The rising tide of sensory troubles: Low-level behaviours (part 3)

Written by: Joanna Grace | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In this three-part series, inclusion specialist Joanna Grace addresses the sensory challenges that many pupils face. In her final article, she considers some of the smaller sensory behaviour challenges and offers us some classroom strategies

This is the final article in a series of three exploring the impact that differences in sensory processing abilities are having within the classroom.

In article one, we looked at the reality or otherwise of sensory needs, and in article two we looked at explosive sensory behaviours – and how not to react to them (see further information).

In this article we are going to explore low-level “niggly” sensory behaviour before ending on a high by considering the opportunities within the sensory world to boost engagement in learning, not just for those with sensory needs but for everyone.

A real headache

Have you ever struggled through a school day with a bad headache? Was your ability to get on with your colleagues impaired by the pain you felt? Did you cope less well with the everyday stresses and strains of your job? Were you more likely to snap at students? Did you very much need to get away from it all when you got home? Perhaps you held it all together until you got home before taking it all out on your nearest and dearest?

The headache will not have seemed like a very significant problem to you. You did not, for example, consider it worthy of a day off. You could power through. But it certainly had an impact and if you had to carry out your role everyday through that sort of pain, over the long term it would have a profound effect on your ability to successfully carry out your job.

In the first article in this series we discussed the reality of sensory processing difficulties within our classrooms, and although causes of these difficulties vary their reality is undeniable.

We each experience the world in a sensorially different way and while most students’ experiences match sufficiently with reality to allow them to successfully integrate themselves into the day-to-day life of a school, for some, differences in sensory processing abilities present them with very real barriers to accessing education.

In article two we looked at the big explosive behaviours that can be triggered when a person’s sensory processing does not accurately match the reality of a situation. Children that bite or throw chairs command our attention – but children who struggle with low-level difficulties in sensory processing on-going through their school career need our help just as much as those with more noticeable difficulties. These children are struggling through every day at school with the sensory equivalent of a headache.

The pop bottle child

As you seek to identify children with sensory needs in order to better support them listen out at parents’ evening or at the school gates for parents who describe dramatic behaviour changes when their children go home from school. The simplistic understanding of such a change would be that the parent does not know how to control their child and the school does. However, although there are rare cases when this is true, far more likely and far more common are the children for whom school has been an ordeal that they have endured and who when they finally reach the safe space of home let out their frustrations.

Imagine someone shaking a bottle of fizzy pop all day and then handing it to you at the end of the day. When you take the lid off whose fault is it that it sprays all over the room? All too often school is responsible for the shaking and when the parent reports the mess made at home we blame them for taking the lid off.

No-one gets into teaching to make life difficult for children. None of us want our classrooms and schools to be places to be survived, we want them to be places of safety where children thrive. Being aware of children’s sensory needs can help them to feel safe and better enable them to thrive.

Children self-regulate

A child experiencing sensory difficulties is likely to require more or less sensation to a particular sense or senses. They may respond differently to different types of sensation within a particular sense, for example different types of sound are processed in different locations in the brain, so while one type of sound might register as too loud another might be easier for the brain to process.

Children who find particular sensations too much to deal with will often do things to avoid them, like closing their eyes, or restricting their vision by pulling clothing over their face, or putting their fingers in their ears.

Children whose sensory systems need more sensation than they are getting will generally seek to find that sensation themselves by making noises or moving or fiddling with things.

In general, children with a low level of sensory disturbance are very good at trying to fix the problems for themselves, all we need to do is ensure their solutions are safe and acceptable within our classrooms.

The phenomena of fidgets spinners is a great example of how a potential solve for a problem quickly became framed as a “them and us” of teachers verses students in most schools. I do understand why, I have taught in mainstream primary and secondary schools and I know the powerful distraction that a craze like fidget spinners can reap. But just for a moment consider the hidden child within that maelstrom...

Recently I was supporting a teenage girl with autism who accesses mainstream education and is extraordinarily keen that her peers do not know that she is autistic. She struggles through the school day, every day. Like many people with autism she experiences differences with her sensory processing that make the school environment particularly hard for her. She is bothered by visual clutter and the busy poster displays in most rooms hurt her eyes.

She has difficulties with her proprioceptive sense and is embarrassed when moving through the corridors at break-times as she often appears clumsy, and when asked to be still her anxiety rockets.

Then fidget spinners arrived – she was able to spin a little device below the table and that rocketing anxiety sunk, enabling her to focus. What is more, because the spinners were “cool” she could do this without being labelled a freak by her peers. Then the spinners were banned. I know most children did not need them, but some did. A quiet vulnerable few.

Revealing greatness

Providing sensory experiences within lessons is not just a way of supporting those in need, it can be a way of revealing greatness too.

