How to Create a Sensory-Friendly Classroom

Fostering Success for All Learners

Imagine a classroom where every student feels supported and empowered to learn. This is the promise of a sensory-friendly classroom. But how do we get there? This blog post will explore the power of collaboration between teachers, parents, and students. We’ll delve into practical strategies for transforming classrooms and learning environments, and explore ways to empower students to manage their own sensory needs. So, join us on this journey as we create a more inclusive space where all learners can flourish!

Why Sensory-Friendly Classrooms Matter

Many children, with or without diagnosed sensory processing disorders, experience sensory sensitivities. As a result, bright lights, loud noises, and crowded spaces can be overwhelming, hindering their ability to focus and learn and contribute to sensory overload. Here’s where sensory-friendly classrooms come in. These classrooms are designed to address these challenges, fostering a more inclusive learning environment.

In fact, fostering a more inclusive learning environment supports a wider range of students than you might think. This includes children on the autism spectrum, who may be hypersensitive to certain sounds or textures, or hyposensitive, needing to seek out more movement or stimulation. Moreover, sensory sensitivities can also be present in students with ADHD, anxiety, or learning disabilities. Furthermore, even students who wouldn’t be formally diagnosed with anything might simply process sensory information differently. Some students may be easily distracted by visual clutter. On the other hand, some students might crave movement breaks throughout the day. As a result, by creating a sensory-friendly classroom, we can embrace this neurodiversity and ensure all students have the opportunity to thrive.

Transform the Physical Space

Creating a sensory-friendly space starts with the classroom itself. Next, let’s explore some key elements:

  • Minimize clutter: Keep surfaces clear and organized to reduce visual noise.
  • Dim the lights: Harsh fluorescent lights can be bothersome. Therefore, explore alternative lighting options like lamps or natural light.
  • Embrace muted colors: Opt for calming colors like soft blues and greens instead of overly stimulating bright tones.
  • Fidget toys for the win: Provide students with fidget tools to help them manage their energy and stay focused. For instance, think stress balls, chewy toys, or squishy objects.
  • Harness the power of nature: Natural light and elements like plants can create a more peaceful atmosphere.
Teacher helping students sitting at a table in a classroom.

Make Learning Itself Sensory-Friendly

The magic of a sensory-friendly classroom goes beyond the physical space. For example, here’s how to adapt your teaching methods:

  • Move it or lose it: Schedule regular movement breaks to allow students to release energy and refocus. Thus, move your body or lose focus!
  • Quiet time haven: Dedicate a quiet corner of the classroom for students who need a sensory break from the hustle and bustle.
  • Predictability is key: Create a daily schedule and post it visually. This helps students anticipate transitions and manage their expectations.
  • Routine is your friend: Establish consistent routines for activities and transitions, fostering a sense of security.

The Power of Collaboration in a Sensory-Friendly Classroom

Tanya White, a social worker and mother of six, four of whom are autistic, is a tireless advocate for inclusive education. Specifically, she emphasizes the importance of open communication and collaboration between teachers, parents, and students. Furthremore, White believes that by “learning and embracing students’ differences,” we can create a truly holistic learning environment that caters to diverse needs.

Her passion stems from her own children’s experiences in traditional classrooms. One example is her child, Nikki, who frequently took “bathroom breaks” throughout the day. However, as White explains, “these weren’t just bathroom breaks. In reality, this was Nikki’s coping mechanism to escape the overwhelming sensory environment of the classroom.

This real life exampe underscores the need for sensory accommodations, which can dramatically improve a student’s ability to learn and thrive in the classroom.

From Observation to Accommodation: A Teacher’s Observations build Sensory-Friendly Solutions

White also recounts another challenge faced by her son: difficulty following verbal cues. “When my child with autism first started school,” White shares, “he was constantly reprimanded for not lining up at recess time. He simply couldn’t hear the bell, and the noise and activity level made it hard for him to pick up on social cues. The prinicipal took the time to observe him outside, and sought to understand his struggles.” As a result, going forward, my child had an Educational Assistant or teacher gently touch his shoulder to remind him that the bell rang.

Movement Breaks: A Sensory Oasis Throughout the Day

Interspersing lessons with movement breaks can be a game-changer for students with sensory sensitivities. For instance, these breaks help them refocus and release any excess energy, ultimately leading to a more productive learning experience. So, here are a few creative ways to incorporate them throughout the school day:

  • Energizing Stretches: Dedicate a few minutes at the beginning or end of a lesson for simple stretches like arm circles, toe touches, or gentle jumping jacks.
  • Brain Gym Activities: Integrate short brain gym activities that involve crossing the midline of the body, such as hopping on one leg or touching opposite knee to elbow.
  • Themed Movement Games: Transform learning into movement with educational games. For example, act out vocabulary words through charades or play a grammar game that involves students moving to different parts of the room.
  • Sensory Walks: Designate a path within the classroom or hallway for students to walk while completing tasks like counting objects or reciting the alphabet.
  • Fidget Friendly Breaks: Provide students with fidget toys to discreetly use during lessons. Because this allows them to channel their energy in a way that doesn’t disrupt the class.
Hands playing with bright pink stress ball while typing on a laptop.

