Making classrooms inclusive for all children with sensory modulation

Sensory Modulation Classrooms

Children with intact sensory modulation are better able to maintain an alert, focused state. Normally this process happens automatically and effortlessly, but this is not always the case. So how do we ensure our classrooms are supporting sensory modulation in all students?

What is sensory modulation?

Sensory modulation refers to your capacity to regulate and organise the intensity and nature of an emotional and behavioural response when presented with sensory input. It allows you to achieve and maintain an optimal range of performance, and adapt to challenges in daily life. 

According to Dr Winnie Dunn, a world-renowned occupational therapist specialising in sensory processing, there are four main sensory processing patterns:

      • sensory avoidance

      • sensory sensitivity

      • sensory seeking

      • low registration, or the tendency to 'miss' sensory input

Sensory Overload

Students who display extremes in one or more of these patterns may:

      • display behaviour or emotions that appear mismatched to the environment

      • have trouble staying focused

      • have difficulty participating in class activities.

When aiming to improve concentration in a child, it’s important to consider the impact of sensory modulation – and one way to do this is to identify any unusual sensory processing patterns. For example, does the child seem over or under-responsive to certain types of sensory input, especially compared to his/her peers? Then, the right intensity and type of sensory input can be provided to help a child feel ‘just right’ again, and focused and ready for learning.

Some children can exhibit more than one type of sensory processing difficulty depending on the level of stimulation in their surrounds. For example, in a crowded, unfamiliar place a sensory avoider will avoid stimuli. But playing comfortably in a quiet room, they may crave stimulation and seek out a noisy toy.

Getting the classroom ‘just right’

With a few adjustments, the classroom environment can provide a better opportunity for all students to achieve sensory modulation and engage with learning. Here are five straightforward strategies you can use to cater to a range of sensory preferences.

1. Tailored seating

The ideal seated position for all children is feet flat on the floor, hips and knees at 90 degrees, and a seat length that allows contact with the backrest. Tables should be at elbow height. Old textbooks and boxes can be used to give a child a boost, or as a footrest when their feet can’t reach the ground.

Students who require sensory stimulation in order to concentrate, find it difficult to remain seated quietly for prolonged periods of time. These children could benefit from having an exercise band wrapped around the chair legs to bump and kick. Fidget spinners can also provide stimulating (and quiet) sensory input when seated.

2. Schedule in movement breaks

Children need lots of movement throughout the day to build healthy sensory systems. Try to allow playtime on the playground before school starts, and schedule regular movement breaks every 20-40 minutes throughout the day. Examples include push-ups off the back of a chair, star jumps, or basic stretches.

3. Multiple workstations

Some of your students might be sensitive to visual stimuli – like hanging ceiling displays, or wall art. Or you may have a student who is sensitive to touch and finds it hard to concentrate when seated too closely to another child. 

If you allow children to switch workstations throughout the day, you can help them seek out a region of the classroom that meets their sensory needs. They might decide to seat themselves away from an active area of the classroom to avoid being bumped by passersby, or face away from colourful wall art.

4. Create a sensory retreat

When a child feels overloaded with sensory input, a quiet space away from distractions can help them feel ‘just right’ again.

Calming The Senses

5. Stick to a routine

Children benefit from routine because it’s easier to follow instructions when they know what to expect. Simple visual representations of the day’s schedule can help reduce feelings of anxiety, but if there are any changes to the normal schedule, try to prepare your students as much and as early as possible.

The rise of sensory rooms

Sensory rooms are separate from classrooms and typically have stations that target different senses in different ways to bring a student back to their optimal alertness. They support a child’s development and make students feel:

Educators in the US are increasingly finding that a short trip to a sensory room can help any student – whether they present with a sensory processing difficulty or not. Two Alabama-based schools have found sensory rooms to be truly transformational for their students. In fact, for these educators, the only question that remains is: should the rooms be used in a reactive or proactive way?

A Connecticut-based school found that sensory rooms helped students to better follow directions and spend more time on task. Teachers also saw a decrease in negative behaviour, and an increase in motivation in their students.

Setting up a sensory room

If you choose equipment carefully, you can put together a basic sensory room yourself – or even have a ‘sensory corner’ within your classroom. The table below lists the senses and corresponding equipment or activities that provide calming and stimulating input.

Table 1: Equipment that can help calm OR stimulate the senses.

SenseEquipment

Vestibular (balance)

A rocker used in a slow, rhythmic way can be calming. But used quickly, or in an unpredictable fashion, it can be stimulating.

Vision

Controllable light sources are great. Dim/low lighting calms students who are overwhelmed, bright lights rouse students who require more sensory input to focus. If controllable light sources are not available, lamps can help. 

Smell

Scented markers or play dough can provide sensory input for children who need more stimulation, but for those who are too stimulated by odours in the room, nose plugs can be helpful.

Taste/Oral-Motor

Chewing on straws or keeping a water bottle on or near the desk to sip on through the day, and blowing bubbles are examples of calming activities, while crunching – on ice or carrots for example – provides more sensory input, and is stimulating.

Proprioception (body awareness)

Proprioceptive activities are often termed ‘heavy work’ because they’re done against resistance. These activities are thought to activate serotonin, the master modulator, meaning they are ‘safest’ to use when you are unsure of the arousal levels of students in your classroom. Examples include Tug of War games, aerobic exercises, and chair push-ups.

Touch

Sensory bins filled with dried beans or rice can have a calming effect. You can also hide items in them to help stimulate hands before fine motor activities or more intense touch sensations (like finger-painting).

Auditory

Playing upbeat music with a clear beat and rhythm is stimulating, while Mozart is calming.

Bringing sensory rooms to Australia

Australian schools could certainly benefit from the introduction of sensory rooms and introducing small changes to your current classroom set up is a great place to start. Simple activities and techniques can be incorporated into classroom routines to support sensory modulation in all students, opening the door to a better learning experience for them.


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