The rising tide of sensory troubles: An overview

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

In a three-part series for Headteacher Update, inclusion specialist Joanna Grace addresses the sensory challenges that many pupils face, the resulting behaviours we may see in schools, and how teachers should handle these problems

More and more children are being identified as having sensory needs, or difficulties processing sensory information. Some children express their difficulties with the sensory world through their behaviour. Others experience sensory difficulties as barriers to accessing learning.

This is the first article in a series of three. In this article I will look at how the rise in sensory needs might be affecting your classroom/school. In my second article we will examine how the senses can play a role in some of the big explosive behaviour we may encounter from time to time in our settings. In the final article, I will look at how difficulties with the sensory world can not only result in low level niggly behaviour but also put up barriers that need overcoming for learning to take place.

Sensory difficulties: real or just a fad?

Before we continue we need to establish whether sensory processing difficulties are real. After all it is true that if you browse the internet you can quickly find any number of websites offering you tick-box lists of symptoms and the opportunity to diagnose yourself or your child with sensory processing difficulties. In the targeted advertising along the sides of these sites you will find a multitude of companies offering products to address sensory needs (I won’t mention fidget spinners just yet – but you know exactly what I mean).

A physical disability

Sensory processing difficulties are massively hyped in the current education climate, but that hype alone should not discredit them. Indeed in the 2000s we saw research published that showed a physiological difference in the brains of people with sensory processing disorder (SPD). Essentially SPD is a physical disability, but one within the brain so we can’t see it, which makes it harder for those who live with it to have their needs recognised – a plight shared by those with neuro-diverse conditions such as autism or ADHD.

It is as if our senses all have volume controls that allow us to tune into and tune out particular sensory experiences. Being able to focus our senses like this is absolutely fundamental to being able to access education in a classroom environment. To learn I may need to tune in to the visual experience of my writing and out from the sounds of others writing around me.

To attend to a teacher I may need to focus on the sound of their voice and the visual experiences they are offering me, while simultaneously tuning out sounds from outside the classroom and visual experiences offered to me around that classroom.

However, in people with SPD the controls are broken – sometimes permanently set too high or too low, sometimes difficult to adjust or irregular in the way they go up and down. If your controls are broken, focusing attention is going to be extraordinarily difficult for you.

The organisation Sensory Spectacle, which works to raise awareness of and spread understanding of SPD, has an amazing installation experience called Being Ben, which you can sit in and have an experience akin to that of having an auditory processing disorder. I have witnessed several lightbulb moments from teachers in Being Ben where the penny suddenly drops: “Oh now I see why my student finds it so difficult to concentrate in class!”

So, Sensory Processing Disorder is real, but...

...do I think that all of the children in our schools/classrooms currently identified as having sensory issues actually have that physiological difference in the brain? No I do not. I cannot prove this, but I can speculate and I believe that such speculations may be borne out by research in time.

You see, each of our senses has a development that it progresses through when we are born. For those of us who are typically developing this sensory development is over in a matter of weeks. We learn how to use our senses, learn how to control them, and can then utilise them effectively, combining information from one with another, to access the world around us.

Our early sensory development fundamentally underpins our later ability to access learning. After all, every single piece of information we access comes to us through our senses. Without the ability to process sensory information effectively we cannot learn. With some early developmental experiences it is easy to see how they track onto later learning – for example early mark-making becoming writing. But with underpinning sensory experiences it is not always so easy to spot – for example rolling down a grassy bank becomes the ability to sit still in class.

Significantly different sensory childhoods

My speculation is that many children today have grown up with significantly different early developmental sensory landscapes than the ones we would have experienced in our childhoods. The enormous rise in screen time plays a role in this. I am not against gadgets, many wonderful skills are learned and relationships formed through the screen, but as we gain these things, so others are lost. Imagine the senses as a curriculum. If I were teaching you maths and I never taught you how to add up, later on in your mathematical carer I might expect you sometimes to do just fine and at other times (times when addition is required) to be wildly out. I believe this is what is going on for sensory processing for some children. It is not that they have a broken part in their brains, just that they are delayed by limitations of experience and so out of sync with where we might expect them to be.

Two of the most noticeable senses for me that I see affected in this way in schools are the sense of touch (unsurprising when you think of how limited tactile screen experiences are) and the proprioceptive sense.

Subconscious sensory systems: Proprioception

The idea that we have just five senses is rapidly going the way of the idea that the earth was made up of five elements. We have five conscious senses and a whole multitude of sub conscious senses. Both our conscious and our subconscious senses fundamentally underpin our ability to access education.

Proprioception is a subconscious sense. It informs you of where your body is in space. You need it to be functioning well in order to be able to move and co-ordinate your limbs and also in order to be able to feel safe. Someone with poor proprioception is likely to feel anxious all of the time.

Close your eyes and extend one arm and point your finger. With your eyes closed attempt to bring the tip of your finger perfectly to the tip of your nose. When you perform this act it is your proprioception that you rely upon to get it right. I often ask roomfuls of delegates to do this and you would be amazed by the variation of abilities within a room.

Sensory behaviour

You could expect to see children who struggle with processing tactile or proprioceptive information having difficulty tolerating a messy play activity, or being fussy about their eating, or wriggling on the carpet when they should be sitting still.

Of course all of the above behaviours could be due to any number of other trigger factors aside from the senses. I cannot give you a list of behaviours caused by sensory experiences any more than I can give you a list of behaviours caused by not having enough sleep or by going through tough times at home.

Behaviour is a very expressive method of communicating, and just like we might use the phrase “oh no!” to express distress verbally in response to a wide range of triggers so it is with behaviour.

The child in your classroom who punches other children could be doing it because they haven’t slept well for weeks, or they could be doing it because they’re struggling with processing visual information and the frustration has got too much for them.

In bringing to your attention sensory triggers for behaviour I am simply offering another possible cause to that list you go through when trying to do the detective work to understand what is causing a particular behaviour. Behaviour has a cause.

Our job when dealing with unwanted behaviour is to work out what that cause is. We all know that we can cross off that list of possible causes “they are just doing it for attention” or the other old classic “that’s just the way they are”. Thinking like this is nearly as dated in the field of behaviour as the belief that caning children is a good idea.

Behaviour is expressive, if you want it to stop you need to solve their need to express themselves in that way or give them an alternative form of expression. You can try punishing the expression if you want, but if that strategy worked prisons would be empty and you would not have the same child in detention week after week. Behaviour triggered by sensory experiences can be grouped broadly into two categories:

  1. Big explosive behaviours, the dramatic and seemingly irrational, head-butting, biting, throwing chairs, caused by a perceived sensory threat in the world – imagine how you would respond if you suddenly found your life under threat; it is this type of violent response that we deal with when a sensory trigger leads to explosive behaviour and often our instinctive approach/reaction makes things worse not better.
  2. Low-level niggly gripey behaviour, caused by on-going irritants in the sensory world – imagine how you would feel if you had a really itchy toe all day, it’s that level of irritant. There are simple things we can do within our settings to remove sensory irritants and barriers to learning for our students and make the curriculum accessible to all.

In the next two articles in this series, due to publish in January and March, I am going to focus on these two categories in turn and also on how we can use sensory approaches in our classrooms to not only support those in need but also to boost engagement and learning for everyone.

  • Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and is founder of The Sensory Projects. Visit www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk

Further information

Two CPD events – Develop Your Sensory Lexiconary (a course that teaches the development of seven sensory systems) and Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour – are due to take place in 2019 at venues around the UK. For details, visit http://bit.ly/2SVsQBm


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