Embedding sensory strategies into classroom

Occupational therapists often recommend sensory strategies, or sensory supports, to help to support children who experience sensory differences.  This includes children with autism.  We explore what sensory processing disorder is and the signs of sensory issues in earlier articles.  This article will explore:

  • Why students may benefit from sensory supports

  • Goal setting

  • Tips for easily embedding sensory strategies into your classroom.

teacher working with students

Embedding sensory strategies into the classroom

Occupational therapists often recommend sensory strategies, or sensory supports, to help to support children who experience sensory differences.  This includes children with autism.  We explore what sensory processing disorder is and the signs of sensory issues in earlier articles.  This article will explore:

  • Why students may benefit from sensory supports

  • Goal setting

  • Tips for easily embedding sensory strategies into your classroom.

What are sensory supports or sensory strategies?

A sensory support or sensory strategy is any equipment or technique that increases or decreases sensory input to help a student to focus and learn.  It could be something simple like a privacy screen to allow the student to concentrate when they are writing.  Or, something more specific like a weighted blanket to help with awareness of personal space on the carpet.  Therapists often recommend sensory diets or sensory circuits as a way to organise sensory supports.  Our website explores many different sensory supports and equipment.  You can view all of our articles on sensory supports here.

Why would sensory strategies help in the classroom?

Sensory strategies are designed to either help the student to increase their level of alertness, or arousal, or to reduce alertness.  The goal of using sensory strategies is that they will help the student to reach the level of alertness they need to attend and focus on their learning in class.  Strategies like movement breaks and wobble cushions are typically designed to help to increase alertness and focus.  And, strategies like calm spaces and weighted blankets are usually suggested to help to decrease arousal and to avoid sensory overload.

Which students can sensory strategies help?

The students who benefit most from sensory strategies are those with differences processing sensory information.  This includes students with autism.  Some students might be sensitive to sensory inputs and find it difficult to stay calm and focused.  Others might need more sensory inputs to understand.  We explore these differences in further depth on this page – It is a Sensory Issue?  The ultimate goal of using the strategies is to help to support the student to access their learning.

girl wearing ear defenders and playing with toys text auditory sensitivity

Jessica’s story – sensitivity and overload

Jessica has autism.  She is sensitive to both sounds and touch.  This makes it harder for her to focus and engage in the classroom.  Her teacher noticed that the headphones help to reduce the noise for her.  This allows her to stay in the classroom during free play when the classroom is noisier.  The school has also timetabled breaks in the library three times a day to allow her to colour in a quiet space. This helps her to calm down before attending core lessons.

General considerations for using sensory strategies

Ensure you’re setting goals

Sensory strategies should not just be put in place and left.  Before using a strategy it is essential that there is a goal or target set.  This should be written down and monitored to ensure that the sensory strategy has helped.  In some cases, it might actually reduce the student’s attention or make their behaviour more disruptive.  Goals should also centre around the student being able to engage with learning for longer.

Example goals for sensory strategies

  1. When using the wobble cushion, Sarah will stay seated in her seat for 15 minutes during lesson input.
  2. During story time, when seated on the carpet, Oliver will stay in his own space for the with help of the weighted lap pad.

All children are different – no one size fits all

It is very important that the individual child’s needs are considered and supported.  A wobble cushion might have helped a student in the class last year.  However, it’s not necessarily the right sensory support for another student.

If you’re unsure about a sensory strategy ask for clarification

Sensory strategies suggested by the occupational therapist should help the student to engage in their learning.  If they are causing more disruption than helping, then please feed this back to the therapist.  If you’re not sure what they are for, or how to use them correctly, please ask.  In addition, if the student has made progress and their plan needs updating let the therapist know.  By doing this the student will make quicker progress as they will be being reviewed as required.

How to embed sensory strategies into the day

Think about timetabling them in

There is so much happening through the school day, sometimes sensory strategies just become ‘another thing’ you need to fit in.  If there is a designated time on the timetable for movement breaks they usually occur more frequently.  Some children might also need extra down time scheduled in after specific subjects or activities.

Make sensory strategies available to the whole class

Many suggestions made by occupational therapists will be relevant for more than one child in your class.  All children need to learn to self regulate.  All children need to be focused and ready to learn.  Whilst the strategies which work for one child won’t be exactly the same for the next, the basic principles are the same.  It is the same with general fine and gross motor activity programmes.  Whilst they will be of real benefit to the child they were written for, in most cases they will also help other children in the class.  The more you can integrate the strategies into the classroom routine, the easier they will be to remember and to complete.

Consider using a self regulation programme

To bring it all together you could consider a self regulation programme, like Zones of Regulation, the Incredible 5 Point Scale or How Does Your Engine Run.  These help students to independently monitor their level of focus.  The programmes use colours and numbers to help students to identify their own state of alertness.  Then, they help to teach students what strategies help them with their focus in class.

boy smiling directly at camera sensory strategies in the classroom

Theo’s story – movement helps me focus

Theo finds it harder to sit still than his peers.  Movement helps his body to stay alert.  Before his teacher started using sensory strategies, he would constantly rock in his chair and get up and walk around the room.  He finds the wobble cushion she provided really helps.  And, when he needs an extra boost he goes to the movement station (see below) and completes this sequence two or three times.  This means he can move his body, but is not distracting his peers.

Use movement as a sensory strategy to increase arousal

Morning exercise session

Often, children with sensory processing challenges will have ‘movement breaks’ recommended on their OT programme.  A simple way to include move movement into your classroom is to have a morning exercise session.  It doesn’t need to take all morning and it could be just five to ten minutes.  However, it is usually easier to schedule for the whole class.

