Often in life the simplest changes have the most profound influence with longer lasting effect. When taken in context of our learners in their classrooms, the slightest environmental change can have a dramatically positive influence on their learning that is more easily sustained.
Classrooms by their very nature are busy environments and our busy students often are the ones we spend the most energy on. A lot is happening to our senses consistently throughout the day:
- Visual – think of how much “stuff” is on display on the walls all around
- Auditory – think of the learners themselves in your class and those next door
- Touch – closeness of learners to each other
- Smell – with the latest heat waves we’ve been experiencing – our kids are sweating
- Movement – learners are up and about frequently
Teachers are becoming more aware of the need to address the sensory needs of the children in their classrooms. It is understood that children have different sensory thresholds and needs, but finding ways to put the various strategies in action in order to create an optimal learning space is often easier said than done.
A sensory savvy teacher will want to create a sensory smart classroom. The sensory classroom must give opportunities for heavy work, movement and other sensory strategies that will calm or alert children in order to focus and learn optimally.
Simplifying your classroom for your ‘’busy’’ students
- By removing “potential” movement in the direct visual field we minimise distraction. Often the busy bees are best seated near the front and middle (or slightly to the side furthest from the door). It is also good to have the work on display put on the back walls so as not to be in the direct visual field all day.
- Seat a busy child so that they do not have to continually rotate their head to see the board or teacher. Rotation stimulates, so if we decrease this and keep their head position more central, we introduce positioning that is calming.
- Consider having the child do 50% of their handwriting activities when standing, leaning the non dominant hand on the desk. The pressure of weight bearing is calming and this allows for longer focus.
- Change the working posture every 20-30 minutes. Facilitating movement between postures gives them movement feedback and allows the different pressure centres of the body to be stimulated. Consider reading whilst lying on the tummy with elbows tucked to the sides; then change to side sitting with the non dominant hand supporting their weight out to the side; then move into a kneeling position at the desk with elbows on the desk and the reading book flat.
More strategies to make your classroom sensory savvy
- Allow for movement breaks, for both the individual child and for the class as a whole. This will energise your class for the rest of the day. 2-3 minutes of movement can increase concentration for 15-20 minutes. Consider using a child in need of movement as your errand person for the day; give them an area they could do some wall push ups on for about 30-50 repetitions, or even get them to bounce on a trampoline outside for 10 minutes at a time.
- Allow for chewy and resistive snacks, (e.g. chewing gum, nuts, dried fruit, sucking sweets); drinking water from a sports bottle or through a straw; crunchy foods such as carrots, apples, nuts or popcorn, and mouth fidgets (blowing balloons, blowing bubbles or chewy tubes) that allow for organising and calming of the sensory system
- Design a quiet area in your classroom, place comfortable cushions, soft toys, books and earphones with classical music to allow for time out from a sensory overloaded environment.
- Reduce visual distractions by keeping toys and books in baskets, bins or cupboards.
- Increase natural lighting if possible, as this promotes a calmer learning environment.
- Provide fidget toys such as stress balls, Theraband and play dough.
Gerald is a qualified Occupational Therapist with 13 years’ experience working with children both in South Africa and the UK. Besides working with children, his passion is sharing his knowledge and expertise with parents and teachers, in a practical and hands on way.
Annabella holds a BSc (Occ Ther) degree from the University of Cape Town, backed by 22 years’ experience in both the public and private sector. She has extensive practical experience in the area of Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in children and is passionate about empowering others to improve functionality and quality of life.