Early Childhood Education / Early Years

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Sensory Processing Disorder: Sharon Salmon

We all have different sensory needs which help us to relax, interact with our surroundings or focus successfully. Some people need music to help them concentrate, others concentrate best in total silence. Doodling helps some of us focus while others like to chew on something (their nails, ends of pencils or gum). What helps you to relax? Do you exercise or lay in a bath? What comforts you? A hug, solitude, music? We tend not to pay much attention to our sensory needs because we are usually able to meet those needs without even thinking about it. However, some people have a sensory processing disorder where the information gathered through their senses is not interpreted properly and they find functioning in a sensory world quite challenging. The young people in our classes who have a sensory processing disorder often present as being ‘out-of-sync’ and it can be difficult to identify what we can do to support them to access learning effectively.

Sensory Processing Disorder is thought to affect between 5% and 20% of children. They often present with behaviour which is not exactly what you would expect - they may be oversensitive to one kind of stimulation or under sensitive to another kind.

We receive information about our surroundings from our senses. We use this information to organize our behaviour and interact in the world. Our senses include sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.  There are also other sensations that are just as important to us. Our nervous systems detect changes in movement and gravity; these sensory systems include our vestibular sense which is about balance and movement and proprioception which is about muscle and joint sense. Our brains organize the information we gather through our senses so that we can function in everyday situations. If one or more of a child’s senses are not being interpreted properly then the child has vague or hazy feedback about these senses. A child with sensory processing disorder experiences a world which is not reliable and safe and therefore does not enjoy it as much as other children.

Sensory Differences

Visual – sight

Olfactory – smell

Gustatory –taste

Vestibular – balance

Auditory –hearing

Tactile – touch

Proprioception – body awareness

Sensory Problem                        

Signs or behaviour

Overly sensitive to touch, movements, sights or sounds                                               

Behaviour issues, distractible.

Fearful reaction to ordinary                                                                   movement activities.

Under-reactive to sensory stimulation

Needs intense sensory experiences such as spinning, falling, crashing into things.

Unusually high/low activity level

Constantly on the move or may be slow to get going then tires easily.

Coordination problems

Could have poor balance; have difficulty learning a new task that needs motor coordination; may appear clumsy.

Delays academic achievement or activities of daily living

May have difficulties in academic areas despite normal or above cognitive ability. Could have problems with handwriting, using scissors, tying laces etc.

Poor organisation of behaviour

May be impulsive or distractible, shows lack of planning.

Poor self-concept

May appear lazy, bored, stubborn.

What can we do to support pupils in our class with Sensory Processing Disorder?

Simply being aware that the child may have this disorder and is not choosing to be difficult is a good start and may help us to understand their difficulties.

A referral to an Occupational Therapist with training in sensory integration would provide therapeutic activities to support the child to develop neural organisation and inner direction.

However, if the child’s needs are less extreme this is usually not deemed necessary. Completing a specific checklist about the child’s behaviour and responses to different stimuli would provide insight into their difficulties and suggestions on how best to meet their needs. Useful checklists can be found in,

‘Answers to Questions Teachers ask about Sensory Integration’ by Jane Koomar, Carol Kranowitz and Stacey Szklut. ISBN 9781932565461

Using Sensory Input to Improve Communication and Behaviour

Dr Albert Mehrabian, in his book ‘Silent Messages’ states that actual words account for 7% of verbal communication. (55% is body language, 38% tone of voice.) However, the spoken word is still often confused with communication. We are familiar with hearing impaired children and adults using sign language to communicate and visually impaired people using Braille to read. Many of us experience clear memories when we smell a certain aroma; freshly cut grass or freshly baked bread. Using all of our senses to communicate with children can be highly effective. When a child understands what is about to happen or is able to communicate their needs effectively they exhibit far less challenging behaviour. Behaviour is a form of communicating, if we are able to support children to communicate in other ways then we see fewer episodes of challenging behaviour.

It is our role to interpret the communicative function of challenging behaviour and provide an appropriate and alternative means of achieving the communicative function. The difficult behaviour is not the problem, it is the solution to a problem for the child. The issue is not preventing the behaviour from happening, but in finding a better solution for the child.

There are many aspects of supporting children to better manage their behaviour.  They need to be in a comfortable physical state – not hungry, too hot, thirsty, tired, in pain etc. They need to feel emotionally safe with some level on control (given choices) and they need to understand expectations. Their physical environment needs to be supportive, this can include:

  • Physical structure – careful organisation of learning environment so it is comfortable for the child

  • Daily schedules – use of objects, photos, symbols

  • Work systems – signals for start, expectations, finish

  • Reducing verbal input – give processing time

  • Routines – work then play; this place for snack

  • Multi-sensory support – use of visual, auditory, sensory cues

Multi-Sensory Support

Aromas – using smells to prepare children for activities. Different smells can be used to signify different days. Children smell different smells on arrival at school for each day of the week. This helps children learn that there is a routine to the days of the week. The five different smells are repeated in the same order; a smell may prompt a child to know what activities are expected on that day. Or smells can be used to identify the next activity e.g. a specific smell before playtime of lunchtime.

Sounds – music can be used to identify the next activity during the day.  A piece of music which signifies the end of an activity can be used to provide a given length of time to tidy up and be ready for the next session. Similarly, the ‘ting’ of a triangle can be used to get the attention of the class.

Touch – touch cues can be used to communicate what is about to happen to a child who does not understand verbal instructions. A series of actions can be used for the child to know that the adult is about to leave; or a loud noise is about to happen; or an activity is about to end.

Visual – objects, photos or symbols can be used to communicate what is about to happen. A piece of towel/ photo of swimming pool/ symbol of swimming pool can be shown to the child to communicate that they are about to go swimming. A range of objects, photos and symbols can be used depending on the child’s level of understanding to create a timetable using objects etc. The use of coloured table cloths can be used to signify the change of use of a table – different colours for ‘work’, ‘play’ ‘snack’. Objects, photos or symbols can be used to give children choices. A ‘choice board’ can have photos of activities for a child to choose between or options for lunch.

Improving communication with children gives them a means of understanding their environment, expressing themselves and a way of developing their self-esteem and independence. Even children who can understand verbal communication can find a multi-sensory approach supportive when they are stressed or anxious.