Beyond the Classroom Walls: Sensory Breaks on the Move

While movement breaks within the classroom are essential, some students may benefit from venturing outside for a change of scenery. For example, here are creative ways to incorporate movement breaks beyond the four walls:

  • The “Take a Walk” Pass: Create a designated pass (a laminated card or special token) that students can use to discreetly signal they need a movement break. With teacher permission, they can take a short walk around the perimeter of the schoolyard or designated path for a quick sensory reset.
  • “Nature Calls” with a Twist: Develop a system where students needing a movement break can deliver a specific message or object (a pinecone, colorful rock) to the school counselor or designated staff member. This discreetly communicates the need for a break without drawing attention.
  • “Sensory Scavenger Hunt”: Designate a scavenger hunt list focused on sensory experiences outside the classroom. Students can search for items with different textures (rough bark, smooth stone), find objects of specific colors, or listen for different sounds (birds chirping, wind rustling leaves).
  • “Lunchtime Laps”: Encourage students who may benefit from additional movement to take a few quick laps around the playground or designated area during their lunch break. This can help them refocus and return to the classroom feeling energized.
  • “Movement Club”: Consider starting a lunchtime or after-school movement club focused on activities like yoga, dance, or light aerobics. This can provide a safe space for students to release energy and socialize with peers who share similar sensory needs.
Children playing with sensory blocks at sensory processing therapy.

Sensory Walls and Walks: DIY Solutions for the Classroom

Sensory walls and walks are engaging tools that provide students with tactile, visual, and auditory stimulation throughout the school day. In addition, these interactive elements can help students with sensory processing needs self-regulate, refocus, and improve their overall learning experience.

The Power of Sensory Exploration:

  • Sensory Walls: Imagine a designated space in the classroom adorned with a variety of textures, objects, and activities. This could include anything from bubble wrap for popping, fabric scraps for tactile exploration, mirrors for visual engagement, or even calming lights to promote focus.
  • Sensory Walks: Transform a hallway or designated area into a sensory adventure! Create a path marked with footprints or colorful tape that students can follow while engaging different senses. This could involve incorporating visual elements like pictures or numbers, adding different textures on the floor (carpet squares, yoga mats), or even including auditory components with chimes or bells strategically placed along the path.

The Beauty of a DIY Sensory-Friendly Classroom

The best part? You don’t need a hefty budget to create a sensory haven in your classroom. Here are some clever ways to get started with free or low-cost materials:

By incorporating these DIY sensory walls and walks, you can create a stimulating and inclusive learning environment that caters to the diverse needs of your students. Remember, a little creativity can go a long way in fostering a sensory-friendly classroom that empowers all students to learn and thrive.

  • Repurpose and Recycle: Give everyday objects a new life! Collect empty tissue boxes for students to decorate and fill with different textures like beans, rice, or popcorn kernels. Use fabric scraps or old clothes to create tactile squares or a calming “fidget blanket.”
  • Embrace the Power of Nature: Bring the outdoors in! Collect smooth stones, pinecones, or leaves for a nature-inspired sensory wall. Hang wind chimes or string colorful ribbons for visual and auditory stimulation.
  • Get Crafty with Paper: Get creative with construction paper, cardboard, and paint! Design a wall mural featuring different textures or create simple puzzles with varying levels of difficulty.
Sensory-friendly teacher sitting beside student helping with school work.

The Challenges of Traditional Classrooms

Research by Lindsey Lawlor (2019) shows a clear link between classroom design and student success, “Sensory Friendly Classroom Design And Instruction1

Does your classroom feel a bit…traditional? For example, bright overhead lights, rows of desks, and limited wiggle room can overwhelm students with sensory sensitivities. But creating a sensory-friendly space doesn’t require a complete overhaul! Moreover, simple changes, like incorporating dimmers for the lights, providing flexible seating options like yoga balls, and adding calming visuals or textures, can make a big difference. Let’s explore some easy tweaks to transform your classroom into a sensory haven for all learners! Importantly, sensory-friendly classrooms are a crucial step towards inclusivity, but classroom design can impact student success in many other ways.

