Adapting the Classroom Environment for Students with Sensory Disorders

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Our world is constantly filled with noise, visual stimulation, smells, tastes, motion, and touch. When students cannot effectively process these sensations, it may be necessary to make adjustments to their classroom environment.

Students with Sensory Issues

A child's learning environment has a significant impact on their ability to focus and acquire new skills. Teachers can set their students up for success by creating a comfortable and positive classroom environment. Some children with disabilities, like sensory processing disorders or autism, have a particularly difficult time with certain sensory experiences. Because sensory sensitivities do not affect one particular type of student or disability, we will use the term 'sensory issues' in this lesson to refer to any child with this problem. In this lesson, we'll look at symptoms of sensory issues and the adaptations that teachers can use in the classroom for students with these issues.

Common Symptoms

Children with sensory processing disorders, autism, and other disabilities can often experience sensitivities to their environment that a typical child would not notice. They may be sensitive to:

  • Certain sounds, including loud and background noise
  • Particular fabrics
  • Physical touch
  • Movements like swinging or sliding

These children may also experience physical developmental delays, and challenges with different types of movement. Clumsiness, poor balance and coordination, and delayed motor skills are all commonly experienced by children with sensory issues. Because of their unique challenges, teachers often see their students acting out as they try to figure out how to handle their environment. These children may be aggressive, anxious, or engage in other dangerous behaviors as a way to communicate.

A teacher's ability and willingness to make adaptations to the classroom is critical to his/her students' success. Children with sensory issues have physical barriers to learning. Whether it be the lighting or the feel of their clothes against their skin, their brain has to filter out aspects of their environment so they can better focus on their teacher. This requires even greater focus and control, which may already be difficult for them depending on other characteristics of their disability. Let's look at some ideas you may be able to implement in your classroom.

Classroom Adaptations

The following list includes ideas for teachers to consider when setting up a classroom environment for students with sensory issues. Keep in mind, all students have unique preferences and needs. Some children with sensory issues crave more sensory input, and some avoid it. Consider these ideas and how you can use them in your classroom setting.

Consider the Seating Arrangement

If a child is easily distracted, avoid sitting them near doors or windows. Using carpet squares during circle time will provide natural personal space for each child, helping to keep them at an appropriate distance from each other. For some activities, it may be appropriate to use a yoga ball, hammock, or swivel chair to provide motion that may be soothing. You may also give options for students to sit, stand, or lie down for special activities like silent reading.

Change the Classroom Lighting

Overhead fluorescent lighting can be overwhelming for some students. It may be helpful to adjust the lighting in the room by switching out fluorescent light bulbs for something that produces a softer light. This may not be possible in some classrooms, so sometimes teachers need to get creative. Maybe during break times turn off the lights, or have a particular student sit in a dark room. Some students may even prefer to wear sunglasses.

Be Thoughtful About Bulletin Boards

Some children are overwhelmed by a lot of color and clutter. For these students, minimize your classroom décor. Make sure any visuals in the classroom serve a purpose, like the daily calendar and agenda.

Keep the Room Organized

Piles of paperwork, messy desks, and too much furniture can make a child feel uncomfortable. Too much clutter in the environment may cause some students to feel like their minds are cluttered. Use plastic bins with picture labels to show where classroom materials belong. Keep the desks and neat and make sure everything is put away at the end of the day.

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