Sensory considerations play a key role in developing a classroom environment conducive to learning. When classrooms are arranged with sensory needs in mind, teachers will often see increased levels of social participation and task engagement. Some students face challenges finding their voice in a typical classroom because of various environmental stressors, which is why classrooms must be built to meet the needs of all learners. While academic needs are important, sensory and body awareness are often just as crucial. Academic and social growth can blossom when students are regulated and feel at peace in their environment. Sensory accommodations are not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each child reacts and responds differently to external stimuli.
Schools are busy environments that are noisy and disorienting to some students. The activity of students transitioning in the halls, bells signaling class change, harsh lighting, and lockers clanking all contribute to a potentially overstimulating environment for many learners. Teachers often add to the disorder without even realizing it. Many themed classroom decorations or cluttered spaces can make it difficult for students to focus and self-regulate. When planning for the flow of a class, teachers can support their students by keeping these key questions in mind:
- How can I increase sustained attention?
- How can I make the classroom quieter?
- How do I engage my students who find it difficult to cope with excessive noise or changes in routine?
- Can I move away from the traditional desk/chair seating arrangements?
Teachers are challenged to address the needs of the many types of students in their classrooms. For example, students might struggle with anxiety, attention deficits, and changes in routines, but through accommodations and modifications, the environment can meet the needs of all students. There are numerous opportunities for students to learn together and from one another. Teachers can create a community within their classroom when they consider all their students’ needs. The first step is to embrace the uniqueness of each student fully. When teachers lead by example, students will foster respect and admiration for their classmates.
When sensory needs are not met, students may engage in behaviors that teachers view as disruptive or even defiant. However, it is important to remember that all behaviors serve as communication and that every behavior students engage in has a reason. Teachers can arrange the classroom environment to help all students succeed by better understanding the four functions of behavior:
- Sensory (automatic)
Many behaviors that students demonstrate in the classroom serve an automatic function. This means that they engage in a behavior because it feels good and fulfills a sensory need. Playing with hair or clicking a pen are simple examples of automatically reinforced behaviors. Students may engage in these behaviors because of how the behavior appeals to their senses, such as how it looks, smells, feels, sounds, or tastes.
There are numerous ways to target sensory-maintained behaviors, and proactively providing sensory input may reduce a need to seek it out in maladaptive ways. For example, collaborating with an experienced occupational therapist to assess a child’s need for a sensory diet will be helpful. Sensory breaks in a “calm down spot” or a “zen zone” can also give students time and space to regulate their emotions. These areas can even be within the classroom, like in the back or a corner with a small tent or a beanbag and pillows. Sometimes, noise-reducing headphones or sunglasses can also support the idea of a sensory break. Visual supports help demonstrate deep breathing or the use of other coping strategies.
While it may seem overwhelming to restructure a classroom environment, there are some simple ways to make the setting more conducive to all learners. The first step is to reduce distractions in the room by clearing clutter and covering toy shelves with curtains or doors. Consider dimming the overhead lights by using lamps or magnetic light covers. Natural light is even better. When decorating, use muted colors and ensure that everything on the walls has an educational purpose. Finally, create a safe space in the classroom for students to decompress and regroup. When sensory needs are considered proactively, teachers will find a calmer classroom community of students working together and actively engaging in lessons.