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What Textbooks Don’t Tell You About Teaching Students With Sensory Processing Disorder

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Teaching is an exhausting joy. Teaching middle school special education is time-consuming, patience-demanding and overall the most satisfying job I will ever have. Teaching is not easy and teaching students with specific needs that are often looked at as more difficult is not any easier of a task.

My life is consumed of post-it notes scattered everywhere, visual schedules and social cue cards, not to mention gallons of hand sanitizer at every corner. Life and learning are messy. No, my classroom does not look like those educational catalog floor models. It is filled with tables of different shapes and sizes, comfortable chairs, bean bags, swivel seats and fidget seat bands. Rugs of different textures, tennis balls on desk chairs and tables along with a separate “quiet” work room to accommodate the needs of my students. Chairs are not pushed in and desks and tables are always full of papers, writing utensils or folders. Teaching is not a one size fits all pair of leggings you can buy online. While they might be the most comfortable pair you have ever bought and incredibly popular; it is not what is best for you or your students.

Quiet does not seem to exist in my reality. I am OK with that. A textbook will never teach you that an assembly or spirit day are too overwhelming for children/adolescents with sensory processing disorder (SPD). A former middle school student once said to me, “It is just too much. Certain noises and smells cause my head to feel like it is pounding and my heart races to the point I just have to run away. I wish it wasn’t like this, but I know that I can’t do certain things or listen to certain speakers.” This really caught me off guard, and made me think about what other noises, visuals and smells could affect my students over the past six or seven years. SPD really does affect every aspect of life, especially education.

Whether you are a first year teacher or an experienced teacher, a piece of advice. Go to your classroom on that hot, summer day right before you start to prepare (and decorate — my favorite part!) for the school year. Walk into your classroom, turn the lights on and just stop and listen. Pause for one moment in your busy day in between carrying in new furniture or containers full of bulletin board supplies. Look around and listen carefully. Is there any white noise? Are there lights or sounds that could become distracting to some? Are there certain areas of the room where there is limited light or sound? Can you hear the clock ticking? These sounds and distractions might be small to some, but for others they can be hindering and overstimulating. Perhaps this can be a factor that causes an outburst or lack of engagement. This could be a sound that means nothing to you, but yet it is all your student hears. Be mindful of all your students.

As you set up your classroom or rearrange your classroom throughout the school year, think about what works best to meet the silent needs of your students. Some students might be unaware they exhibit some of these challenges and might not know any coping strategies. Be proactive rather than reactive. Look for specific areas in your classroom to designate as quiet or engaging spaces. Don’t be afraid to make a center or area for flexible seating to provide a student with SPD or other specific needs the opportunity for tactile exploration. Some students will enjoy the feeling of various carpeted areas, suede chairs or bean bags, while others might not. Allowing them the option of flexible seating can help a child with sensory needs more than some of us will ever understand.

Other tools you can use in your classroom — a sound chart. You can develop a system with your students, no matter what age or grade, that informs them of a transition between an activity that might be noisy to one that might be quiet or vice versa. This can be as easy as having a whole-class visual chart or individual charts based on student need. This quick visual reminder and clue helps your student understand what is to come next and how they should be preparing.

When the going gets tough and sensory overload becomes evident with your students, allow them to go to a safe and quiet place to breathe. For me and my students, this place is my office work room. It doesn’t have to be vividly decorated in fact it should be relaxing and easy on the eyes. It should be a place where it is OK to take a deep breath before trying to navigate through the many challenges in a day.

While you can’t prepare for everything, the more proactive you are, the better it will be for your students. Teaching isn’t easy. It is one of those professions that can make you feel like you’re doing nothing and everything all at the same time. There are days where you feel defeated and there are days where you feel like you have changed the world. This is what makes teaching great; loving, caring and educating students that drive you to be the best you can be.

As we wind down this school year, take a moment to reflect and set a goal. How can you make your classroom or therapy room meet the sensory needs of a child or adolescent? Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. The reward is priceless.

Originally published: May 15, 2018
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