Once it’s on the schedule, deciding what to do doesn’t have to be hard work.  If you have a programme from the OT you could use those activities.  Twinkl has movement break and yoga cards which you can print out.  Super Duper Publications sells packs of sensory diet and movement cards and the ‘Yoga Pretzel’ cards are a great resource.  Also, if you have access to YouTube, Cosmic Kids Yoga and GoNoodle have some fantastic movement videos.  And for younger children, Debbie Doo and The Learning Station have easier options.

Set up a Movement Station – it makes movement breaks easier

Occupational therapists support many children with sensory processing challenges.  Typically, the children that are identified and referred for help are sensory seekers.  Sensory seekers regularly look for higher amounts of sensory feedback.  They are the children who rock on their chairs, chew their collars and always fidget about.

A very common recommendation given for these children are movement breaks.  The idea behind a movement break is that the child has an opportunity to receive the extra sensory information their brain needs to help them to then sit and focus.  Often, due to staffing, it can be hard to organise times for movement breaks.  Also, as children get older sometimes they don’t want to be singled out or look different to their peers by having to leave the classroom.

One way to easily embed this sensory strategy into your classroom, is to create a movement station.  This probably sounds much more glorious than it actually is.  In many classrooms it has been small section of unoccupied floor.  Sometimes, a corridor space has been used.  Occasionally, there is a larger space available but this is definitely not the norm.

What should we do in the movement station?

In the movement station there needs to be clear instructions and choices of movement activities children can do.  If you have a programme from an OT, this is where you can include pictures of the child doing those activities.  The Twinkl, Super Duper, and Yoga Pretzel card activities recommended above, in strategy one, are also appropriate.  Have four to five activities that the child can work through in a sequence two or three times before coming back to their desk.

If a teacher sees that a child needs to move, they can direct them to the movement station.  Some children are able to self-direct themselves to the station appropriately.  Each child is different and usual classroom behaviour expectations still apply.  If the child is not using the area as you intend, then you will need to review it.  However, when working effectively, a movement station can be a great resource for the whole class.

It is important to monitor sensory strategies to ensure they are helping.  Before using them it’s helpful to set goals so you can measure changes.

Consider a calm space can help to support regulation

Like movement breaks, calm spaces, or chill out time are commonly recommended for children with sensory processing differences and those with autism.  The main tip for a calm space, is that it needs to be calm.  Sometimes these spaces are set up with the best intention, but they are not very calm.  Using a corridor space might work in some schools, however in others the corridor might be more distracting for a student.  The book corner can sometimes be a good option.  The space needs to be distraction free and quiet.

Also, ensure that there are activities in the space, or can be taken to the space, that help the student to calm down. For some, this might be a book.  For others it might be a puzzle.  Sensory items like fidget toys, weighted products and visual timers can be helpful.  Each child is an individual so there is no one size fits all strategy.   Students should be aware that the calm space is there to help them to regulate, it is not a place where they can mess about.  They should know that they are not in trouble, but that they are helping themselves to get ready for learning.

Also, think about lunch time

Some students find lunch and break time quite overwhelming.  It can be useful to have a quiet space that the students can access to allow them time to regulate.  This could be the library, sometimes it’s the waiting space outside the school office.

Messy play as sensory strategy for touch sensitivity and seekers

Another common sensory challenge, especially in autism, is touch sensitivity.  Occupational therapists often recommend messy play as a treatment idea.  This is often easier to do in an Early Year’s classroom but much harder to do once the child starts Reception.

Early Years

A challenge for some Early Year’s practitioners is that the children who have touch sensitivity typically avoid the messy play area!  They don’t go near the finger paint or play dough and will avoid the sand pit.  These children can sometimes benefit from a ‘Now and Next’ timetable which includes a small amount of time seated at the activity they may avoid and then time for their usual free flow play.  Starting with dry textures is recommended.  Water play can be a good segue into other textures.  It can also be slowly added, by the child, to dry textures to change the consistency and feel.

If you have children that are not particularly engaged with their environment, e.g., a child with autism, then a sensory joint attention group may help.  During joint attention groups, children need to sit and watch a motivating activity happen before they can have a turn.  Different sensory items can be used and children can take turns with the item in sequence.  Our resource, Sensory Group Book 1, outlines further recommendations if you needed specific protocol.

Reception and Year One

In Reception and Year One subjects like art, cooking and measuring in maths offer opportunities to include messy textures.  Also, allowing the child to help to prepare fruit, e.g., peeling bananas or clementines, is an easy way to include messiness into their daily routine.  In addition, Forest School can provide some fantastic opportunities for sensory play.

Finally, remember no sensory strategy or support is one size fits all

There are a number of sensory supports and strategies available.  The final thing to remember is that there is no one size fits all.  It is a constant process of reviewing.  As children mature, their needs change so it’s likely their sensory preferences will changes.  Something that worked in their first year of school might not work in the third.  Also, sometimes strategies that did help earlier on need to come back at times of stress or transition.  This includes the transition to secondary school which can be quite stressful for many children.

Just remember to observe, set goals and monitor.  Talk to the student as they will have some ideas on what helps them.  If you need further help you can request advice from an occupational therapist.  Our online training also provides more information.  There is a free introduction.  For those who want a deeper understanding of sensory processing and using sensory strategies, we recommend the longer training.

Where to next?

Next you might want to read about more sensory strategies.  We recommend these articles

Or, if you would like to learn more about sensory processing differences, we recommend these ones

To learn even more, you might find these resources helpful

  • Sensory Processing with GriffinOT (Online training including free introduction)
  • Self-Regulation Interventions and Strategies – Garland (Book)
  • Building bridges through Sensory Integration – Aquilla, Sutton & Yack (Book – Autism specific)

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