Do any of the children in your care have sensory issues? During her webinar for Kaplan’s Classroom Management for Early Learning community on edWeb, Christy Isbell, PhD, talked about sensory processing disorder (SPD) and how it can affect children’s learning and the overall classroom environment. She also detailed the characteristics of two sensory processing disorders and explained what teachers can do to help students with SPD. Here’s a more in-depth recap of the information Dr. Isbell shared in her webinar:
Defining Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
Everyone has some small sensory issues. For example, you may not like the texture or taste of something. Sensory issues become a sensory processing disorder when daily life activities are impacted and an individual is unable to function in daily life. Almost 1 in 20 children have a SPD, with more recent research showing that number increasing to 1 in 16 children. If none of your students have a sensory processing disorder this year, you’ll likely have at least one child with a sensory processing disorder in your classroom next year.
Learning About the Two Wicked Stepsisters
Did you know that there are actually seven senses? In addition to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, vestibular and proprioception are two senses that teachers need to pay attention to and help nurture. In her webinar, Dr. Isbell explains that she jokingly calls these two senses the “wicked stepsisters” because you’ll have problems in the classroom if they’re not working effectively. The vestibular sense is located in the inner ears, and it tells you that you’re moving and helps with balance. Proprioception is brought in by your joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons and plays a role in body awareness and position.
Sensory Avoiders and Sensory Seekers
Sensory avoiders are over-responsive to sensation from one or more sensory system and may respond to certain sensory input as if it were painful or irritating. Sensory seekers crave excessive stimulation from one or more of the sensory systems, seek more stimulation than other children, and never seem to be satisfied. A child with SPD can be a seeker of one type of sensation and an avoider of another sensory input, but a child with SPD cannot avoid and seek the same sensation.
Important Things to Remember
Dr. Isbell wants every educator to remember the following when teaching children with SPD:
- No child will have every symptom.
- Sensory processing can vary from day to day or moment to moment.
- A child with SPD will probably have difficulty with more than one input.
- No two children are alike.
Vestibular Seeker and Tactile Avoider
Vestibular seeker and tactile avoider are the two most common sensory processing disorders (Dr. Isbell explores over 20 categories of SPD in her book Sensory Integration: A Guide for Preschool Teachers). If a child is a vestibular seeker, he or she craves and seeks more movement than typical children. A vestibular seeker may be unable to sit still, be in constant motion, take safety risks, be impulsive, run instead of walk, and look like a child who has ADHD. If a child is a tactile avoider, his or her brain says “ouch” to everyday touch experiences. He or she may respond to light or unexpected touch in a negative manner or with excessive emotions. A tactile avoider may avoid messy experiences, be an extremely picky eater, refuse to hold hands with someone, or not like to be kissed or hugged.
What You Can Do
As a teacher, it’s important that you be sensory aware. You should also respect children’s emotions and not try to force them to do anything. When you have a child with SPD in your class, you should first consider changing the environment (sensory inputs). For example, you can try to cut down on the noise level if a child is sensitive to noise.
Practical Solutions for a Vestibular Seeker:
- Provide more movement experiences throughout the day.
- Large motor activity inside or outside.
- At least one hour a day.
- You can break the hour up throughout the day.
- Alternate active and quiet learning activities.
- Provide a center-based environment because it provides countless movement opportunities.
Practical Solutions for a Tactile Avoider:
- Give children opportunities to stand.
- Give them rocking chairs, pillows, or ball seats to use when sitting. (Be sure to check out our selection of Hokki Stools and Bouncy Bands!)
- Do not force the child to touch!
- Tell the child before a touch is going to occur.
- Prevent unexpected touches when possible.
- Make the child a line leader or follower.
- Have him or her sit next to you or another adult.
- Allow child to initiate the touch.
- Look for other ways the child can participate in learning opportunity.
Another great solution is to create a quiet center for children to go to when they are overwhelmed by a sensory input. Remember that early diagnosis and intervention is important. Talk with parents about your observations, and if your observations reveal characteristics suggesting SPD, make sure the child receives a thorough evaluation by someone trained in the identification of SPD. A pediatric occupational therapist (OT), pediatrician, child clinical psychologist, local school system (special education services), and Child Find Program are a few examples of professionals/organizations that can evaluate a child.
For more information about sensory integration disorders or about any of the topics discussed in the webinar, be sure to read Christy’s book Sensory Integration: A Guide for Preschool Teachers. It’s a great resource for educators who are working with children who have SPD!
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