Dear Teachers - What One Teacher and SPD Parent Wants You To Know About Sensory In The Classroom

by Kim Jacobs

As a mom and teacher, I know how much work, time, effort and sweat goes into setting up a classroom every year.  You think about the setup of the classroom library and where the class will meet for a read aloud. You check to make sure every student has a place to work.  Supplies are checked and plans are made. You take pride in making sure the classroom is organized, colorful and inviting for your students.  You search the Internet for new ideas.  You refine your classroom policies and procedures and write a welcome letter to your students and parents.

Before you announce you are done, I want you to take a few minutes to think about the child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  These children are in every classroom. Some have been evaluated and have received intervention, while others have symptoms but have not yet been evaluated.  As a mother of a child with SPD, I want you to consider my words carefully.  As a teacher, you need to think about my advice for the sake of you, the child, and all of the children in the classroom.  If you are saying to yourself “what is SPD?” you are not alone.  As I was studying to be a teacher, I studied many special needs, but this was never discussed.  Little did I know, thirteen years later I would be sitting on the other side of an IEP meeting; listening and trying to process how my little girl had SPD, a speech delay, motor planning, and low muscle tone.  I sat there thinking, I am a teacher and I have never heard of this.  In the weeks that followed, I researched and read all about SPD. I could not believe how it consumed every aspect of her being.  All of the children that I had in my classroom during my career started to flash in my mind.  I started to wonder maybe that little boy was not trying to be a behavior problem or that little girl really needed to sit on the floor at that moment in time.  Maybe, the classroom was really too noisy at that moment or the music assembly was really too loud and triggered that one child into tears.  Or the explosion after recess was really not about what happened at recess, but was over something that had happened during math hours before.  I decided on this day that I would always try to consider the sensory needs of the children I encounter.  The day of her first IEP meeting was the same day my teaching style changed for the better.

On the first day of classroom setup before you move a single piece of furniture, just stand in the classroom with the door closed and listen. A blinking light or noisy light or that old drippy faucet will bother any child that has sensory symptoms.  This small but annoying sound will be all they can hear instead of you. I know you are thinking it is white noise, but these children will not be able to block it out.  If this is all the child can hear, he or she is not engaged. You are teaching, but the child is not hearing; therefore, when you go to put on the next layer of knowledge in building the academic concept the next day, the student is already a day behind.  Head for the phone and call your friend, the custodian.

Now that you have listened, you can begin to move furniture.  As you set up your room consider having many types of work areas; work areas in addition to their desk.  Try to have choices for the students that fit their needs. It can be carpet squares or a rug where the children can sit in partnerships or groups, however some students will not like the feel of the carpeted areas. Identify areas of the floor or centers where children can choose to work with clipboards if given the choice.  In the beginning of the school year, establish the sound level for each type of activity in your classroom.  I used a sound level chart as a visual reminder that was based on the colors of the traffic light. I had corresponding squares and I was able to change the sound level as we worked throughout the day.  The sensory child knew that a “noisy” activity would soon end.

As school starts, become acquainted with each of your children. Try to get to know each student as a person and not data that you receive.  On the first day of school, send home a welcome letter and encourage parents to contact you with any information that they would like to share about their child.  Over the course of the first few weeks, observe to see which kids have difficulty with strong smells or loud noises (that first fire drill of the year is always a good clue).  Try to notice where students like to work and whether they prefer to lie on their stomachs. Notice the children that “bump” into others constantly or the child that has difficulty during recess and cannot transition back into the classroom.  In the case of younger children, if you have them hold their partners hand in line and one child refuses or complains the children are squeezing their hand, take it seriously. Please, take it seriously! Holding a friend’s hand was physically painful for my child with SPD when she was younger and it caused her to engage in a fight or flight behavior.

SPD is real and is not something that should be ignored.  As teachers, you often get the best part of the day for the SPD child.  Trust me that he/she is doing everything in their little being and using every coping strategy to stay in control in your classroom… but trust me, there will be meltdowns! The child will not feel good about it, either.  The worst thing you can say is “calm down.”  If the child could be calm they would be.  At that moment, their central nervous system is on overload and they cannot possibly process one more thing in their environment.  They need a quiet place to breathe and to feel like you really care about them as a person.

As a mom and teacher, I know that the majority of educators are professionals and care deeply about all of the students in their care.  As this new school year begins I challenge you to think about the sensory needs of each child, especially those that suffer from SPD.  I know this is not an easy task, but we all know teaching is not always an easy profession. The return, such as a smile or hug, will be your best reward.

Check out STAR Institute's FREE resource for Preschool Educators.

Learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder.

Get information on helpful Home Activities.

Kim Jacobs lives in the state of New York with her husband of 21 years and currently works in an urban school district.  She has a wonderful family of three children, two girls and a boy.  Their ages are 15, 10, and 7 respectively.  She is a teacher that has worked with toddlers to fifth graders in her twenty year education career.  Over the years, she has developed a passion for advocating for children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and anxiety due to the diagnosis of her daughter. At the age of two, her daughter was diagnosed with SPD followed by a diagnosis of anxiety at the age of nine years old.