The old saying, “Everything has a place and everything in its place” is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the sensory friendly classroom. I also feel that sometimes it means the “place” is not in the classroom. One must begin to adopt a minimalist point of view, which can be challenging, especially for people used to making a room seem visually exciting for students. I do feel that a classroom can still be a special place with its own special style to help a student and teacher feel at home in their classroom, but superfluous flourishes can sometimes work against your ultimate goal.
However, at times, all of this can be difficult for teachers to understand. This is how I try to help teachers understand how a high sensory classroom (fluorescent lights, many things on the walls, things hanging from the ceiling, loud voices, many kids etc) might feel to a student with low a sensory threshold, “it is like going to your busiest shopping mall a few days before Christmas; you need to focus on finding something that just seems impossible to find while dealing with loud music, people pushing into you, and decorations drawing your attention in every direction. How do you feel at the end? This is how the sensory student feels in school.” I also remind teachers that we (school staff) also have our own ways of dealing with our own sensory overload day. When this occurs, we go home and often go to a quiet dark room. We may even take a nice warm bubble bath with candles, soft music, and maybe a glass (or our favorite beverage). When a teacher can understand their own sensory overloads, needs, and how being able to decompress from sensory input/ life it seems to help them realize how important avoiding these pitfalls are to the sensory student. Here are some pictures of some sensory friendly classrooms that I have found in my schools. This may help folks understand how a sensory friendly classroom might look and give my wonderful creative teachers some ideas.
I often like tables being used for student desks instead of individual desks. The individual desks always seem to be of slightly different heights creating the perception of a fractured landscape when they are pushed together. I do like individual desks in a U shape but this is be the only way I like them. I also like how this teacher uses the plastic storage bin to give each student a place to put their things; this cuts down on clutter. I will add a bit here about the anxious student. I have found that they do better being placed at whichever desk area is closest to the classroom exit door. Feeling trapped, especially toward the front of the room, can make their behaviors worse. So keep in mind that “preferential seating” stated on IEPs does not always mean at the front of the room.
Also note how there is little on the walls. It can be a challenge for a teacher to figure out what can come down, but I feel this is critical for supporting a student’s learning. When there is too much to take in, the brain can just shut down and not take in any of it. So only put things on the wall that are critical for learning or are specially geared toward helping visual learners.
I love when teachers allow and provide different types of seating options. I also think it is nice if the students are allowed to use different seating options during various learning times. This includes having an adult rocking chair and letting a child use it to read or listen to a class lesson while sitting in it. I also love it when teachers allow students to stand and move, in a designated area. Standing desks are another option.
The above picture is from a preschool classroom. I like this pillow option as it would be wonderful if preschoolers and kindergartners were actually encouraged to lay on their stomachs, but with their chest up by using their forearms to lift them up to read. This will help build up their back, neck, and shoulder muscles which are critical for fine motor skills.
I also feel that a unified calming color scheme is a wonderful addition to the sensory friendly classroom. I always lean toward using hues in the blue family. Blue always seems calm to me. I do feel that greens can be calming hues as well. Recently, after telling a teacher that her room was really too visually busy for her students, I came back the next school year to find that she had uncluttered and visually organized her room. Within doing that, she saw that a repeating color in her room was black and white. Therefore, she went with this color scheme for the next year. This included black and white boarders and getting her yellow classroom lockers painted black! Now that is an awesome teacher who took my suggestions and ran with them.
Along with unified calming color schemes, I also strongly recommend decreasing or getting rid of using the fluorescent lights in a classroom. In these pictures, you will see fluorescent lights are on, but this is for taking the picture. Use as much natural light as you can and add lamps to help. I find that a classroom will need two floor lamps with the 5 bulb option and 2 desk lamps.
In my district, the Occupational Therapist used to provide fluorescent light covers to teachers that had a student with a visual sensory delay on their IEP. However, last year our district safety person said this was against fire regulations (due to material and that they were on the ceiling). This year, I had an awesome teacher reuse them to cover up her classroom windows. The light can get in but the children are not distracted by what is going on outside. I decided to do the same in my therapy room. So far I love this and I am so glad I did not throw away all of those light covers!
Along with decreasing visual input, I feel that it is critical to be mindful of the amount of noise to which a sensory child is exposed. Noise can be really intense in the cafeteria and during PE. I often provide sound canceling headphones for a student to have access to during these times. You can find them on therapy product online stores, but they are also found at hunting stores. Here is one link you can order from or see what they look like.
