Did you know as much as 20% of the current world population shows enhanced sensitivity to environmental or emotional stimuli? The phenomenon, known as sensory sensitivity, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), or environmental sensitivity (EP), is more prevalent than ever before. Though individuals of all ages can experience these conditions, the number of school-aged children with this processing disorder is increasing — but sensory tools can help them cope.
By creating a sensory-informed classroom and keeping sensory tools on hand to support sensitive students, you can help decrease student anxiety and increase learning. But if you’re unsure how to get started, or if you’re looking for sensory materials to add to your classroom, the following tips will guide you in developing a comfortable place where all students can learn and succeed together.
What is sensory sensitivity?
The term “sensory sensitivity” refers to how aware, or in tune a child is with their sensory channels, including sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. As the Center for Parenting Education explains, all humans have varying degrees of sensitivity to these channels, but it’s how we react when they’re overstimulated that makes a difference.
For example, highly sensitive children may show strong or explosive emotional reactions to events or surroundings such as bright lights or loud noises in a classroom that have little to no effect on less sensitive students. These students might complain about their clothing being uncomfortable, they might have trouble sitting still, or they may be unable to focus on learning and disrupt other students around them.
How to support sensory-sensitive students
It can be difficult to determine and deal with the needs of all your students at the same time. Sensory-sensitive children need different accommodations for hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity, and there are sensory tools to help you with the varying degrees of stimulation or non-stimulation that are required to help these students stay focused. Here are the differences you need to consider:
- Hyposensitive students may appear to have a constant case of “the wiggles” and thus require more sensory stimulation to stay focused.
- Hypersensitive students may become easily overwhelmed in loud or bright areas and require less stimulation or more sensory breaks to help them cope.
Sensory tools and activities for hyposensitive students
Sensory stimulation is the practice of using everyday sounds, foods, objects, and other items to awaken the senses and calm the mind. As explained in an article from Edutopia, children who have trouble processing sensory information also have a hard time completing tasks, especially when these tasks require them to sit still, pay attention, or cooperate with others. Because these students have difficulty interacting in their environment, they may engage in maladaptive behaviors, such as putting objects in their mouths, acting out, or bothering students around them.
For these students, try the following sensory activities to help them harness excess energy:
- Hug your knees: Ask the student to sit on the floor with their knees up and feet planted firmly on the floor. Have them bring their knees up to their chin and hug them tightly. This strategy allows them to perceive the position and movement of the body through joint compression.
- Backward hug: Ask the student to sit on the floor as tall as they possibly can and then reach both arms backward to cross their hands behind their back and squeeze their wrists. This strategy also allows the student to perceive the position and movement of their body through joint compression.
It can also be helpful for hyposensitive students to use fidget tools. These sensory tools keep hands busy in a repetitive and functional way while getting rid of access energy. Tactile manipulatives, like those included in the Nasco Silly Sensory Set, can also be helpful because they allow students to touch, stretch, bounce, and safely toss objects in a nondisruptive manner.
For students who just can’t seem to sit still, the Bouncyband® Portable Wiggle Seat Sensory Cushion can help increase their focus by enabling them to move quietly in their seats and focus on assignments or other projects. Plus, the cushion also has a built-in handle so they can take the seat to the lunchroom or other classrooms.
Another similar product, the Bouncyband® Wiggle Wobble Chair Feet can transform a standard school chair into a sensory tool by allowing students to rock or wobble safely back and forth. The constant movement helps alleviate anxiety, hyperactivity, and boredom. And, as students move in the chair, the increased blood flow to the brain also helps them think more clearly and stay more focused on learning.
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Sensory tools and activities for hypersensitive students
The classroom can be a noisy, visually overwhelming, and overstimulating place for a hypersensitive student who may not want to engage at all. Offering routine sensory breaks to these students can help them retreat to a quiet area to relax and block out the overstimulating factors around them.
If you already have a quiet area designated for sensory breaks in your classroom, try including calming tools, like those included in the Nasco Quiet Bag SEL Kit. The headphones can help students tune out overwhelming sounds, and the tactile manipulatives will help keep their minds busy, calm, and focused.
You can also expand your sensory break area by creating a more permanent calming corner in your classroom. This can take the shape of a comfortable reading nook or a tent that includes headphones and other items designed to meet the sensory and social-emotional learning needs of your students. If you don’t already have a calming corner, you can set one up easily with the Nasco Calming Corner Deluxe Kit, which includes a black-out tent for reducing sensory input, tactile manipulatives, wiggle cushions, weighted pillows, art supplies, and more. Read more about setting one up in “6 steps to creating your classroom calming corner.”
Understanding and supporting your sensory-sensitive students is the first step in creating a more equitable and balanced learning environment for all your students. However, not every solution will work for every child. Learn more about helpful social-emotional learning kits, activities, and sensory tools, available for your classroom.