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5 Ways Teachers Can Make their Classrooms More Sensory-Friendly

By Gina Gibson, Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist and Pam Dewey • sensory tools, sensory friendly classrooms, inclusive classrooms, sensory ideas for teacher, sensory classrooms, sensory tools for autism, sensory tools for kids with autism, sensory bin, sensory sensitivity, sensory play, sensory bin for kids, autism, autism spectrum, neurodiversity, neurodivergent • January 06, 2022

As a teacher, you help shape children’s minds, inspire their curiosity and teach them many new things. You’re also in charge of a room full of kids with different learning styles and a variety of abilities and talents. With the increased prevalence of autism — the CDC now states 1 in 44 kids has autism — you likely also have kids in your classroom who are on the spectrum.

Children with autism often have sensory processing sensitivities, but children with anxiety, depression, ADHD or various other conditions may also struggle with sensory processing. Sensory sensitivities can make things like bright lights, loud noises or new smells feel overwhelming. When exposed to these things, kids with sensory sensitivities may have an overreaction, or an under-reaction or emotional withdrawal

Here are a few easy and relatively inexpensive ideas to support students with sensory processing sensitivities and make your classroom more inclusive.

Design a calming environment

Kids with sensory sensitivities are often overwhelmed by too much sensory input, so limiting stimulation in their environment is important. Avoid using too many bright colors in your classroom. Fraser Sensory Inclusion Specialist Gina Gibson also recommends eliminating unnecessary wall décor. Unless an inspirational poster has a specific purpose, consider eliminating it. Overhead fluorescent lighting can be too bright, and the buzzing sound it makes can be overwhelming. Add fluorescent light covers to filter the light. Or turn off the overhead lights and use lamps or string lights instead. When natural lighting is available, use that as your main light source.

Having an organized space is also helpful. Try to make sure all your classroom tools have a designated, labeled place for storage, whenever possible.

Create a “take-a-break space”

When kids have sensory processing sensitivities, they sometimes become overwhelmed by sensory input. You can help students recalibrate by creating a take-a-break space in your classroom. In a corner or another quiet area, remove items from the walls and eliminate distractions. Give students seating options like a bean bag or floor cushion. You can also include fidgets or noise-canceling headphones. The main criteria is the space is a quiet place where they can calm their senses.

Provide a variety of seating options

Some kids with sensory sensitivities crave movement, so sitting still is particularly hard. For kids who crave activity, alternate seating can help them stay focused. You can help support these students by providing a variety of seating options like exercise balls, wiggle cushions or bean bag chairs, in addition to standard classroom seating. You can even allow kids to stand at their desks.

Use sensory tools

You’re likely familiar with fidgets, and these can be great tools to provide needed sensory input for kids with sensitivities. Fidget tools give students something safe to do with their hands, and they can help support learning. For classroom use, choose fidgets that are discrete and don’t make noise or flash. That will keep them from distracting other students. Gibson says you’ll also want to find a fidget that is appropriate for each child. For example, a child with ADHD, who has difficulty sitting still, may benefit from using a fidget spinner, giving their hands tactile sensory input. However, for many other kids, a fidget spinner can be a distraction.

To find the right sensory tool for each kid, you may want to work with your school’s Special Education teachers, the child’s IEP team or your school’s Occupational Therapist. These school experts can also help you develop a plan, which might include scheduled movement breaks for a kid throughout the day.

Encourage sensory activities

Gibson also says some schools are starting to add “sensory hallways,” which are guided obstacle courses that provide students with movement and sensory input. The sensory hallways can include jumping, crawling, reaching, balancing, moving sideways or backward, animal walks and other types of motion. This is helpful for little bodies that want to move. It’s also beneficial for kids who need more intense sensory input to “wake up” their sensory system and get them ready to focus.

Sensory bins are also beneficial for kids with sensory sensitivities. You can create a sensory bin with common household items like beans, rice, uncooked pasta, craft glass, beads or kinetic sand. Hiding objects or pictures in the container allows children to discover the items. If you hide letters in the container, children can spell out a word with the letters they find. Adding small, malleable toys into the bin encourages all kinds of imaginative play. Here’s a link to a video with simple and easy steps to make a sensory bin.

Many students with autism have sensory processing sensitivities. You can help support them in your classroom by designing a calming environment, creating a space for a break, providing seating options, allowing sensory tools and encouraging sensory activities.