Super Sensory Schoolin’ by Dominic Simpson, Jigsaw Occupational Therapy

In my day, (I can’t believe I’m writing that, I feel so old so I’m dropping the ‘g’ in schooling to feel a bit more down with the kids!) there was not a lot of information available on the ways that different environments can affect children with special needs. Children were often simply placed into regular classrooms and expected to conform to the overarching school rules. Sensory-friendly classrooms were unheard and pupils who had special sensory needs received little, if any, help.  Sensory-supported learning was unheard of and we can probably all think back to our school years and with hindsight remember children who clearly had special learning requirements but were simply unable to receive the support they needed. Recent advances in educational understanding have focused on the needs of children with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorders, in addition to the many children who don’t have either of these conditions but may be sensory-sensitive in one or two areas. These children, along with other children that don’t have any issues, can benefit from the sensory-friendly adjustments in the school classroom that accommodate the special needs of autism and SPD. Sensory-friendly classrooms can improve learning outcomes for all children, not just those with special needs. Some children cannot tolerate experiences that other children don’t even notice. Certain sounds, a noisy environment, some visual elements or even being touched can trigger a reaction. In addition, a child that is constantly triggered by various sensory experiences is not learning as they should because they are piling all their resources into coping with the overload of sensory input and thus constantly in fight-or-flight mode. A sensory-friendly classroom can change the learning outcomes and improve the learning environment for these children. When a child is comfortable in their environment, they subsequently won’t have to worry about any adverse experience that might suddenly occur and they can focus on learning, the most important thing! Teachers today have incredibly challenging roles and understandably the notion of making sweeping changes to a classroom can be daunting but very often small changes can make a big difference. It might be something as simple as moving a student to an area of the classroom that isn’t as cluttered or changing the style of seating that a student uses, such as a Zuma Rocker chair. Allowing pupils to have a certain level of individuality to their learning environment is also key, it’s been noted that children experience improved learning outcomes when they are able to have an element of control over certain aspects of their environment to suit their own needs. Consequently, flexibility is key for a sensory friendly classroom. Noise can be a big distraction for those with heightened sensory awareness and a classroom will naturally be filled with sound from all sorts of sources; voices, moving chairs on floors, external noise etc. Allowing a student to access established quiet zones, potentially utilising a Kid Garage, will provide a safe space to retreat to in the event of feeling overwhelmed by the general din of a busy classroom. Lighting can also have a big impact. Some students are most alert and ready to learn when they are in an environment with bright, natural light. Whilst others prefer softer lighting and find bright light too harsh and distracting. If possible schools can counter this by potentially only having certain areas of the classroom darkened with blinds or via the use of dimmer switches. 
 Olfactory senses, that’s smell to you and me, are another element to consider. Children can be very sensitive to odours and, as you may recall from your own school days, a classroom can be full of a variety of different smells (some good, some very bad!) and this will be very overwhelming to a sensory sensitive child. Simple tactics such as allowing fresh air into the room or laying down rules about no smelly food or fragrances (I wish they had banned Lynx Africa when I was at school!) can help. Visual over-stimulation can be a huge distraction. Some children love busy, colourful displays whilst others will find it too overwhelming and intrusive. In order to try an cater for both preferences, no easy task, try to leave some blank spaces on sections of the walls and where possible make sure that colours and patterns compliment each other rather than clash and generally try to minimise clutter. Here are some general top tips to help create a sensory friendly classroom: - create daily routines - allow movement/sensory breaks - ensure environment is comfortable with lighting, temperature etc. - minimise visual displays - create quiet zones for spaces of retreat - allow students to have alternative forms of seating - use visuals to help children know whats happening next - provide headphones to block out classroom noise - establish signals with individual students to inform if distressed The classroom is a very different place these days, no matter how long you have been out of school, and every step towards a flexible, more inclusive educational environment is a step in the right direction. Although I’m not sure anything can be done about understanding how children are so adept at losing various items of their school uniform……at the current rate I will have purchased 30+ school cardigans by the time my own little darling finishes primary school!

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