How to Create a Sensory-Friendly Classroom

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So you might think that a sensory-friendly experience or environment is something that happens at the movies, the theatre, or a store. Consider that a sensory-friendly environment is needed at school too! Many children, both with and without diagnoses of sensory disorders, have sensory sensitivities. Schools and teacher often do not know how to help students with the creation of a sensory-friendly classroom. Read on to learn how schools and teachers can offer a sensory-friendly experience at school that supports students to learn and thrive.

Tanya White, social worker and mother of 6 children, 4 of whom have autism. She shares her experience and knowledge about the importance of creating inclusive education in schools. Furthermore, White highlights the advocacy work she is does to promote inclusive education for all students.

Teacher helping students sitting at a table in a classroom.

What is a sensory-friendly classroom?

The physical space

It is important to understand what a sensory-friendly classroom is and its purpose. Simply put, a sensory-friendly classroom modifies two key things. First the classroom space, and second, the learning experience to be inclusive of all students.

There physical characteristics of sensory-friendly classrooms include:

The learning experience

However, many teachers and parents may not be aware of how to adapt the learning experience to make it sensory-friendly, too. For many students, traditional ways of teaching are not effective. Furthermore, it causes students to feel overwhelmed and insecure about their ability to learn. There are several different ways to make learning sensory-friendly. For example:

  • Include movement or “sensory” breaks.
  • Have dedicated quiet study times.
  • Create a daily schedule of activities.
  • Ensure regular review of the daily schedule of activities, so students can prepare for the sensory experience that comes next.
  • Develop a classroom “routine”; so that students can create habits.

White speaks on her experiences within the education system and states,

“We talk about universal design for learning and making appropriate accommodation. I don’t feel autism itself is understood in the education system. I am baffled that parents still have to fight to have sensory tools in the classroom. They are still looked at as toys and distractions.”

Tanya White, social worker, parent.
Tanya White's 6 children smiling at camera.
Tanya White’s children. Nikki is front and centre and going up from him to the left: Zachary, Teehan, Liam, Luke, Drew. Photo Credit: Judith Mattie September/2020

Problems with “standard” classrooms.

There are several sensory issues with the set-up of classrooms. White shares some of her children’s experiences with difficulties that they had while at school. She states that the bright lights, crowded classrooms, and noisy environments are all problematic. Ultimately, leads to a sensory overload response and creates a negative learning environment.

The sensory issues at schools are apparent when talking to White about her childrens’ experiences. For instance, she explained that one of her children, Nikki, was consistently taking several “washroom breaks” a day. However, in reality, this was Nikki’s coping method to remove themselves from the sensory-rich classroom environment. Ultimately, this was due to the lack of accommodations made.

Furthermore, something in particular that she noted is Nikki’s difficulty paying attention to verbal cues while at school. In one incidence, White describes the inaccessibility of instructing children when to come inside from recess. She states:

When the first of my children with HFASD (high functioning autism spectrum disorder) started school, he was reprimanded and punished for repeatedly not lining up when the recess bell rang, signalling it was time to come into the school following recess. In truth, he couldn’t hear the bell, and as a child who was often alone, he didn’t have the social cues to follow that would have encouraged him to line up. His brain is overloaded by the noise and congestion of kids playing. It took the principal “observing” him outside at recess before what I understood and knew about my child was believed. Going forward, my child had an Educational Assistant or teacher gently touch his shoulder to remind him that the bell rang.

Tanya White, social worker, parent

Sensory-friendly solutions for teachers.

A question that a lot of parents and teachers have, “How can I effectively support students with sensory sensitivities?” According to White, learning and embracing student’s differences is a crucial step to create inclusive education. Thus, teachers then create a holistic and diverse environment that supports student’s needs.

An effective way to learn more about diverse learners is through open communication with the students and parents. Based on White’s experience, many of the issues and concerns about her children’s education would have resolved with improved communication between educators, parents and children. However, many students are wrongfully punished for their “abnormal” behavior. Oftentimes this is due to their diverse minds and unique ways of thinking. Additionally, parents are given little say in the teaching style and discipline of their children while at school. Therefore, it’s important to establish strong relationships with students and caregivers that promotes inclusion.

Tanya White and her late husband Patrick smiling at the camera.
Tanya White and her late husband Patrick. Photo Credit: Lynette Mason.

Sensory-friendly classrooms and inclusive education.

White does a lot of advocacy work reiterating the importance of developing more inclusive education. She explains that the design of the current public education system is a “one-size-fits-all”. Unfortunately, this means that schools only support one specific type of learner. Hence, this makes it difficult to support more diverse learners and limits their ability to succeed.

To achieve true inclusion requires understanding and embracing the inherent differences that make us individually human; acknowledging the spectrum of diverse experiences, ways of being, and interpretations of the world; taking a holistic person-centred approach and a willingness to create policies and practices to meet individual needs and differences. There can not be a one-size-fits-all approach; indeed, it is solely counterproductive to inclusive design. Not all children bloom at the same time nor under the same circumstances or environments. As Alexander Den Heijer once said, “when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower”—a central understanding of true inclusion.

Tanya White, social worker, parent

Children’s development: its unique.

Additionally, White explains that it is important to understand that every child develops differently. Therefore, not every student will be able to advance to the next school grade after each academic year. Critically, there needs to be greater flexibility within the education system. By forcing a student to “advance” to the next school grade when they are not ready can result in several consequences. Moreover, this includes poor learning skills and mental health consequences.

White explains that repeating a school year does not mean a student “fails” academically. In contrast, it simply means the student was not yet ready to progress to the next grade. White implores that the stigma surrounding students repeating an academic year and the lack of inclusive education must shift. Therefore, educators, caregivers, parents and the general public needs support flexibility to promote the success of all students. Finally, parents should not have to fight for their children to be appropriately accommodated at school.

To learn more about inclusive education and White’s advocacy work, check out her change.org page.

Thank you to Tanya White for sharing her experiences and valuable knowledge.

Interested in other sensory-friendly topics related to school? Check out:

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Sensory overload is overwhelming, but the solutions can be simple. Our founder Christel Seeberger saw how sensory sensitivity and overload negatively affects people’s lives. Join her on the simple but effective journey to being more sensory-friendly via our short, periodic emails.

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