How to Be a Sensory-Friendly Teacher

As the number of people who experience sensory sensitivities continues to increase, many students are experiencing difficulties in school. A research study, “Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids” by Juliana Bunim (2013), predicted that sensory processing disorders impact up to 16% of school-aged children. Furthermore, children with sensory processing disorders struggle with how to process stimulation (Bunim, 2013). This can cause symptoms including hypersensitivity to sound, sight and touch, poor fine motor skills and easy distractibility (Bunim, 2013) 1.  Oftentimes, balancing the learning experience with a busy classroom environment is a challenge. This results in students isolating themselves. Or, displaying disruptive behaviours. Ultimately, teachers can help through classroom design and inclusive lessons. Being a sensory-friendly teacher makes learning accessible and includes more students.

Elementary school teacher, Anne E., shares some of her suggestions and tips that have been beneficial to include more children in her teaching over the past 28 years teaching Grades 1 and 2.

What is a sensory-friendly teacher?

Firstly, it is important to know what being a “sensory-friendly teacher” means. A sensory-friendly teacher is an educator who has adapted their communication, their style of teaching and modified their classroom environment to be more inclusive of all student’s needs. Often, students with autism, sensory processing disorders or learning difficulties will struggle within traditional classrooms. This may be due to noise, fluorescent lighting, or even a traditional learning environment.

A sensory-friendly teacher approaches learning in an individualized manner. And includes student’s individual preferences. It is important to understand that being a more sensory-friendly teacher will look different in every classroom. Therefore, it most helpful to focus on establishing a comfortable classroom environment and developing a trusting relationship with students.

Sensory-friendly teacher working with students seating around a table.

Do not put too much pressure on yourself

One of the first pieces of advice that Anne stated about being a more sensory-friendly teacher is to not place too much pressure on yourself as an educator. Oftentimes, teachers feel pressure to ensure that their teaching style fits with each student’s needs. Also, many teachers may not have the level of support in the classroom that they feel is necessary to address students’ learning and communication differences. Lastly, many teachers may not feel that they have received enough training to feel confident in their ability to teach students with greater sensory sensitivities.

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge this internal pressure but also recognize that learning to become a sensory-friendly teacher takes time and experience.

Make Your Event and Location Inclusive with Training

How do you become a sensory-friendly teacher

Becoming a sensory-friendly teacher depends on the students and the classroom, not just the teacher. However, Anne has a variety of different tips and strategies to help make all students feel more comfortable in the classroom. Furthermore, her tips give teachers concrete strategies to follow and incorporate for elementary school-aged students.

Infographic highlighting 4 ways to be a sensory-friendly teacher.

Create a sensory-friendly learning environment

One of the ways Anne makes her teaching more sensory-friendly is by creating a sensory-friendly classroom environment. For instance, changes to the classroom environment to make it sensory-friendly include:

All of these strategies help to develop a calming environment for her students. For example, the visual schedule and timer help students prepare for what comes next and transitions. Additionally, the standing table and stools give students the opportunity to choose how they want to interact with their environment while completing work. Some students may find sitting at desks for prolonged periods to be uncomfortable. Therefore, giving alternative seating options, like standing tables and stools helps to accommodate all student’s preferences. Furthermore, Anne creates a relaxing environment by reducing noise, and minimizing harsh lighting by using natural sunlight as much as possible.

Provide students with effective coping strategies

Another strategy that Anne shares was the diverse coping strategies that she utilizes with her students. Anne explained that she employs different techniques to help her students regulate their emotions or sensations when feeling overly stimulated. For example, Anne explained that she offers her students stuffy buddies (stuffed animals) and weighted cushions to help them feel more relaxed and calm.

Additionally, to help support students with greater sensory sensitivities, Anne has sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones to help minimize loud classroom noises. She also explained that for some of her students with greater sensitivities, she arranges with parents for them to bring comfort items from home. Furthermore, Anne facilitates movement breaks within her classroom that students are invited to participate in but are not required to.

Lastly, Anne uses programs such as Emotional ABCs and yoga to manage emotional regulation to help students who have greater difficulty calming themselves down. Participating in these programs helps to teach students effective coping mechanisms.  

Creating open and honest communication with students

One of the most effective ways to become more sensory-friendly is establishing open and honest communication with students. For example, Anne expresses that it is crucial to understand that students do not act defiantly for entertainment. Rather, a student’s behaviour is a way of communicating their emotions.

As a result, Anne has developed a number of strategies to help develop trusting and professional relationships with students. Some of the strategies she shared included:

  • Talking circles.
  • Having a “campfire” as a class once a week to share thoughts and feelings.
  • Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with students rather than face-to-face as it less aggressive non-verbally.
  • Using a slower pace of speaking when a student is feeling agitated.
  • Actively listening to a student’s words.
  • Observing a student’s actions and non-verbal cues.
  • Actively monitoring your own state of arousal and worry as a teacher.
  • Not assuming what is happening in a situation before knowing.
  • Scheduling breaks for students rather than making them “earn them”.
  • Letting students use visuals to express their need and feelings if they have trouble finding the words.
  • Communicating with students when you are feeling like you have less energy.

“Behaviour is communitcation.”

Anne E., Elementary School Teacher, New Brunswick, Canada
Students sitting in classroom working at their desks.

Flexibility in teaching

Lastly, Anne mentions the importance of having greater flexibility in teaching. She explained that every day and every interaction with students differs. Therefore, it is important to be able to adapt your teaching style to accommodate various student sensory preferences.

To do this, she provides students with the choice of their location in the classroom when completing work. Moreover, she uses both visual and auditory cues to help facilitate student learning. Finally, she encourages students to tune into what their body is telling them.

Additionally, Anne highlights the importance of utilizing colleagues, other teachers and parents to help create a sensory-friendly teaching experience. She states that she often reaches out to fellow colleagues and parents to help develop a more personalized and effective learning plan for her students. In particular, a team of ideas helps support students that may be struggling academically.

“I accept responsibility for making my own adjustments in order to better meet their needs. I don’t put the demand on them in order to adjust the way I am doing something.”

Anne E., Elementary School Teacher, New Brunswick, Canada.

Use these tips in the classroom to create a more accessible space and learning experience for your students. Huge thank you to Anne for sharing her experiences and amazing suggestions to be a more inclusive educator!

Check out more sensory-friendly school-based blog posts below:

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  1. Bunim, J. (2013). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids. University of California San Francisco.
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