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Sensory processing – what is it? How can we help our students at school?

The Wernham West Centre for Learning 

Sensory Processing – what is it? How can we help our students at school?

What is sensory processing? 

Throughout the day, our brains are bombarded through the senses. For some of us, the brain has difficulty interpreting and responding to this information. “Sensory overload” is a term we use when faced with certain smells, sounds, textures, and tastes. Have you ever noticed that your child is sensitive to scratchy clothing, loud noises or certain textures of food? These sensations may cause a child to feel overwhelmed, upset and not in the right frame of mind for learning.

The two broad categories of sensory processing challenges are oversensitivity (hypersensitivity), which can lead to sensory avoidance and under sensitivity (hyposensitivity) which can cause children to be sensory seeking. 

Our eight senses!

Most of us have learned about the five senses (taste, touch, sound, sight and hearing) but we now recognize three more ‘hidden senses’: 

  • Proprioception: The proprioceptive system, in our joints and muscles, provides us with a sense of body awareness.
  • Vestibular: The vestibular system, involving parts of the inner ear and brain, helps to control balance and spatial orientation. 
  • Interoception: Receptors throughout the body alert the brain when our internal balance is off. These messages motivate us to take action in order to be more comfortable (for example, when we are thirsty, we get a drink).

With input from our Occupational Therapist, the Wernham West Centre for Learning works with teachers to accommodate the sensory needs of our students. We have found that many of the strategies recommended for a few children are actually beneficial for all. 

Environmental Strategies

  1. Visual input: Decrease visual clutter, using natural lighting and colours, create well-defined areas of the classroom as well as space for movement.
  2. Auditory input: Available noise-cancelling headphones, relaxing music or sounds, minimize background noise.
  3. Sensory spaces: Quiet area with bean bag chairs, separate workspaces for privacy, alternative seating such as wobbly chairs and Bosu balls.

Individualized Strategies

At times, we work with our Occupational Therapist to implement a ‘Sensory Diet’ to help a student achieve and maintain an optimal state for learning.

  1. Proprioceptive input: Provide opportunities for ‘heavy work’ such as carrying books or helping to put chairs up on desks at the end of the day.
  2. Vestibular input: Provide opportunities for movement such as using a wobbly chair or bouncing on Bosu ball.
  3. Pressure touch strategies: Sitting in the bean bag, giving self hugs.
  4. Opportunities to fidget: Allow doodling, provide fidget tool that is quiet and non-distracting, movement breaks and appropriate chewing item such as ‘chewelry’. 

Does your child exhibit any sensory seeking or avoiding behaviours? Are there strategies at home that you use to meet your child’s needs? Please let us know.

Polly Baxter