How To Support Students With Sensory Processing Disorders
by Rebecca Dean
Sensory processing disorder is characterized by difficulties in accurately processing a range of sensory information, such as touch, sound, and smell. It can be tricky for parents and teachers to manage due to the two opposite ways it can manifest — hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.
In over a decade working in pediatrics, I’ve seen how teachers with a better understanding of these children’s needs can have an amazing impact on the quality of a classroom. Therefore, it’s important to identify which of these classifications your student falls under before you think about how to offer support.
This is the child who actively avoids sensory stimulation. It’s the child who screams as if in pain at the sound of the hand dryers in the bathroom. Phrases like these are typical markers of this type:
- “Get it off me!” Children may be extremely sensitive to the feeling of clothes, such as seams or labels. They might insist on wearing clothing inside out to avoid the feeling of certain stitching or always want a particular T-shirt, regardless of the weather. Grooming routines might also be problematic, especially anything concerned with nails or hair.
- “It hurts!” Children with hypersensitivity often complain that certain everyday sounds or sights “hurt.” This might be the noise of the vacuum cleaner or the light of a table lamp.
- “Yuck!” Smells can also be aversive to children. Foods that don’t bother others might cause them to gag, resulting in very specific eating habits.
- “Don’t touch me!” Children with hypersensitivity often prefer to play alone to avoid being touched or hugged, which may feel unpleasant to them. The noise of group play might also be aversive, causing them to turn away from a group. The hustle and bustle of group play can be over-stimulating to children with SPD, with them often preferring the relative calm of solitary activities such as reading or coloring.
This includes the thrill-seeking child who can never quite get enough stimulation. This is the child who comes in from the playground surprised to see that he’s cut himself because he just didn’t feel it or react. Typical markers are:
- “Grrrr!” Hyposensitive children often appear frustrated, biting or scratching themselves to achieve any kind of sensory feedback.
- “Whoops!” Appearing clumsy or unaware of the personal space of others, children with hyposensitivity have difficulty judging distance and force. This means they often bang into other people, slam doors more forcefully than they should, or have trouble just sitting still. They seem to crave movement and activity to maintain comfortable levels of stimulation.
- “Quickly, quickly!” Children with this type of SPD often eat faster than they should and consequently are more susceptible to choking. They also have difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next.
It’s important to note that many of these signs can also be indicative of other disorders. For example, children with autism often prefer playing alone, and the distraction that comes with some of these aversions could also be caused by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is problematic for diagnoses, and teacher input can really help pinpoint the context of these behaviors to other professionals.
What Can I Do?
Most classroom environments contain a large amount of sensory information: bright posters, other children talking, the teacher explaining something, the feeling of the carpet, the school bell ringing, etc. If a child has difficulties integrating and processing this information, it’s bound to impact his ability to learn.
As educators, we all want to create the optimum learning environment. If you have several children in your classroom with SPD, their behaviors and needs will impact other students as well. Therefore, it’s important to try to target and support their difficulties.
- Find the hotspots. It’s worth investing the time to identify every child’s individual triggers. Do they always bite themselves when the classroom is quiet? That’s the time to provide a chew toy. Try to go through the day with the children’s eyes to identify and react to their trigger points.
- Build a bag of tricks. Put together a kit of items that will help the children when they’re over- or under-stimulated. Ear defenders are useful for the classroom environment, and weighted blankets will help comfort a child who craves being squeezed. Likewise, weighted or vibrating toys can add stimulation, while a stretchy band across the bottom of a child’s chair helps get input into the body while everyone is seated.
- Keep calm. Watching children in distress can be stressful for you as well, but you must be the calm in the storm. Avoid touching or speaking too loudly, as these might be the very things upsetting them. Try to get down to their eye level and ask them what they need.
- Talk it through. Words can often help calm children down. This might be to direct their attention elsewhere if they’re distressed by a stimulus or to go through an activity with them and slow them down. Get their attention with their name, then give practical instructions that are easy to follow.
- Keep it consistent. Make sure the approaches you adopt in the classroom are consistent with those used elsewhere. Speak to family members and other educators about children’s needs and what you’ve found to be effective in dealing with them. Feeding back to occupational therapists and others involved in the children’s care is a great way to collaborate on implementing successful strategies.
The classroom environment can be intimidating for children with sensory processing disorder. The key is to work together with families and other professionals to come up with a plan that’s as multifaceted as the disorder. With everyone on the same page, the child’s well-being becomes that much easier to achieve.
Rebecca Dean is the president of Tiny Tots Therapy Inc. and a partner in Therapy Nook and Kids Blvd. She earned her degree in occupational therapy from Kean University, and she’s certified and trained in sensory integration. Rebecca believes in a holistic therapeutic approach and realizes that alternative methods, combined with traditional therapy, allow children to acquire functional and developmental skills and retain them.
5 Ways To Support Students With Sensory Processing Disorders; adapted image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks