Sensory modulation strategies for schools

The power of our senses: how to reduce, increase or modify sensory input for students' wellbeing
Sarah McLaren, Occupational Therapist
26/7/2022
2022/07/30

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We are all sensory beings! But what does that even mean and why is it important? 

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Every minute of every day, our senses are used to gather and respond to information in our environment, to keep us safe and to keep our bodies in a ‘just right’ state. This is happening at a primitive, subconscious brain level. We absorb information from our eight senses, which are quickly relayed and interpreted in our brains to provoke a response (Gourely et al., 2013). For example, when we hear a bang, the brain triggers a response to ensure our safety and we quickly gather further information from our senses to determine the cause and severity of the bang, and whether we are subsequently in danger or not (Perry, 2007). Our senses are working constantly throughout our day either regulating us, or not, determined by how safe we believe we are at any given moment (Champagne, 2011).

Our 8 senses 

  1. Smell 
  2. Hearing 
  3. Touch 
  4. Sight 
  5. Taste (oral motor) 
  6. Movement (proprioception) 
  7. Balance (vestibular) 
  8. Introception (internal body cues such as hungry, hot/cold, needing to go to toilet)

Why is this important in the classroom? 

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Our brain works from the bottom up (Bruce Perry’s 3 R’s visual). Therefore our sensory needs must be met, before we can access our higher level brain function (our cortical brain) where learning, thinking and reasoning takes place (Perry & Hambrick,2008). This zone of optimal learning and thinking occurs when students are within their ‘window of tolerance’.

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Our ‘window of tolerance’ state tells us we are safe, as well as putting us in an optimal place of focus and alertness.

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So how can we create classrooms that help students keep in their ‘window of tolerance’ state, so they can best focus, and ultimately learn and engage positively with their peers? The answer is: Sensory Modulation!

What is Sensory Modulation?

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Sensory modulation is our ability to organise the intensity and type of sensory input to allow us to achieve and maintain optimal performance (our ’window of tolerance’ state) (Miller et al., 2001; Champagne,2011). Some students might need more sensory input to get to their ‘window of tolerance.’ They could be feeling flat, low or tired. Other students might need less sensory input to be in their ‘window of tolerance.’ They could be feeling anxious or overwhelmed. 

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We are modulating our senses all the time to maintain an alert and focused state (Perry, 2007; Champagne,2011). Normally this process happens automatically, however this is not always the case, hence the need to ensure our classrooms are supporting our young people in their sensory modulation (Williamson & Ennals, 2020). 

Students to look out for: 

  • Those whose emotions are not attuned to their environment 
  • Those who are struggling to stay focused 
  • Those who are dis-engaged/not participating in classroom activities.

How can you get your classroom to help students be in their window of tolerance?

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Each student is going to be different and will need their own set of sensory modulation strategies to keep them in their window of tolerance (Perry, 2007; Williamson & Ennals, 2020). Having classrooms that give opportunity for each person's sensory needs to be met is going to give them the best chance to keep themselves regulated and in their optimal state of arousal (Biel, 2017).

Reducing sensory input

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  1. Ensure there is a low stimulus space in the classroom. This could look like a bean bag or a tent in the corner, facing away from others, having no artwork up on the wall and opportunity to put headphones or earplugs in. 
  2. Have noise-reducing headphones available. These should be readily available to students and can increase focus and concentration when needed. 
  3. Allowing a break outside. This gives someone an opportunity to have a break from the classroom environment which is typically very sensory stimulating (noise, lots of people, visual input etc.).

Increasing sensory input 

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  1. Schedule movement breaks. Encourage one every 20-30 minutes; this could be a 5-minute run around the field, a quick game of Simon Said, basic stretches or yoga, and can be something the whole class participates in. 
  2. Have a fidget box in each classroom, with a range of different textures/shapes etc. These do not need to be actively distributed, but free for students to use when required (for instance, BlueTak can be a great fidget option). 
  3. Have a mixture of seating options in the classroom. Examples of alternative chair types could include Swiss balls, wobble cushions, saddle seats, tying thera-bands around the leg chairs to kick against, working on the floor etc. This provides opportunity for varied movement, in a contained way. 
  4. Ensure predictability and routine. This is also a massive part of a student feeling safe and in their window of tolerance (Perry & Hambrick,2008). 

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If you see students swinging on the back of chairs, chewing their pencil, or not being able to sit still, they are likely trying to regulate themselves (increasing sensory input) to stay focused. Take this as a sign to facilitate a movement break or give them something to fidget with, rather than asking them to ‘stop’ what they are doing. Find an alternative to the disruptive behaviour, as often it is meeting a need for them! 

Sensory Modulation’s Powerhouse Senses 

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If you notice a student is having trouble focussing or is being disruptive, think of the three powerhouse senses as they will likely best regulate someone in the moment (Biel, 2017). 

  1. Rhythmic movement - Give them a star jump or press up challenge, run around the field, 2 minutes with the skipping rope or similar
  2. Deep pressure - Ask for their help to pack up some chairs, carry some books to the library or get them to wrap themselves tightly with a blanket/jacket etc. 
  3. Oral motor - Deep breathing, give them something to chew on, get them to suck on a frozen ice-cube or ask for their help to blow up some balloons etc. 

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As our brain works from the bottom up, a student is going to need help regulating via their senses before they are able to answer the question ‘What is wrong?’ or engage in their learning.

About the author

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Sarah McLaren is a Registered Occupational Therapist and has completed Postgraduate studies in both Mental Health and Addictions and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. She is also trained in Thera-play, trauma informed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and provides clinical supervision to other Occupational Therapists. She is a member of the Occupational Therapy New Zealand - Whakatata Ngangahau Aotearoa. She has worked in Specialist Mental Health Services and over that time has specialised in working with children, young people and their family with mental health needs.

As a strong advocate of early intervention in the school environment, Sarah happily took the opportunity of contributing to Komodo's library of learning resources with the intention of helping educators understand Sensory Modulation and how this knowledge can be used to impact students' lives.

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References:

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  • Biel, L. (2017). Students with Sensory Processing Challenges: Classroom Strategies. In Optimizing Learning Outcomes (pp. 74-94). Routledge.
  • Champagne, T. (2011). Sensory modulation and environment: Essential elements of occupation: Handbook and reference (3rd ed.). Sydney: Pearson Australia Group.
  • Gourley, L., Wind, C., Henninger, E. M., & Chinitz, S. (2013). Sensory processing difficulties, behavioral problems, and parental stress in a clinical population of young children. Journal of child and family studies, 22(7), 912-921.
  • Miller, L. J., Reisman, J., McIntosh, D., & Simon, J. (2001). An ecolog- ical model of sensory modulation. In S. Smith Roley, E. I. Blanche, & R. C. Schaaf (Eds.), Understanding the nature of sensory integra- tion with diverse populations. Skill Builders Therapy.
  • Perry, B. D. (2007). Stress, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders in children. The Child Trauma Academy, 17, 42-57.
  • Perry, B. D., & Hambrick, E. P. (2008). The neurosequential model of therapeutics. Reclaiming children and youth, 17(3), 38-43.
  • Williamson, P., & Ennals, P. (2020). Making sense of it together: Youth & families co‐create sensory modulation assessment and intervention in community mental health settings to optimise daily life. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 67(5), 458-469.