Sometimes students have sensory issues that can interfere with their academic performance in school. A sensory imbalance can affect a student’s behavior, ability to focus, and emotional state. Teachers can take quick and easy actions to help students cope with overly sensitive sensory systems. Read on for tips on how to accommodate sensory needs in the classroom.
Some students have sensory issues that require intervention in school. Here’s the thing though. Not all sensory needs are the same. We all have something called a proprioceptive system that is unique to each of us. That means that some of us are extra sensitive to sensory input and others are under- responsive.
Our proprioceptive system affects the way we interpret sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells. It’s how our brain handles our 5 senses and it’s different for everyone.
If everyone responds to sensory input differently, that means there’s no one- size- fits- all- solution for teachers to use in class. That means we have to put on our detective hats and figure out which students have special sensory issues and what types of activities and materials they respond to best.
Some students crave sensory input. Those are the kids you’ll see hitting their backs against their chairs or biting their sleeves and pens. They seek out sensory experiences and do things that will increase their sensory input. They might enjoy playing with light- up toys, making sounds, or squeezing or pinching themselves.
But it’s different for everyone.
There are other people who are exactly the opposite. They find excessive sensory input to be displeasing or even overwhelming. They may shy away from loud noises, hugs, or certain food textures. These are the students who need help coping with an overactive proprioceptive system.
There are a few simple steps teachers can take to accommodate students with sensory issues. You can use what you have or pick up a few inexpensive items from the dollar store. It doesn’t need to be Instagram- worthy to be effective.
I highly recommend designating a small corner of your classroom as a break area. This worked even with my upper elementary students and they seemed to appreciate having a spot for “escape breaks.” I had a small area rug near my bookshelf, along with a beanbag chair and some fidget tools. At a yard sale, I found an old rocking chair, which made for the perfect addition to my sensory friendly area.
My cozy corner was simple but effective. It doesn’t need to be fancy to do the trick. Of course, if you have a purchasing budget, there are tons of wonderful items to add to your classroom (see below for some of my favorites). In fact, I have a whole Amazon store where you can find all my classroom recommendations here.
But if it’s coming out of your own pocket, there’s no need to go broke. Let’s be real. A pipe cleaner, a rubber band or that stress ball you got at the bank for free would all suffice just fine as fidget tools in a pinch. You can even Make Your Own Play Dough to save some cash. Sure, it’s nice to upgrade when you can, but there’s no harm in starting small and adding on as you go.
When you’re trying to accommodate your students’ sensory needs, keep these things in mind:
- Some students need increased sensory input. Others need less. What do your students need?
- What items do you already have that you can use (squishy balls, play dough, headphones, yoga ball, fidget spinners)? Start there.
- How can you add sensory breaks into your school day? Can you do a quick exercise or dance with the class in between subjects, maybe provide opportunities to earn an “escape break” in the cozy corner, or allow students to take a short walk with a teaching assistant? What are some ways you can incorporate sensory breaks into your lessons and activities?
- Can you incorporate movement or a sensory component to your lessons? I offer play dough mat resources in my TPT shop, which provide a fun multi- sensory experience as opposed to dull paper- and – pencil drills. Check my shop out for more multi- sensory activities. Learning by doing is the way to go.
When integrating sensory experiences into the classroom, we want to make it enjoyable… but not distracting. Students should be encouraged to use sensory tools appropriately and only when necessary. Sensory breaks are not party time or an opportunity to disrupt everyone else. Make sure your sensory accommodations are helping your students focus and regulate their proprioceptive systems… and are not becoming an additional distraction.
The DO’s and DON’Ts to Accommodating Sensory Needs in the Classroom:
DO provide a variety of sensory items to meet the diverse needs of your students.
DON’T overwhelm your students with too much sensory input.
DO allow students to use fidget tools when necessary.
DON’T allow fidget tools to become a distracting toy that takes away from your lessons.
DO refer to them as “fidget tools” to instill the notion that these are meant to be used for a purpose to help students focus and succeed in class.
DON’T refer to them as “fidget toys,” as this implies that are only meant to be played with for fun.
DO provide a sensory friendly area in your classroom that your students can take short “escape breaks” in.
DON’T over- decorate your classroom with overly bright and crowded decorations. This can bombard your students, leaving them with no respite from their sensory overload.
Accommodating sensory needs in your classroom doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive, or complicated. You can start off with what you already have and see what works. Once you have a good idea of what your students respond to, try working in more items to accommodate those needs.
My Favorite Sensory Items
Show me your cozy corner or sensory- friendly classroom! Snap a photo and tag Exceptional Thinkers on Instagram so I can see your ideas. Got some more advice or ideas? I’d love to hear them! Share your insights for fellow teachers below in the comments.
Follow Exceptional Thinkers on TPT for freebies, sales, and new resources.
Keep teaching. Keep learning.
~Christy from Exceptional Thinkers