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 and lower their arousal, 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.
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 change. 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.