We all have sensory needs and, in the main, most adults find subtle and appropriate ways to accommodate them. This could be our favourite winter comfort food to the ways we fidget (eg, curling our hair or doodling).
But there are some people who find managing sensory needs incredibly difficult, if not impossible – and many of them will be in your classrooms.
Research suggests between one in six and one in 20 children (bit.ly/SPDFindings) have symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a condition where the brain cannot properly process information from the senses and therefore has trouble with responding appropriately.
Until about 10 years ago, it was understood that sensory processing often occurred in conjunction to other special educational needs and disabilities, such as ADHD, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, developmental delays, prematurity, Tourette’s and anxiety. Now it is recognised as a standalone condition (bit.ly/SORAbstract).
And yet SPD appears to be a “new” thing in mainstream schools. We aren’t even sure what to call it. SPD or Sensory Integration Dysfunction students in one school are called, “sensory awareness” or “sensory smart” students in another – and these are the schools that recognise it.
Why is there such confusion and lack of knowledge?
Partly it is because of the condition being defined and dealt with differently across different NHS services both regionally and nationally. Also, schools often don’t “see” the problem. This can be through a lack of training, but also many sensory kids – mine included – often work hard to restrain their needs in front of others.
Students can present a full range of hidden and expressed needs. They vary from mild to severe, with a hypo-reactive nervous system (under-reactive) or a hyper-reactive nervous system (over-reactive). In more complex cases, a child may have a mixture of the two.
An SPD diagnosis may be reached only as part of a neuro-developmental assessment by child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). To get a sense of extremities of SPD needs, here are some common examples:
- Touch – The child may complain if socks are not on correctly and seem overly sensitive to pain such as small cuts, or have difficulty judging how much strength to use, or wants to touch rather than be touched.
- Sight – Becomes easily distracted by visual stimuli or dislikes having their vision restricted.
- Hearing – Becomes upset when surrounded by a lot of noise, such as large crowds or school bells, or likes to make a loud noise.
- Smell – Seems bothered by smells that most people do not notice or explores objects by smell.
- Taste – Prefers dry, cold food, or prefers hot, sauced-based foods.
There are extra senses when it comes to SPD. They are: “vestibular” (balance), “proprioceptive” (body awareness), “thermoception” (heat and cold), “nociception” (pain) and “interoceptive” (internal body needs, such as hunger).
Each sensory child will have differing needs with different combinations of sensory inputs.
Lucy Short, a mother of a child with SPD, explains this further.
“When he’s with other children he wants to fit in and be like them, so tries to cope with his sensory feelings,” she says.
Those with SPD will also copy the actions of their peers to “fit in”. This often makes it worse for the child in the long run.
“Because he is trying to be so good all day and seem ‘normal’ like the other children”, says Lucy, “when he is home, he is exhausted and angry – and has horrendous emotional outbursts – as his sensory needs are 100 times worse.
Grace Berry, a learning mentor at Milton Park Primary School, adds that unmet sensory needs can be wrongly identified as behaviour needs by schools.
“It’s likely to occur when staff are not aware of the sensory system – and how a child who has a sensory need that is not met can have outbursts.
“This means children are labelled as ‘naughty’ if they are extroverted in their outbursts or ‘fussy’ when they are experiencing a sensory need that is not being met in a healthy way.”
Another factor that can be upsetting for parents is that schools can insinuate parents are looking for “a reason, framework or spectrum that explain their child’s personality, quirks and behaviours”, says Rebecca Huseyin, another parent of a child with SPD.
“Very few adults, myself included, truly understand anything about what’s going on in the child’s brain at the various developmental milestones,” she says.
Once a school recognises “sensory kids”, the results can be immediate. By understanding how SPD affects students, and then putting in place interventions in and around the school, the impact on the students is incredible.
One example of best practice is allowing your “sensory kids” to go into lunch first. Sensory students often struggle with meal times’ temperature, sounds and smells, so this enables them time to start eating when the environment is calmer and they can have more time to manage their food. It costs nothing, but is a huge benefit for that child – and their parents.
Here are five sensory tips to get you started from Claire Nicholls, a Sendco at an all-through school in Bristol:
- Train all staff – All teachers need to be aware of potential issues that may become barriers to learning. Try your LEA, a local SEND school or a charity such as BIBIC. Websites such as the STAR Institute (spdstar.org), the Sensory Processing Disorder Resource Center (bit.ly/SPDResource) and SensorySmarts (sensorysmarts.com) offer checklists as a starting point. The Sensory Spectacle (sensoryspectacle.co.uk) and Sensory Spectrum (thesensoryspectrum.com) also offer a wealth of CPD opportunities.
- Identify pupils – Instead of assuming it is a behaviour issue, consider if it is a sensory need instead.
- Use resources – These can include ear defenders, weighed jackets, a sensory tent or den, fiddle toys, wobble cushions or seats. Consider what will work for your learners. Try Sensory Direct – they offer good value multipacks (sensorydirect.com).
- Flexible systems – Be clear about which pupils are allowed something different and why, then communicate this to all staff, including those on supply.
- Think about environment – Overwhelming classroom displays, hot classrooms, general noise, school smells and tactile peers can all be triggers. Watch Jennifer Allison’s TED talk (bit.ly/AllisonTED) for more help. Playtimes and lunchtimes can often be very difficult times. Consider allowing children in early for lunch, alternative eating areas and review your lunchtime activities.
My hope is that the sensory world is a little more visible now – and being a sensory school is within touching distance for both your students and their families.
Nicole Ponsford is the founder of TechnoTeachers, digital leader for WomenEd and leader of @WomenEd_Tech