & Porter, 2015), a sensory lens can encourage a few adjustments to the design of this space. The “time in” area is meant to promote self-regulation, so when a child enters and leaves should be in his own hands—though the adult can provide prompts to guide the child. Think about the types of manipulatives, seating, lighting, sounds, etc. that are available in a comfortable, quiet, and predictable setting, giving the child the freedom to select those sensory tools that fit her best at that particular emotionally charged moment. Ultimately, whether for the “time in” space or any other area of your classroom, your goal is to provide a range of tools that can be adapted to your students’ individual needs on a daily basis, across a variety of situations and times of day.
Once you have assessed your overall classroom environment, it is time to consider curricular activities and manipulatives that can be integrated into the school day to support your diverse learners. Some individual tools that could be set up in the classroom to be utilized by students, perhaps even as a classroom work or on a “sensory shelf,” might include the following:
- Hand-size fidgets and squeeze balls of varying textures and firmness levels;
- Headphones (noise-canceling, silent or with music);
- Lap weights;
- Fine-motor activities that allow for accommodations and sensory variety (e.g., sensory table, Practical Life, and art works);
- Colored glasses (to mute visual input or block flickering of fluorescent lights);
- Stretch/resistance bands;
- Massage balls or a foam roller;
- Chewing tools (pencil toppers, pendants, gum, etc.).
If your classroom has a bit more space and can have large-scale gross-motor activities, either for individuals or groups, consider these possibilities:
- Heavy lifting or carrying activities;
- Ankle/wrist weights;
- Body socks or full-body stretch bands;
- A hanging bar;
- A mini trampoline;
- Spinning devices, such as a Sit’n Spin;
- Balance boards;
- A swing, including a cuddle swing;
- Hopper balls.
Occupational therapist authors, including Kranowitz (2003), Isbell & Isbell (2007), and Berkey (2009) explore and expand upon these ideas from an OT perspective to provide guidance for teachers hoping to better support sensory-sensitive students in their classrooms.
OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
While the right school environment can do much to support a sensory-sensitive child, it is also important for parents and teachers to partner, both in and out of the classroom. Frequent, effective communications between home and school, consistent approaches to setting behavior expectations, and collaborative support across a child’s environments are especially vital for children with sensory challenges. Parents can take thoughtful, conscious steps to make their sensory-sensitive child’s transitions between home and school more successful. In general, routines, clear expectations with age-appropriate supports, and well-planned transitions between activities are excellent ways to provide predictable structure to a young child’s day. For a sensory-sensitive child, advance and repeated notice of looming changes in the day can be particularly helpful in making transitions less of a struggle. But finding the best balance of interventions for a particular child with sensory concerns, whether in the classroom or other environments, requires individual observations and assessment by a professional trained in sensory issues, in collaboration with teachers and families. We will explore this aspect of sensory support further in the final article in this series.
TABLE 2 : SENSORY FACTORS IN SPORT SELECTION
|SENSORY FACTORS TO CONSIDER||POSSIBLE SPORT OPTIONS|
|My child’s need to continually move||Basketball/soccer/hockey/lacrosse/running (lots of movement) vs. baseball/softball (less frequent movement)|
|My child’s tolerance for being touched by others||Wrestling/football/soccer (lots of physical contact) vs. swimming/gymnastics/tennis/golf/baseball/running (minimal physical contact)|
|My child’s potential benefit from lots of bending, stretching, and deep pressure (proprioceptive stimulation)||Martial arts/gymnastics/swimming/wrestling (Proprioceptive stimulation is beneficial to all, but there are some children who need it more than others, and these sports are especially good at providing it.)|
Developmentally appropriate leisure and extracurricular activities are an area in which parental choice can have a large impact on young children. In addition to getting children outside and away from screens, sports provide active time, structured and unstructured movement, and opportunities for developing both social and self-regulation skills. However, each sport has distinctive sensory factors that should be considered as parents are making decisions on allocating their children’s free time. Table 2, above, outlines some of these considerations.
FOR NEXT TIME
Now that we have defined SPD and explored ways in which children’s school environments can better promote and support their sensory health, we can explore what is involved in assessing, diagnosing, and treating a child who has a sensory issue. In the final article in this series, I will examine the roles that occupational therapists and other clinical professionals play in that process.
About the Author
ALICIA NODDINGS, PhD, is assistant dean of education at Missouri Baptist University, in St. Louis, MO, where she teaches courses in classroom management, curriculum and instruction, and educational psychology. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Montessori teacher educator, and principal and head of school. She is AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood). Contact her at email@example.com.
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