Design with Difference in Mind: Sensory-Friendly Spaces

For example, here are some additional design elements that promote a positive learning environment:

  • Flexible Furniture: Moveable desks and chairs allow for a variety of seating arrangements. This caters to different learning styles and can be adapted for group work, individual activities, or even creating breakout spaces for focused tasks.
  • Organization and Clarity: Clear labeling, designated storage areas, and consistent routines all contribute to a sense of order. This reduces visual clutter and helps students feel comfortable and in control of their learning environment.
  • Natural Light and Biophilic Design: Studies have shown that natural light can improve focus and mood in students. Incorporating elements of biophilic design, like plants or nature-inspired visuals, can further enhance feelings of well-being and create a more calming atmosphere.
  • Technology Integration: Technology can be a powerful tool for learning, but it’s important to use it strategically. Interactive whiteboards, tablets, and educational software can cater to diverse learning styles and make lessons more engaging. However, creating a low-tech space with traditional learning materials like books and manipulatives is equally important, allowing students to unplug and focus on foundational skills.
  • Student Choice and Ownership: Involving students in classroom design choices empowers them and fosters a sense of ownership over their learning space. This could involve letting students choose artwork for the walls, helping to arrange furniture, or deciding on classroom routines.

Overall, by considering these design elements alongside sensory-friendly practices, we can create classrooms that truly support a holistic approach to learning and set all students up for success.

Teacher standing in front of students sitting at desks.

Empowering Parents and Students:

Parents are crucial partners in a child’s education. Unfortunately, parents may feel they have little say in their children’s learning experiences. Therefore, building strong relationships with parents and caregivers fosters a sense of inclusion and empowers everyone to work towards the student’s success. For instance, here are some ways to bridge the gap and create a true partnership:

  • Open Communication: Schedule regular parent-teacher conferences, but go beyond the traditional format. Consider informal coffee chats or phone calls to discuss student progress and sensory needs.
  • Welcome Feedback: Actively solicit feedback from parents! At the beginning of the year, send out a survey asking about their child’s sensory sensitivities and preferred learning styles.
  • Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Collaborate with parents to develop a sensory profile for each student with sensory needs. This can be a simple document outlining triggers, calming strategies, and preferred learning environments.
  • Share the Journey: Keep parents informed about classroom activities and sensory accommodations. Send home weekly newsletters or utilize online platforms to share photos and updates.
  • Celebrate Successes: Recognize and celebrate student progress with parents. A simple note highlighting a student’s achievement can go a long way in fostering a positive and collaborative relationship.

When Collaboration is Limited: Strategies for Moving Forward

Building strong partnerships with parents is ideal, but there will be situations where collaboration is limited. Specifically, here are some proactive steps teachers can take to ensure all students’ sensory needs are met, even when parental input is unavailable:

  • Start with Observation: Pay close attention to student behavior throughout the day. Are there certain environments or activities that seem to trigger sensory overload? Do some students fidget excessively, struggle to focus in bright light, or appear overwhelmed by noise? These observations can be a valuable starting point for identifying potential sensory sensitivities.
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL): The UDL framework encourages creating flexible learning environments that cater to diverse learning styles. Implementing UDL principles can benefit all students, including those with sensory sensitivities. For example, offering a variety of learning materials (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and providing multiple avenues for demonstrating understanding can make a big difference.
  • Connect with Colleagues: Seek support from fellow teachers and school staff, particularly those with experience in special education or working with students with sensory processing disorders. Bouncing ideas off colleagues and sharing successful strategies can be incredibly helpful.
  • Professional Development: Take advantage of professional development opportunities focused on sensory processing disorders and creating sensory-friendly classrooms. This will equip you with the knowledge and tools to effectively support students with sensory needs.
  • Community Resources: Many schools and communities have resources available to support students with sensory processing disorders. Connect with your school counselor, social worker, or local organizations to learn more about available programs and interventions.

Student Superpowers: Partnering for Sensory Success

Sensory-friendly classrooms aren’t just about creating a calming environment – they’re about empowering students to take charge of their own sensory needs. Critically, here are some ways to transform students from passive recipients of accommodations into active partners in their learning journey:

  • Self-Regulation Strategies: Work with students to identify their sensory triggers and develop coping mechanisms. This could involve creating a “calm corner” with fidget toys and noise-cancelling headphones, or teaching students simple breathing exercises and yoga poses to manage stress.
  • Sensory Input Choices: Offer students choices throughout the day to cater to their individual preferences. Allow them to select between different seating options (a bouncy ball chair versus a traditional desk chair), provide manipulatives and tactile objects for kinesthetic learners, or offer audiobooks as an alternative to reading text.
  • Student-Led Sensory Breaks: Empower students to identify when they need a sensory break. This could involve creating a visual signal, like raising a hand with a specific finger extended, or developing a system where students can take a short walk around the classroom or complete a designated calming activity.
  • Sensory Scavenger Hunts: Turn learning into a sensory adventure! Incorporate movement and exploration into lessons by having students complete scavenger hunts that engage different senses. For example, during a science lesson about plants, students could search for items with different textures (smooth leaves, rough bark), find objects of specific colors related to plant parts, or even listen for different sounds (birds chirping, wind rustling leaves).
  • Classroom Design Collaboration: Include students in the design and organization of the classroom. This could involve brainstorming ideas for calming corners, creating visual schedules together, or even allowing students to choose artwork or inspirational quotes for the walls.

