Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

The Role of Sensory-Focused Education in Inclusive Classrooms

In inclusive classrooms, all student learners have strategies, techniques, support, respect, and a welcoming environment to promote academic success (Webster, 2014). Inclusive classrooms require the integration of differentiated instruction tailored to the unique academic, mental, and physical needs of students (Webster, 2014). For students with autism spectrum disorder, sensory needs must also be addressed to allow full participation in the academic environment (Kuhaneck, 2020). Various team members collaborate in inclusive classrooms, including teachers, caregivers, paraprofessionals, and therapists, such as school-based occupational therapists (Cahill & Bazyk, 2020; Webster, 2014). School-based occupational therapists are uniquely trained to assess sensory needs and provide needed strategies to promote sensory-focused education due to their scope of practice in children’s development, educational participation, and sensory systems (American Occupational Therapy Association [AOTA], 2020). A review of sensory-focused education with detailed inclusive classroom tips and strategies will be reviewed.

Pupils sitting at desks in an inclusive classroom, young female teacher teaching them.

The Sensory System

Children with autism spectrum disorder commonly present with heightened interest or avoidance in specific sensory activities, such as having a difficult time with fluorescent lightning (hyporeactivity) or struggling to attend to teacher instruction with everyday background noises (hyperreactivity; Ashburner et al., 2008; Autism Speaks, 2023a; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Sensory processing varies for each student with autism spectrum disorder, making it challenging to implement classroom-wide initiatives and requiring adaptation and modification during activities to respond to each student’s unique needs (Autism Speaks, 2023b; Kuhaneck, 2020). Members of the interdisciplinary team must collaborate to achieve the neurological calm-alert state where the eight senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, balance, awareness of internal body cues, and awareness of the body’s position in space are regulated to support student-learning (Autism Speaks, 2023b; Ayres, 1998). Examples of students with autism spectrum disorder who need strategies to achieve the neurological calm-alert state include refusing to enter the cafeteria or chewing on non-edible items, such as pencils and shirt collars; excessive smelling of items like a glue stick or crayon; presenting with emotional dysregulation when their hands get dirty; and/or demonstrating significant inattention or distractibility in class (Ashburner, Ziviani, Rodger, 2008).

Notably, if a student’s sensory system is not regulated or in an alert-calm state, then the student’s brain cannot access higher-level functions required to meet the demands needed for skills involving reading, writing, and math (Ayres, 1998). Difficulty with academic skill sets, such as sequencing tasks, copying from the whiteboard, and writing, indicates the brain has difficulty processing sensory input effectively (Ayres, 1998). Achieving the calm-alert state or regulating the sensory system is the first step toward successful academic engagement. A calm-alert state is necessary for creating an opportunity for learning and, ultimately, academic success (Ayres, 1998).

Sensory-Focused Classroom Activities

To best provide sensory-focused strategies in the classroom, support from administration, collaborative planning, commitment to collaboration, and an understanding of the classroom culture, curriculum, and performance expectations are needed (Cahill & Bazyk, 2020).

Examples of sensory strategies designed to provide the inclusive classroom with regulation are included below.

Movement Strategies

  • Provide student-specific jobs/roles required at natural times of entering/exiting a class that involve full-body engagement (carrying the equipment back to recess, holding the door open for the line, pushing desks, stacking chairs, etc.).
  • Add movement components within an assignment (morning work, worksheet). For example, if the students write the word of the day, select a class movement to perform after writing each word – jumping jacks, toe touches, star jumps, etc. Encouraging movement, especially first thing in the morning, not only alerts the body to learning but also promotes the ability to sustain attention to seated work.
  • Positioning suggestions include leaving space between peers’ desks (Ashburner et al., 2008), having students face away from the door, and allowing students to occasionally complete work on a vertical surface, such as a wall or whiteboard, or while lying on their stomachs.