A superb example of this is Thomas Frith, winner of Channel 4’s Child Genius programme in 2015. Those of you who watched the programme will know it generally to be an exhibition of parents with chips on their shoulder taking it out on their children by hot-housing their education. However, once in a while a child turns up who really does appear to be a genius.

In one memorable moment in the 2015 series Thomas’s mother is helping him to revise for a maths exam outside. She reads him a maths question from her position on a park bench, Thomas then sprints across the grass and returns to answer the question and receive another. The interviewer asks Thomas how running helps him to do maths and Thomas explains that it does not. He says maths is not enough for his head alone, his brain needs more.

Being able to run and do maths at the same time makes Thomas a genius – I wonder what his mathematical skills would look like if he had been forced to acquire them seated at a desk.

When the senses are involved in learning, more of the brain takes part in the adventure. Adding something to touch in a lesson, something to smell, even something to taste, excites interest and also supports memory. If I ask you to remember lessons from your time in school – lessons not teachers – I am willing to bet that those of you over 20 can only remember a few and I will bet that those few are the ones that involved Bunsen burners or songs, for example. It is because they are the more sensory among the experiences you had.

Sensory circuits

In the land of internet memes, sensory circuits hold a special appeal. In well-shot videos we see children out of class bouncing on gym balls or swinging from monkey bars. The explanation is that by fulfilling sensory needs these children are better able to engage in classroom practice.

Schools may be advised to take a child out of class to have their sensory needs met a certain number of times a day. We can debate the research that shows that “x” number of minutes engaged in a sensory circuit yields “x” number of minutes of concentration in a classroom – the yield is often alarmingly small and much of the research is self-referential. However, what is not up for debate is that the need for more/less/different sensation is there.

I question a model that argues that we should put a child in a position of stress until they can no longer maintain their behaviour before taking them out to top them up with sensation so that they can go back in for another round of endurance. Surely the right thing to do is to create a classroom that does not need to be “endured”.

Little and often

Sensory needs can often seem bigger than they are simply through lack of provision. Starve a child of their need and their hunger grows great, provide for that on-going need and what you need to offer is much less. Consider different seating arrangements, consider allowing Blu-Tack on the tables to be fiddled with. Try making small changes and taking note of the differences. You might think Blu-Tack will cause a distraction but you will find that concentration increases. Experiment. There is not one right way of doing these things, every child’s needs are different. What works in one classroom will not necessarily work in another.

Sensory strategies for the classroom

Sensory curiosity starters: At the beginning of a topic or lesson offer your students a sensory item that links to their learning. For example if you are going to study Scott of the Antarctic bring in a toy ship frozen into a lump of ice.

Choose these items based on their sensory appeal, so for example a photocopy of an old manuscript while cognitively interesting holds very little sensory appeal, where as a replica of an artefact mentioned in that article will hold more appeal. You will find that these curiosity starters act as anchors in your pupils’ minds for the learning they experience in association with them.

Sensory settle jars: Settle jars are like snow globes. You can make them by squeezing a tube of glitter glue into water and sealing it inside a small drinks bottle or jar. Shake the jar and the swirling glitter particles will gentle settle. Not only do such resources offer delightful visual stimulus to pupils, they provide you with an opportunity to externalise emotional regulation which is enormously supportive of pupils who struggle with their executive functioning (as is often the case for those from chaotic backgrounds or those with neurodiverse conditions). Shake the jar when a pupil is agitated: “You’re all shook up inside.” Place it within their view: “You need to calm down.” Instantly what is in itself a very abstract instruction to calm takes on a more concrete reality.

Sensory stories: Sensory stories are like sensory mnemonics for learning. A topic or story is reduced to 10 sentences or less and each sentence is associated with a particular sensation. I advise book-ending lessons with sensory stories, they are a great way of linking learning experiences together and securing them in the mind (see my YouTube video in further information).

Pause before destroying the next sensory fad: When the next sensory fad rears up, hold back before banning it. Try a more mature approach of reasoning with pupils and acknowledging their needs and the needs of others. We can opt out of conflict and develop everyone’s understanding by working collaboratively to a commonly shared end goal of learning.

  • Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, author, trainer, and founder of The Sensory Projects. Her sensory stories Ernest and I and Voyage to Arghans are published by LDA resources and Joanna has self-published stories for sale on her own website. Visit www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk

Further information & resources

  • The rising tide of sensory troubles: An overview (part 1), Headteacher Update, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2CXmrkk
  • The rising tide of sensory troubles: Explosive behaviours (part 2), Headteacher Update, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2WQpQZ6
  • Book-ending a lesson with a sensory story, Joanna Grace, YouTube: http://bit.ly/2CRHuU2
  • Two CPD events – Develop Your Sensory Lexiconary and Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour – are taking place in 2019 at venues around the UK. For details, visit http://bit.ly/2SVsQBm


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