In any classroom you visit today, there is an increased likelihood you will see a student sitting there with headphones over their ears. To the untrained eye, one may consider the child to be defiant or ignoring the instruction, but teachers accommodate students with sensory needs regularly in inclusive classrooms. While requiring educators to think outside of the box, the learning relationship between teacher and student is mutual and paramount to cognition, social, and emotional learning.
What are Sensory Needs?
At an early age, you learned you have five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell. Those five senses are the way the body collects information from the environment, processing the input in the brain, and then causing a reaction carried out by the body. People with sensory processing issues do not interpret the reception of those stimuli in a way they can easily process, resulting in an overstimulation (hypersensitivity) or under-stimulation (hyposensitivity), and sometimes both.
While sensory processing sensitivities are not a specific learning disability within itself, there are associations with autism spectrum disorders. While learning may look different for students with sensory needs, some of the most brilliant minds live within the confines of an uncooperative central processing unit, and one should never mistake their differences for inability.
Strategies to Meet Student Sensory Needs at Home
Learning does not stop with the school bell, and sensory overloading can occur anywhere, anytime of day, with or without warning. In order to regulate sensory processing at home, here are some strategies you can try.
Establish a consistent daily schedule.
Students with processing issues, specifically with an autism diagnosis, thrive when there is predictability provided by a concrete schedule. Each day may be filled with a variety of individual activities, but when the order remains consistent, the child most often feels safe. Scheduled breaks and knowing the triggers that promote sensory meltdowns are significant for children with sensory processing issues. If there will be a change in the schedule, it is important to tell the child as early as possible and remind him/her often.
- Visual Schedule – Create a schedule with pictures. Allow the child to work with you to establish the order of the routines. Stick with the schedule, no matter what.
- If-Then Chart – Tell the child IF they complete a determined activity (example: counting to 10), THEN they receive a reward (example: candy). Put this on a t-chart. Cut out pictures of rewards and place Velcro on the back so they can choose and see their choice throughout the activity.
Create a dedicated learning space within the home.
Students with sensory needs typically crave a predictable environment in the times they are overloaded with sensory input. Knowing there is a space in the home that is dedicated to learning and when they enter that space they are familiar with the tools and resources there, it fosters a setting where learning can take place.
- Provide flexible seating.
- Keep the space free of clutter and limit choices.
- Make the space appealing with preferred learning tools, including favorite writing utensils, headphones, and manipulatives.
- If using a chair with legs, you can place an exercise band at the bottom to provide a hammock for the feet to bounce on allowing for motion, freeing the brain for thinking.
The key is to make the space appealing to your child’s needs.
Provide sensory tools for the child’s use.
Occupational therapists provide students with sensory needs tools they need to be able to cope and learn. There are many tools you can make inexpensively to have at home.
- Sensory bins
- Homemade kinetic sand or moon dough
- Weighted blankets/vests
- Know the recommended usage times. 20 minutes on/20 off.
- Swing/hammock/exercise ball
- Sensory bottles
- Stringing Fruit Loops on yarn
- Shaving cream on a table to write
- Textured items for ripping like cardstock, aluminum foil, paper, tissue paper
Provide sensory activities.
Learning the signs of students with sensory needs will help you predict what the child needs next at home. A variety of activities to support times of energy release, isolation, and relaxation makes the home a safe space.
- Deep breathing techniques
- Sensory paths
- Finger painting
- Independent play
- Textured touch – use a soft bristled brush, ribbon, or cloth to lightly touch the child’s skin
- Weighted objects to apply pressure to lap
Being the caregiver of a child with sensory needs can sometimes lead to stressful situations. Remembering that you are in control of your emotions when they cannot be in control of theirs will promote a safe and nurturing relationship.
- Use a calm, soothing voice.
- Demonstrate how the child should request a break or use sensory tools to self-soothe. For example, “John, would you like a break right now? Do you need some time in your safe space?”
Educate yourself, Caregiver!
The best advocate and caregiver is the one who educates themselves and knows what tools to use to support the needs of students with sensory needs. Through research, you will find a multitude of strategies, tools, and best practices; however, every one will not work for your child. Give yourself permission to try new techniques, knowing there will be hard days when you learn what does not work. Then there will be days when all the forces come together and it clicks. Enjoy the quality of life a child with sensory needs adds to your life.
- Support groups
Home is a place of renewal, relaxation, and, at times, learning. Establishing home as a safe and predictable environment, educating yourself with strategies that work for your child, knowing their triggers and how to best support their needs allows for the caregiver to diffuse potential meltdowns and maintain a happy place for a child with sensory needs.