Why is meeting the sensory needs of children so important?
Many children with Neurodivergence will have sensory needs, not just those who have sensory processing disorders. Children’s sensory needs are complex as they often require extra sensory feedback and behave in ways that provide it. For example, sticking their fingers in paint points, rubbing their hands on the teacher’s fluffy sweater, etc. They can also experience distress and sensory overload (i.e., avoid the assembly hall in the afternoon because it still smells of lunch or shouting when the interactive whiteboard makes an unexpected noise).
Often children’s sensory needs are not fully identified. This makes meeting children’s sensory needs complex and challenging, especially within the chaotic day-to-day environment of schools.
Below, I have highlighted 5 ways we can support children’s sensory needs within a learning environment:
1. Have a robust understanding of ‘sensory needs’
It is key for all staff in the school to have a robust understanding of sensory needs. This includes identifying children’s specific sensory needs and when children are exhibiting signs of sensory overload. This understanding will help staff to put the behaviour of children into a sensory context and promote inclusive thinking about what appears to be on the surface misbehaviour or non-compliance and what action is best to support this.
Sensory needs can manifest themselves in a myriad of ways, children can be sensitive to movement, touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste. Be curious about the link between sensory needs and behaviour and try where possible to accommodate the child’s needs.
2. Sensory safe space
Within the setting, try and ensure that there is a sensory-safe space. Something as simple as a blanket over a chair in the corner with a nice fluffy rug in it will do just fine! Try to incorporate a range of sensory surfaces within the classroom, some scatter cushions and squidgy objects will help children who need them to meet their sensory needs in a managed way. Fidget toys and or sensory objects will help them to focus, learn and avoid disruption to the environment. Try to ensure that you have a supply of sensory tools that you can lend to the child when you identify that they require sensory feedback, this will prevent them from seeking the feedback in other ways which may be disruptive for your other pupils and teaching.
3. Think carefully about the sensory needs of the children you teach
For example, if the child is sensitive to smell, then don’t wear strong scented perfume or aftershave. Reflect on the sensory needs of the child in your class, are there ways that you can incorporate management of their sensory needs into everyday class activities? For example, if the child seeks out movement include short bursts of activity between lessons like 10 star jumps as a wake and shake activity. This will help regulate their behaviour and all the other children in the class should also enjoy it. If the child is using rocking behaviour try to include exercises and movement songs that normalise the rocking behaviour, such as singing row the boat in foundation phase.
Pay particular attention to volume levels when playing video clips on the interactive whiteboard, always make sure the volume setting is low and adjust it up when necessary. All school activities such as an assembly can often be overwhelming for children with sensory needs. Is it possible for the child with sensory needs to arrive last and leave first? If they really struggle with large group events, consider whether they really need to be there or whether you might be better able to meet their needs by allowing them to remain in the classroom with a teaching assistant or spend a little bit of time “helping out” in the office during assembly.
4. Encourage parents/carers to make the connection between sensory needs and behaviour at home
Think even further than within the classroom, or school setting. Encourage parents and/or carers to pay attention to their child’s sensory needs and help them to make the connection between sensory needs and behaviour at home. Do they need to invest in sensory-inducing objects to help get the child to school on time? It is also possible to sew small patches of sensory fabric on the inside of a school sweatshirt, or inside trousers or skirt pockets. This ensures the child always has access to some sensory feedback and allows them to discretely gain sensory feedback when they feel they need it during the school day.
5. Manage sensory needs at all times
Don’t forget to manage sensory needs while outside the classroom as well. Lunchtime supervisors play a vital role in the smooth management of the school day. Make sure they are aware and understand the connection between sensory needs and behaviour. During the hectic break time, sensory needs can be diverse. Some children with overt sensory needs will act on impulse, climbing, and potentially moving quickly on outdoor equipment. Other children will seek refuge away from the noise and the chaos of the playground. Does your school have quiet outdoor space for them to retreat to? And how can you enhance the sensory nature of the outdoor space too?
The key to managing the school environment is to think carefully about the sensory needs of the child. Make sure everyone else in the school is aware of those needs, be creative and inclusive with what few resources you have and keep adjusting the environment the more you understand about the child’s sensory needs.
Article written by Professor David Daley
Professor of Psychological Intervention and Knowledge Exchange & Head of Applied Psychological Practice, NTU Psychology, School of Social Science, Nottingham Trent University.