Sensory-friendly classrooms can improve learning outcomes for ALL children, not just those with additional sensory needs. By making some minor adjustments to sensory triggers which are present in most classroom settings, you can make a considerable impact to the school experience for your students. In turn, making your classroom a more supportive, compassionate, and inclusive environment to learn.
In the words of Alexander Den Heijer, “when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” We should be looking to change the environment at the school to make it feel as safe and as sensory supportive as possible in order to make it the best conceivable place for each of our children to learn, grow, and thrive.
True classroom inclusion cannot be achieved without embracing and striving to understanding the diverse experiences of students. When it comes to creating sensory friendly classrooms, there truly isn’t a one-size-fits all formula. Some children need visual stimulation or lots of movement for concepts to really sink in. Other children learn best when material is introduced through music (this is very true for my 4yo!). Some other children need to take a “hands on” approach; they need to touch objects, build things, and pull things apart, and some children may need less sensory input to stay focused and attentive in class.
So now we know every child needs something different to support their sensory needs, what do we do? One word - Collaborate! Collaborate with children, family members, teachers, occupational therapists, counsellors, social workers, and psychologists to learn about successful strategies they may be using at home, in the clinic, or in other environments.
Let’s take a look at 6 concepts you might want to consider when creating a more sensory friendly classroom:
1. Room Layout
Where possible and practical try to minimise visual input within the classroom. Keep class decorations to a minimum and avoid visual resources which are hung from the ceilings. Make decluttering the classroom a priority and think about storing as many resources out of sight as possible - this could be as simple as covering open shelves of books and resources with a piece of plain fabric when not in use.
Many children have difficulty learning while they are sitting still and providing alternative seating options gives them the chance to bounce and fidget as needed while still being able to absorb the lesson. Think about having alternative seating available such as bouncy balls, rocking chairs, tactile cushions, wriggle stools or bean bag chairs.
Some children process auditory input differently and can often find the noise of classrooms extremely overwhelming. This presents a particular concern as background noise can negatively impact a student’s ability to understand speech from their teachers. Consider ways in which the noise in the classroom can be minimised: chairs and tables with rubber feet will stop the ‘scraping’ sound when moved. Having headphones available for students to use when needed is a great way for those who are sensitive to noise to block out the unwanted distraction so they can focus on their studies.
Students with sensory challenges are often sensitive to lighting. Fluorescent lights can inhibit their ability to focus due to the flickering and humming noises that they can produce. As well as being extremely distracting, this type of lighting can even be painful to children’s eyes or cause headaches. Providing a classroom with incandescent and natural lighting, and avoiding the use of fluorescent lighting has been proven to be the best learning environment for these children.
Many children tend to lose focus when they are sitting for extended periods of time. The use of movement breaks can allow children to deescalate from the sensory stimulation of the classroom environment, help children retain or regain a calm and regulated state, and may avoid them getting to the point of frustration or distress. Movement breaks work best when they are planned at regular, predictable intervals across the day.
6. Sensory Spaces
Whether it’s a sensory corner, space or designated sensory shelf, creating a sensory area in the classroom is a great way to help your students refocus and self-regulate whilst remaining in the classroom.
There are endless options for items you can include in your sensory space, but the most effective items are the ones that speak to your specific students’ needs. Taking the time to figure out what they need and then offering that in the sensory area creates an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion. Some options to consider include:
- Creating a sensory box filled with fidgets and calm down toys. These could include; stress balls, fidgets, slime, putty or foam, sensory bottles, “pop its” and puzzle balls.
- Chewing tools and “Chewelry” (For information on choosing the right chew tools, see our Blog Post on this topic).
- Provide weighted items like lap pads, blankets, or weighted toys.
- Fluffy cushions or throw rugs.
- Sensory Lights.
- Special Interest Books or items.
- Emotion Cards and Visuals.
Now that you’ve set up a sensory friendly classroom, why not think about creating sensory friendly spaces in other parts of the school too! The Principal or Vice Principal’s office, library, art and music rooms, a designated sensory room which could be used at recess and lunchtime.
Take a look at our full range of Sensory Friendly Classroom products here.
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