In conclusion, by partnering with students and acknowledging their unique sensory needs, we can create a classroom environment where everyone feels empowered to learn and thrive.

Teacher high-fiving student in classroom wearing a backpack.

Recess: A Sensory Sanctuary, Not a Punishment

Sensory-friendly classrooms prioritize creating a supportive environment for all learners. This includes acknowledging the vital role of recess! Most importantly:

Movement and Sensory Regulation: Recess provides a crucial outlet for students to release pent-up energy and engage in movement. This is especially important for students with sensory processing needs. For instance, physical activity helps them regulate their nervous system, improving focus and concentration when they return to class.

Social and Emotional Benefits: Recess isn’t just about physical activity – it’s also a valuable opportunity for social interaction and emotional well-being. Specifically, playing with peers allows students to develop social skills, problem-solve, and manage their emotions.

Counterproductive Consequences: Withholding recess as punishment can be counterproductive. For example, a student who is feeling overwhelmed or frustrated may benefit most from the chance to move and de-stress. As a result, taking away recess can exacerbate these feelings, leading to further challenges when they return to the classroom.

Alternative Solutions: Instead of taking away recess, consider alternative approaches for addressing behavioral issues. Therefore, develop a clear classroom management plan with positive reinforcement strategies. Moreover, for students who need additional support during transitions, create a designated “calm corner” within the classroom where they can self-regulate before rejoining group activities.

Fianlly, by recognizing recess as a sensory sanctuary, not a punishment, we can create a truly inclusive learning environment that fosters the success of all students.

Several young children hanging from outdoor swing at recreation center.

Celebrating Individual Growth: Embracing Diverse Learning Paths

The traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to education simply doesn’t work for all students. Tanya White, parent and social worker and a passionate advocate for inclusive education, argues that schools need to embrace the unique learning styles and needs of each child.

She shares this quote, as Alexander Den Heijer so eloquently stated, “when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” This is the core principle of inclusive education. Furthermore, by creating a flexible and sensory-friendly environment, we can ensure all students have the opportunity to blossom and reach their full potential.

Moving Beyond “One-Size-Fits-All”: Embracing Individuality

Every child learns and develops at their own pace. Importantly, this is a key message from Tanya White, and her advocacy for inclusive education where sensory-friendly classrooms embrace this beautiful diversity.

The Power of Flexibility:

White emphasizes the importance of flexibility within the education system. For example, not every student will be ready to move on to the next grade after each year. In addition, rigid advancement policies can have negative consequences, hindering a student’s ability to develop strong learning skills and potentially impacting their mental health.

Rethinking “Retention”:

Repeating a grade level should not be viewed as a failure. Instead, it’s an opportunity for a student to solidify their foundation and ensure they’re fully prepared for the challenges ahead. Therefore, by removing the stigma surrounding retention and creating a more flexible learning environment, we can empower all students to succeed.

Collaboration is Key:

White underscores the importance of collaboration between educators, caregivers, parents, and the general public. For insance, when everyone works together to advocate for flexibility and inclusive education, we can ensure all students have access to the support and resources they need to thrive. Thus, White beleives that parents shouldn’t have to fight for their children’s success; a truly inclusive system provides appropriate accommodations as a matter of course.

Looking to Learn More?

To learn more about inclusive education and Tanya White’s work, visit her change.org page. Finally, thank you to Tanya White for sharing her insights and helping us create a more supportive learning environment for all students!

The Sensory-Friendly Classroom Journey: Collaboration, Change, and Empowerment

This blog post has explored the importance of creating sensory-friendly classrooms. In conclusion, we’ve discussed the benefits of collaboration between teachers, parents, and students, and explored practical strategies for making changes within the classroom and beyond. From creating calming corners to incorporating movement breaks and empowering students to manage their own sensory needs, these strategies can foster a more inclusive learning environment where all students feel supported and empowered to thrive.

Craving more sensory-friendly school hacks? Check out these articles for additional tips!

Want to create an even more inclusive classroom? Explore these resources on movement breaks and fidget toys!

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Source

  1. Lawlor, L. (2019). Sensory Friendly Classroom Design And Instruction. https://csusm-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/212566/LawlorLindsey_Summer2019.pdf?sequence=1
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