Kid’s earmuffs hearing protection
(added this paragraph and two photos at a later date) I have just found this amazing cheap find at my local Dollar Tree, yes that means they were $1.00! Sound canceling headphones by Tool Bench. I do not know how great they would be for ear protection but to muffle a noisy classroom/ PE room/ cafeteria/ community outing they seem perfect. When I give my “Amazon bought ones” out, to students with an IEP accommodation needs for them, they seem to get lost through the years. At a dollar I can afford to lose these with no big worries! The things that excite me.
It is also important for a teacher to keep a low calm voice with a sensory child. I have found that a teacher who normally speaks in a loud voice can really overload a sensory student. I often try to pair up my auditory sensitive students with my teachers who speak in softer tones.
Along with being mindful of a teacher’s voice level, it is important to be mindful of how you are standing when talking to a student. If a sensory student is feeling sensory stressed or anxious, it is often better for a teacher to take a step back and slightly shift their stance to the side so the teacher is not facing straight forward to the child.
I also love teachers who allow hard peppermint candies or chewing gum. However, I know that this can come with problems and it seems to work better in some classrooms than in others. It does help with focus and dealing with movement energy.
I do like fidget toys. But not all fidget toys are created equal, so they must be appropriate ones and there must be guidelines for classroom use. I will leave this for another blog post.
I do feel that recess is CRITICAL for ALL children. Play is the job of a child and it helps them to develop and become stronger. It is also a good time to decompress from all the sensory input inside a school building. I do feel children should be allowed to play, not made to walk laps, as is sometimes used in behavior programs.
You may or may not be curious to see my primary school therapy room, but here it is.
This is my beloved swing made by my school district welder. He made it from scrap metal with a total cost under $20! He has also built me other swings in my school district. He is my hidden pot of gold that I was fortunate enough to discover. I hope you can be so lucky to find an awesome welder in your district!
PS- He also bolted it to the floor for safety.
This is my table work area for my students along with my student easel, light covers, and “behavior helpers”
This is an example of my stuff is organized and put in its place. I keep them near my work tasks areas.
At this school, I see many students in “self contained” classrooms. This is my behavior helper. I do not need it often. What I use the most are the 1,2,3 at the top. They are on Velcro and they stand for warnings. If a student gets to warning 3, they will not earn the reward time of free play for a few minutes in the OT room. Instead the student will just return to their room when their work is done.
This is my therapy session schedule. It is done on framing matting and moves with the child as we go to the different areas to complete tasks at this area. I found it too hard to have the specific task so I have pictures of the various areas in my room. I do not use it with all of my students, but – for those who need it – it works extremely well.
I also find that a schedule of the classroom’s day helps a child with sensory processing needs. In regular education, I have seen a smaller example of this where the schedule can just be on the student’s desk. The items are often on Velcro and can just be pulled off as the student does that area.
Even though this is not a schedule, this is an awesome concept that a regular education teacher developed at one of my schools. It allows the teacher to know which students have left her classroom and who they are with. This is an excellent safety tool for teachers. It is a magnet board at the door of the classroom. Each student’s number is on a magnet. The student finds their number and moves it to the area they are going to.
At times, these concepts can be even more challenging for the preschool and kindergarten teacher. Many preschool and kindergarten teachers seem to naturally love color and fun in the classroom and are often very creative. However, addressing the needs of the sensory child in these environments can still be done. A lot of the above pictures are from a kindergarten classroom and a 4K classroom. Here are a few more to end on a fun and happy note. (a few more notes after these pictures)
Of course there are many other suggestions and ideas, but this is a good place to start. I understand that all things can not be done in all classrooms and not everything needs to be done at once. However, I have teachers who frequently express a desire to see pictures or hear new ideas on how to make their classroom even more sensory friendly. This post is for them!
And a big thank you to the sensory classroom friendly teachers who have these types of rooms whether they officially set out to create a sensory-friendly classroom, or not! In particular, thank you Ms Strickland, Ms. Basler, Ms. Wessler, Mrs. Gaston, Ms. Burrough, Mrs. Park, and Mrs. McHenry who I used pictures from their rooms for examples. And thanks to my welder extraordinaire, Mr. Herring.