October is Sensory Processing Awareness Month. Although it affects as many as 1 in 20 Americans, many are not familiar with this disorder. In addition to a lack of knowledge about this disorder, there are also many misconceptions. One of the most common misconceptions is that it is a form of autism; in fact, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that is sometimes diagnosed along with behavior disorders or autism, but it also is a condition that is diagnosed as a stand-alone condition.
Children with SPD sometimes exhibit behavior problems and anxiety when certain senses are overstimulated. These behaviors come on quickly and may be in reaction to a sensitivity to noise, temperature, or other environmental stimuli.
Educators are already aware that most students benefit through exposures to different learning styles. Incorporating an awareness of senses offers additional gateways to enhance student learning. Just keep in mind that some sensory activities may be too much for students with SPD and you may need to adjust their learning activities to meet their needs.
Consider adding some of these experiences into your classroom for your sensory learners, but also keep in mind to make accommodations for students with SPD:
- Touch- have samples of different types of skin coverings of animals. Let students touch a turtle shell, feel the fur of a rabbit, hold a snake’s skin, etc. Take a nature walk and feel the bark on the trees and the different textures of leaves.
- Sight – try this primary colors squishy bag experiment for students to see what happens as different colors interact. Older students will enjoy this cleaning pennies activity as a visual experience while learning about chemical interactions.
- Sound – incorporate several senses through this lesson on sound waves. Students participate in seeing, hearing, and touching sound waves through participation in a variety of lab experiences. Although the lesson is for K-5, you can easily adapt it for middle and high school students.
- Smell – this is probably the most ignored sensory activity in classrooms. Think about different ways to incorporate this into lessons. Use this Nova Teachers activity as inspiration to discover different types of fragrances and how they associate with our memories and experiences.
- Taste – conduct experiments to learn about different tastes. Can you taste something when holding your nose? What happens when you place food on different areas of the tongue? Neuroscience for Kids offers this excellent Teacher Guide for experimenting with taste. Activities range from testing food samples through drawing a diagram of the neural circuitry from the taste receptors to the brain.
- Touch – Perhaps you are familiar with touch math; this program shares strategies for students to learn math concepts through visual and tactile aids. The TouchMath website offers some free samples to use with students from Kindergarten through Pre-Algebra. Many teachers have interactive whiteboards; take advantage of the software that comes with your whiteboard to allow students to touch, drag, and drop items to learn math concepts.
- Sight – have you ever discouraged students from using their fingers to calculate math problems? This article shares evidence from brain science suggesting that it is essential for math achievement. In fact, all evidence points out that visual math learning is essential to comprehend math concepts fully and not just remember them. Learn more about how our brains learn math at the Visual Mathematics Page.
- Sound – incorporate music into math lessons. Share songs that reinforce math concepts. Ask students to sing patterns or create rhythms using clapping and tapping on the desk. Have older students use the music from a favorite song and rewrite the words to teach math concepts.
- Smell and taste- these are a little harder! Incorporate some cooking activities into your lessons. Ask students to adjust measurements to change recipes for different numbers of guests. Reward your students with some tasty treats as they discuss the changes made to the recipe. Even better, allow students to work in groups and cook using their recipes to find out how their measurements worked out (or didn’t). Be sure to discuss smells and tastes from each group.
These are just a few ideas for math and science. The point of Sensory Awareness Month is that we think about those who have this disorder as we incorporate different learning activities in our classrooms. In some cases, we need to be aware that some students will experience sensory overload which may lead to anxiety and acting out.
Some suggestions for working with students with SPD include:
- Watch closely for signs of stress. Remove students from overwhelming situations before it becomes too much.
- Introduce one activity at a time instead of sharing an entire series of events. Breaking larger processes into smaller pieces makes it easier for students to complete smaller tasks and work toward the larger goal.
- Provide a safe area for the student to get away from activities and let him know that they can go there at any time.
- Be consistent – work closely with parents and other professionals to make sure everyone is on the same page with responses to stress.
- Practice deep breathing and meditation with the student.
Considering sensory awareness and incorporating different sensory activities is a hallmark of a good educator. As October approaches and advocates share information on sensory awareness it is important to keep in mind the needs of all of our students and their unique learning styles.
What adjustments do you make to incorporate sensory activities into your lessons? Do you have tips for educators that work with students with SPD? We would love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.