Vera: So, Teri, there are a lot of misconceptions about sensory processing disorder. What is it that we really want teachers to know? And what do we want them to look for in the classroom?
Teri: Right. Well, I think first recognize saying that sensory processing disorder is not something that’s just solely identified with autism or with ADHD. I think that one of the big misconceptions is that a child that’s going to eventually have a diagnosis is someone who would be exhibiting these symptoms in your room.
But what we really see is, I think, realistically, almost all kids have some sort of a little sensory issue here or there, right? So, it’s really important just to keep that mindset that the children are not misbehaving because they’re necessarily defiant, they’re bad, they’re super aggressive. It’s that they have different things going on in their body and they need different ways to express that. So just thinking, how can we best meet their needs? And setting ourselves up as teachers to really think differently about these kids and just question that “why” of their behavior.
Vera: Going on along with the why — what do we know about what’s actually happening in the brain or in the mind of a child who’s exhibiting a sensory processing disorder?
Teri: That’s actually really cool stuff. So, sensory processing disorder, believe it or not, is not in the DSM, which is what therapists psychologists use to diagnose a child. There’s not an actual diagnosis yet. Maybe one day there will be, but there’s some really neat cutting-edge research coming out, showing that now we know that there’s truly structural differences in their brains.
So previously, the thought was maybe there’s some parenting things going on. Maybe there’s not enough discipline in the home. The kids are allowed to get away with a little too much at home. But there’s research showing brain imaging studies that look at the backs of these children’s brains. Looking at that white matter, we know there’s differences in the tracks in the white matter.
The white matter is what connects or what children use to process their perceiving, their thinking, their reasoning and those tracks. And the white matter is actually reaching down into the areas of the brain that deal with auditory processing, visual processing, tactile stimulation, and there’s differences in the effectiveness of that connectivity. So there’s truly differences in how their brains are wired. And so these children are behaving in these different ways because their brains are processing all the things going on in the classroom differently.
Vera: What we know is that we have students in our classrooms who are exhibiting the need for extreme stimulation. And then you also have the other end of the spectrum where you have students who require very little. And I think it’s very important that educators set up their classroom to provide the support that each of these unique students need.
What works for one isn’t going to work for others. I think we really need to remember that we need to be kind and patient to ourselves and know that with time we’re gonna find all of these really great strategies to work with those students. Starting with, I would say, keeping some areas of your classroom very calming — that’s definitely very important. I like to tell the teachers that I work with that you need to set up some cozy corners, right?
Teri: Something that includes a very soft rug, some throw pillows, some blankets, some dim lighting, child-size furniture, a place where a child can go to just calm down if they’re over stimulated and need that break, if they need to go somewhere to just reset, they need to be able to have those options in the classroom. And then I do think with that, you wanna have a healthy balance of very active play centers for those children who really need that hands-on or very multi-sensory level of engagement when they’re playing and learning. So you want to be able to provide a very nice healthy balance of that in the classroom.
Vera: Right. And what I’ve seen some teachers do that works is, in that cozy corner, have some sensory objects, some of the tubes they can turn upside down, the little fidget toys, but also for the child who’s in a really special state, have something that you keep in the closet. That’s a special sensory box that you bring out in the time of crisis when they’re needing a little, a little extra — you know, if they’ve got bored with one that’s provided there every day. So you bring out an extra one that has some new novel things for them and novel toys.
Teri: I think that’s one of the best ways to be able to make the modification for a child meet his or her needs without going off course and losing sight of what your schedule and what the rest of the class needs as well. We have to be able to make these very slight variations to the day, and doing something like that is fantastic. I know that in my experience, too, you know, there was always that one particular child that needed a break from the rest of the class.
And if a certain toy did the trick, that was great. But then there were days where that child needed an escape, that child needed to go outside and get a little bit of fresh air, that child needed to go sit by the window or put the headphones on and listen to some soothing music. You really need to have a toolbox, filled with lots of different ideas that are ready to go whenever the behavior starts to exhibit itself. Right?
Vera: Well, and planning ahead. So just like we do lesson plans, not necessarily planning, you know, formally writing anything down, but just knowing in your head which children are going to need less, which are gonna need more, and then plan ahead to have something ready in your back pocket. So when these situations happen, you’re looking at the one that, you know, oh, things are getting a little chaotic in the room right now. You could try to catch up before it happens, pull them aside, give them a little sensory break, and then you can reintroduce them to what’s going on.
Teri: Yeah. And what you said is exactly what it takes: time. I think that that response, that caring, empathetic response to a child and knowing that you’re gonna have to provide something for them. That’s the ideal goal. I think often we react, and we react with anger because that one child, as you know, can derail your entire day. Absolutely.
Vera: We’ve all been there.
Teri: Right? We have all been there and it’s just really important that the focus always front and center is your relationship with that child. And even on his worst days, you have to let him know that together, you’re gonna work out a way for him to be successful. You’re gonna work through a lot of these interruptions. It’s natural. It’s not the child’s fault that they’re feeling this way. Especially if they’re diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder. The feelings going on in their body, that’s normal. It’s the way they respond. It’s the way that they behave because the feelings inside are what’s really important. And so if we help them choose the right ways in the classroom to deal with what’s going on in their bodies and in their mind, we’re doing the best job we can as educators. That relationship is the most important thing.
Put Your Relationships First
Children who exhibit sensory processing issues can cause a lot of frustration and overwhelm in the classroom. And while yes, it can be a lot, especially when you have other children in the classroom to think of and tend to, it’s important to remember that it isn’t their fault. They didn’t ask to have this response. You also didn’t ask to have students like this in your classroom. However, it’s your job to give them a safe place to calm themselves, so they can get back on track and succeed in the classroom. By focusing on that relationship — on helping them and doing everything you can to support them — you will see better results than when you let anger and frustration take over.
As a teacher, you have the power to truly help your students, no matter what they are experiencing. Take advantage of it! You can not only change these students’ experiences in the classroom and with education, but maybe even the trajectory of their lives by showing them a little extra compassion and grace. And that is so powerful and important to remember.
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