10 Ways Teachers Can Support Students With Sensory Processing Disorder


10 Ways Teachers Can Support Students With Sensory Processing Disorder

Jennifer Wakefield knew something was different about her son when he was a toddler. Getting dressed each morning would send him into a “full-blown meltdown” because he couldn’t stand the feeling of clothes on his skin. Through trial and error, she eventually found brands he could tolerate. He was still struggling when he got to kindergarten. He was delayed in fine motor and language. He chewed holes in his shirts and pressed pencils so hard they broke or went through the paper. 

Wakefield took her son to an occupational therapist for an evaluation after not getting answers from the pediatrician. Her son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD). The occupational therapist helped the family understand SPD and interventions were put in place. Wakefield now takes time to pass the info on to her son’s teachers as school is a big challenge for most children with SPD.

We spoke to child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe to find out how sensory processing disorder often impacts students at school and what teachers can do to help students with SPD be comfortable and successful. 

What is sensory processing disorder?

“Sensory Processing Disorder occurs when the brain and nervous system have difficulty making sense of incoming sensory information,” Dr. Lapointe explains. This could be information coming from the outside world, such as sounds or smells. It could also be information coming from within the child’s own body – for example, children with SPD might have trouble interpreting their body’s hunger or pain signals. Children with SPD are typically either hyper (over) sensitive or hypo (under) sensitive when it comes to both external or internal sensory experiences. It’s also possible to be hypersensitive in some areas, but hyposensitive in others. This is sometimes referred to as sensory seeking and sensory avoiding. 

According to Dr. Lapointe, approximately 5% of the population have sensory processing disorder. It is a stand-alone diagnosis but is often experienced by children also diagnosed with autism or ADHD. “SPD is also more prevalent among children who are gifted (high IQ),” Dr. Lapointe adds. 

What symptoms might a teacher see in the classroom?

Dr. Lapoint said children with SPD are often mistaken for having cognitive delays, ADHD or behavior issues, depending on their individual symptoms. Individuals are impacted differently by sensory processing disorder, so symptoms vary and are highly specific to each individual child. However, teachers might notice:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Inattention
  • A child having low energy or seeming sedentary
  • Low muscle tone or slouching
  • Clumsiness
  • Breathing through the mouth
  • Meltdowns
  • Challenges with transitions
  • Avoiding certain tasks
  • Social exclusion
  • Prefers being alone
  • Delayed motor development
  • Chewing on items
  • Fidgeting
  • Poor handwriting
  • Not understanding where their body is in space (frequently bumping into things)
  • Difficulty with school performance

How can a teacher best support a child with sensory processing disorder?

1. Change “WILL NOT” to “CAN NOT.” 

Dr. Lapointe says there’s a common misconception that students with sensory struggles simply won’t do what’s asked of them, however, they actually can’t do it. It’s not a matter of choosing not to cooperate. Reframing your thinking takes away frustration and pressure for both teacher and student. 

2. Intervene when they are becoming sensory overloaded. 

School is often extremely overwhelming for children with SPD. They are expected to remember rules, routines, schedules, and social norms while the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of dozens of children are invading their sensitive system. Some children with SPD shut down when they are overwhelmed, while others lash out. Learn the signs and intervene to get the child to a less stimulating area, such as a quiet space in the corner of the classroom.

3. Understand it’s a spectrum disorder. 

The sound of a pencil sharpener or smell of Axe body spray can be agonizing to a sensory avoidant student. On the other hand, sensory seekers can’t control the need to seek out more input to help them regulate their system. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning it impacts individuals in a variety of ways and intensities. In fact, the same child could scream out if anything is touching their skin one day and want to wear their jacket and backpack all day the next. 

4. Be sensitive to how difficult it is. 

No one wants to feel different or misunderstood. Wakefield says it’s “important for teachers to realize it affects every aspect of their lives and learning.” Children can’t just turn sensory processing disorder off. It is nearly impossible to focus on schoolwork when one or all of your senses are hyper-focused on something going on in the environment. In addition to being physically painful for children, it is also challenging emotionally and socially.

5. Disguise breaks as “helping.” 

Ask students with SPD to help you with tasks that give them a break from the chaos of the classroom. Tasks that involve physical pressure, such as carrying something heavy or physical activity are great for helping to regulate senses. For example, ask them to carry a stack of books to the library for you. Even just sending them to the office to deliver a note gives them a breather and a nice walk without calling attention to their struggles.

6. Allow alternative seating arrangements. 

Many students have a difficult time concentrating when just sitting at a desk for long periods of time. Alternatives might include: sitting on the floor or in a beanbag chair, standing, sitting on an exercise ball, or sitting at a table or desk facing the fall. They might focus better with something weighted on their lap – even their backpack or a heavy book or with a blanket or jacket wrapped around them. Check out these 10 most popular seat types for your flexible seating classroom.

7. Don’t touch. 

Touch, even a high five or pat on the back, can be extremely uncomfortable for children with SPD. A light tap could feel like a mighty punch. Discuss personal boundaries with all students and the importance of not touching anyone without permission. Make sure to model it yourself.

8. Accommodations are necessary. 

Some common accommodations for children with SPD include allowing:

  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Weighted lap pads
  • Chewable jewelry 
  • Fidget toys 
  • Adaptations to the dress code
  • Breaks in a calm, quiet area 

9. Brainstorm as a team. 

Work together with student support staff, therapists, parents and the student to find solutions that aren’t a distraction for everyone else. Discuss ways the student can use their tools without being a distraction to the rest of the class. This might take some practice but it is worth your patience. 

10. Understand that the child isn’t misbehaving or “being bad.”  

Dr. Lapointe says, “The very best support a teacher can provide is to see and hear a child just how they are and accept them where they’re at. It’s crucial to really get that this is a child who is struggling and requires support, rather than a child who is misbehaving, not working hard enough, being lazy, or being difficult.” 

Wakefield reports her son is doing well now, a few years after his sensory processing disorder diagnosis. Occupational therapy and working with the school to find appropriate accommodations have given him a solid set of tools. Dr. Lapointe says students with SPD can do very well in school. They just need help finding ways to navigate the environment without being constantly overwhelmed. 

Also read about supporting kids with:

  • ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) HERE
  • Dyscalculia HERE
  • Selective Mutism HERE

Things you may also want to learn about:

  • 10 classroom behaviors that are actually side effects of trauma HERE
  • Things that kids who suffered from childhood trauma whish their teachers knew HERE
10 Ways Teachers Can Support Students With Sensory Processing Disorder

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She’s been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga.
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