Visual Strategies

  • Natural lighting is preferred to fluorescent lighting. If natural lighting is too dark, supplement with softer lighting.
  • Use a visual schedule (age-appropriate) to increase the predictability of activities.
  • Integrate high contrast boundaries, such as highlighted paper, to increase visual attention. Encourage a variety of writing utensils that write in thicker lines (such as a marker) or a color that contrasts the designated worksheet, such as red.
  • Keep an organized classroom and limit visual distractions.

Oral Strategies

  • If a student is biting on clothing or pencils, collaborate with the school-based occupational therapist to determine if packing gum and/or a water bottle with a bite-suck valve may be helpful. Chewelry necklaces may also be another tool for lower-elementary-aged students.
  • Encourage students to bring crunchy and/or cold snacks (i.e., raw vegetables or fresh fruit) and incorporate this as a tool to promote attention.

Auditory Strategies

  • Be mindful of background noises and integrate options such as binaural beats or rhythmic drumming. Background noises or music with a consistent beat are calming and can promote regulation. Have headphones synced to pre-approved sound(s) available for student use during academic tasks.

Environmental Strategies

  • Before instruction, designate an area within the classroom where a student can pace, stand, lean/push against the wall while listening to content delivery.
  • Always set a clear expectation that the opportunity for movement is to help the student do their best work. The regulation tool is no longer effective if it distracts a student or the student’s peers (Mugavero et al., 2023).
  • Have a designated area in the classroom with regulation tools such as a Buddha Board, sandbox, palm-sized weighted medicine ball, mermaid sequin fabric/different textures, gum or sour hard candy, a yoga ball, and/or a rocking chair. Allow this space for students to access freely to self-regulate.
  • Flexible seating or fidgets in a classroom can be helpful but must be trialed with students individually to promote engagement within the learning context (Mugavero et al., 2023).

How to Advocate

Advocacy can begin now. Organizing a meeting to discuss a child’s unique needs is a great way to bring all team members together, as interdisciplinary collaboration is a critical component to addressing a student’s sensory needs (Edwards & Skuthan, 2022). Open communication with teacher(s), school administration, and even fellow parents through organizations such as the Parent Teacher Association or Special Education Parent Teacher Association can be great avenues to foster support. If more support and/or more individualized strategies are needed, consult the school-based occupational therapist through your school’s referral process or in an outpatient setting.


Inclusive classrooms are necessary for promoting attention and success in the learning environment. Although each student may have individualized needs, there are steps the educational team can take to foster an inviting and collaborative learning environment. Specifically, interprofessional education, strategic environmental setup, and school-specific routines can address sensory processing needs that limit success with complex academic skills, such as writing, reading, and math.

Marissa Hunter, MEd, MOT, OTR/L, is an Occupational Therapist at The Kellar School of Inova Kellar Center. Alysha Skuthan, PhD, OTR/L, ASDCS, is an Auxiliary Adjunct Assistant Professor at Shenandoah University. For more information, contact Marissa Hunter at


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Ashburner, J., Ziviani, J., & Rodger, S. (2008). Sensory processing and classroom emotional, behavioral, and educational outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 564–573.

Autism Speaks. (2023a). Autism Diagnosis Criteria: DSM-5.

Autism Speaks. (2023b). Sensory Issues.

Cahill, S., & Bazyk, S. (2020). School-Based occupational therapy. In J. C. O’Brien & H. Kuhaneck (Eds.), Case-Smith’s occupational therapy for children and adolescents (8th ed., pp. 627–658). Elsevier.

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Kuhaneck, H. (2020). Autism spectrum disorder. In J. C. O’Brien & H. Kuhaneck (Eds.), Case-Smith’s occupational therapy for children and adolescents (8th ed., pp. 786–813). Elsevier.

Mugavero, S., Skuthan, A., & Christopher, K. (2023). Fidgets and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Teacher Perceptions. Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention.

Webster, T. (2014). The inclusive classroom. BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education, 6 (2). p. 23-26

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