Sensory processing disorder (SPD) can be experienced in different ways, making it particularly challenging to manage for parents and teachers. Some children experience hypersensitivity while others have hyposensitivity. For a few, they might have both.
Types of SPD
Hypersensitive children may have extreme reactions to sensory input. For example, a loud noise could cause them to cry out in pain. A smell might be overwhelming, distracting a child and making it impossible to focus. Unexpected, or even anticipated, touches can be a problem, causing many children with sensory processing disorder to avoid cooperative play.
Hyposensitivity is almost the opposite problem. Instead of finding sensory input overwhelming, these children struggle to feel, hear, see, taste, move or judge distance. They might harm themselves in an attempt get sensory input. Hyposensitive children might appear clumsy since they can find it difficult to judge distance and control their motor skills.
Some of the symptoms of SPD can masquerade as a different disorder. Autism can cause many of the same social behaviors, as can attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but context is important for a diagnosis. In the classroom, SPD can make it difficult for students to absorb information. There is a lot going on, and even regular noises can be too much. Bright lights, school bells, intercom announcements, children talking and even the rustling of paper can all distract a child with SPD.
SPD in the Classroom
To help students with some of these issues, teachers need to understand the cause of the problem and develop strategies that work. Here are a few tips to help get started.
- Identify Possible Sensory Triggers: Every child will have unique triggers that lead to an outburst. If you can identify these triggers, you may be able to anticipate their needs and avoid a meltdown. A child that always covers their ears when the bell rings might need ear plugs during morning announcements. A child that bites themselves during tests could benefit from something else to chew on. Know what to expect from each child by paying attention to their triggers.
- Create a School Sensory Kit: Once you know likely triggers, you can start putting together some items that can help during the most stressful times of the school day. Ear defenders can help during noisy times, while weighted blankets can be useful for children who enjoy hugs as a way to experience stimulation. Work with parents to find toys and tools that can help address under- or over-stimulated children.
- Stay Calm and Relaxed: The last thing a stressed child needs is a stressed teacher. A loud voice can trigger an even worse reaction, so it is important for you, as the teacher, to be a calm and relaxed presence for the child to turn to. Don't touch a child with SPD or shout. Instead, crouch down to eye level and speak in a clear, calm tone of voice.
- Be Consistent: Before you adopt any specific method for managing SPD in the classroom, talk to parents about methods used at home. Involve other teachers and any therapists that work with the child to get a clear picture of the best strategies and implementation for that child. School can be tough for any child, but the added difficulty with SPD can turn the classroom into a fearful place.
To help kids with SPD find academic success, the key is cooperation and communication. Work with parents to develop an action plan and make sure everyone is reading the same manual.