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Sensory Processing: Theory and Classroom Strategies

We’re all familiar with our five main senses: touch, taste, smell, sound and sight. But, when we talk about sensory processing, we have to introduce two other players: the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense.

  • The Vestibular Sense: This is the messages our brain receives from the fluid in our ears, about whether our head is aligned. It is integral to our balance.
  • The Proprioceptive Sense: This is the messages our brain receives from our muscles. It tells our brain where our body parts are in space and how they are moving. Close your eyes and try to touch your nose with your finger. This is your proprioceptive sense!

“You can think of each of your sensory systems like being a cup. The water is like a type of sensory input. If you are under-responsive to a certain sensory input, it’s like you’re a big, HUGE cup…”

See YouTube link below

We all have our own sensory profile – our unique way of processing the world around us – and this means that we process these senses differently. For example, I find bright lights uncomfortable to look at. Others love watching firework displays and action movies. I love listening to loud music. Others find loud music distracting.

I’ve tried explaining this to school staff and Occupational Therapy Students in lots of ways, but keep coming back to one video. In this video, a young boy describes his experience of living with sensory processing challenges, using the analogy of CUPS and a TAP: ***WATCH HERE***

So, what might I see in the classroom?

So, imagine you have a ‘small cup‘, what might we see in the classroom?

  • Touch: Anxious when others are close to them? Irritated by clothing, especially tags? Avoiding messy play?
  • Sound: Unable to concentrate on work when there is background noise, like electrical items humming or classroom chatter? Alarmed by unexpected noises, like school bells? Makes noises to ‘drown out’ the noises of others?
  • Sight: Looks at lights, bright displays or colourful worksheets using peripheral vision? Uncomfortable looking at the whiteboard? Gets regular headaches?

Now imagine you have a ‘big cup‘, what might you see in the classroom?

  • Touch: Fiddling with objects, like pen lids? Touching others’ hair, clothing or objects?
  • Sight: Struggles to extract key information from lengthy text? Flaps their fingers in front of their eyes? Easily distracted by movements outside of the classroom, such as out of the window?
  • Vestibular: Rocking backwards and forwards on their chair? Regularly moving around the classroom?
  • Proprioceptive: Repeatedly tapping feet and/or fingers? Fidgeting and changing posture? Clenching fists?

And now time for a disclaimer! Clearly, this list is far from exhaustive. It’s also a simplification of how our self-regulation impacts on our behavioural responses. Finally, many of the behaviours above could have a cause that is not sensory-based also. Right, small print over, let’s talk about strategies we can use in the classroom…

So, what strategies can I use to support sensory processing in the classroom?

Here we explore 3 steps to supporting sensory processing in the classroom:

1) Am I using universal design principles?

Let’s start with the tricky one and the contentious one. How can we create a classroom environment that is enabling for all pupils in the class, when we have already said that every pupil is unique? Well, we can’t! But we can create a sensory-friendly environment for our pupils with ‘small cups’ and then facilitate adaptations to enable those with the ‘big cups’. For example:

  • Is the area around your learning wall free from visual distractions? For example, can the pupil with visual processing challenges ‘pick out’ your visual timetable from the other displays on the focus wall?
  • Do you have a system to manage turn-taking and pupils’ volume during lessons?
  • Do you turn off background noise and light sources (e. g. projectors, computers) when they’re not in use?

2) Is the behaviour really problematic? And for who?

If a pupil is showing a ‘seeking behaviour’ (e. g. rocking on their chair) or an ‘avoiding behaviour’ (e. g. looking down when listening to instructions), that pupil is meeting a need. Before we intervene with our newly-honed sensory processing knowledge, think: is the behaviour problematic?

If the pupil is fiddling with a pen lid during a lesson or flapping their fingers in front of their eyes, is this creating a problem for the pupil, the other pupils in the class or you? Probably not. So we don’t need to do anything. Phew!

But sometimes the strategies pupils use can create challenges. What about the pupil that taps their fingers on the desk throughout the lesson or repeatedly touches the hair of the child next to them? Let’s have a look at step 3:

Law, M., Cooper, B,. Strong, S., Stewart, D., Rigby, P. & Letts, L. 1996. The Person-Environment-Occupation Model: A transactive approach to occupational performance. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 63(1):9-23

3) Do I need to use an individual sensory-based strategy?

Your universal design principles are in place. You’ve identified a behaviour that creates a problem. Now is the time to look at individual sensory-based strategies…

Let me introduce you to the Person-Environment-Occupation Model. In short, it highlights that behaviour is the result of the interaction between a person, their environment and the occupations (tasks) they are doing. Here is principle #1:

Sensory-based strategies should adapt the environment or occupation, NOT the person.

Don’t be fooled by programmes that claim to change a child’s sensory profile – it doesn’t work! Think about your cups and how you can adapt the environment or the occupation to fill them up or empty them! For example:

  • If your pupil has a ‘big cup‘ for touch and keeps touching their friend’s clothes, which is making their friend uncomfortable… could we fill up their cup by giving them a tangle toy or piece of blue tac to fiddle with instead?
  • If your pupil has a ‘big cup‘ for proprioception/ vestibular and keeps moving around the classroom… could we fill up their cup by offering them a disc cushion to sit on or movement breaks?
  • If your pupil has a ‘small cup‘ for sound, which means that they become frustrated when trying to work with background chatter… could we empty their cup by allowing them to listen to music during independent work?

So, what’s next?

I hope you’ve found this article useful, in either validating some of your existing practice or developing your skills.

If you would like to learn more… click here to find out about our training sessions in Birmingham and Coventry. The training (£20-£40/half day) is aimed at school-based staff and Occupational Therapy students and focuses on theory and classroom strategies.

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