Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sensory Tools in the Classroom

In this picture, my son was getting ready to explore an animal skull on a field trip.  

I recently read a discussion post on a sensory processing board that I follow.  I scanned the post quickly as I scrolled through my newsfeed.  The post was written by a mom who was looking for a chew necklace for her school-aged son.  I noticed that several people had already responded to her, so I almost kept on scrolling.  It was her last sentence that made me pause and slow down to read more carefully.  She was asking advice on a necklace that wouldn’t attract any extra attention to her boy.  I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was that the mom claimed that her child had been bullied in the past for wearing these types of necklaces and she needed something that would meet his sensory needs without making him a target. 

I felt my pulse rising as I reread the mom’s heartfelt plea again.

Her boy had a need to chew, but other children bullied him because of it.

I wish the example above was a rare exception to the rule.  I wish that our sensory kiddos lived in a society where acceptance was the norm and our kids wouldn’t even get a second glance for using the tools they need, whether they be noise cancelling headsets, weighted vests, or even chew necklaces.  Sadly, these stories are all too common. 

Now I’m not here to judge the teacher or the classroom of the example above.  I’m a teacher and I know that there are always two sides to every story.  However, I have also witnessed firsthand that a classroom community can be designed with equity in mind.  I’m going to share some examples of my classroom setup here in the hopes that it will spark some ideas for the sensory kiddo (or kiddos) in your life. 

Let me start by saying that I teach in a small private school.  I have students in my classroom with and without disabilities.  It is an inclusion setting.  I teach in a co-teach setting (two teachers plus one full time resource teacher supporting two classes).  That said, I’ve taught in much the same way in the public school setting as well and I have seen many colleagues use these techniques as well.  The bottom line is- I know a classroom can be designed with all learners in mind.  These sensory tools can (and should!) be implemented in any learning environment where they are needed.  And it’s not hard to do!

Here’s what I have done in my classroom to help my students understand the purpose of sensory tools and make them not just acceptable, but actually “cool” to use.

Building a Class Community:  Fair is not equal

I work hard to build a classroom community that values social/emotional learning as much as (if not more than) academic learning.  Students learn thinking skills in my class, but they also learn to be a kind person, a listener, and a friend.  I teach these social skills explicitly, just like I would any reading or math skill.  Each morning we have a class meeting, which is our community time of the day.  So many important talks happen during these meetings and they go a long way towards building mutual respect.

At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time with the children in my class talking about how our brains all work differently.  The children discover their learning style.  Some children are visual learners, some are auditory, and some are kinesthetic.  Some learn though music and rhythm while others have strengths in the area of science and nature.  One type of intelligence isn’t better or worse than another, but understanding our unique learning style helps us to know our strengths and also our limitations. 

The children also learn about growth mindset.  The children learn that our brain is a muscle that can grow with practice.  They learn that mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process.  Without mistakes we cannot learn and so I teach the children not to fear mistakes but to ask what they can learn from them.  (Our class mantra is, “Hey, we all make mistakes!”)  The words “I can’t” aren’t part of our vocabulary (that’s fixed mindset).  Instead, we say, “I cant…yet”.

After the children have a general understanding of how their brains work, we talk about how fair is not equal, which means that some of us need certain tools to help our brain learn and to help keep our body calm.  At the beginning of the year especially I allowed all of the kids to experience these sensory tools in our classroom.  Then, as the year went on, there would be times when a kid would ask to use a T stool or the noise cancelling headphones and I would have to explain that another classmate needed it more.  No one questions this because in our class each person gets what they need, even if it’s different for each person. 

The Tools We Use

Alternative Seating
There are no desks in my classroom.  Students sit at table teams, but there are a variety of options for places to sit (or stand).

In my class we are lucky to have 6 T-stools for the children to use.  A T-Stool is a chair with one leg and a rubber stopper on the bottom.  The children get lots of authentic movement when sitting on a T-stool because they have to move slightly all the time to keep the stool balanced (and yes, many fall at first as they learn the fine art of balance).  These are a hot commodity in my classroom.  We also use milk crates with a foam seat on top for children who prefer to kneel.  My partner teacher also has high tables for children who prefer to stand.  We also have comfy couches and chairs in the reading area for independent reading time, and wiggle cushions for children who need to get their wiggles out on the carpet.  We’ve talked about getting an exercise ball or two for the class as well, but for now the seating options that we have seem to meet the needs of the children that we have.

Focus Tools
Many of the children in my classroom are easily distracted by background noises. 
We have two sets of noise cancelling headsets and they’ve been so successful that I’ve ordered 5 more pairs.  The original sets were extras that my son no longer needed after we bought him a new pair.  Typically you read about noise cancelling sets for kids on the autism spectrum, but I tried them with a boy who has focus and attention issues during independent work time.  His eyes immediately lit up when he realized that the background sounds disappeared.  That, coupled with a quiet table to himself allowed him to get his research project finished.  He was so proud of himself when he presented his work to the class because he felt the success of completing a task using the tools to help him.  His parents even bought him a pair to use at home for homework time.  Now the boy requests the headsets all the time.

Another boy had difficulty on field trips.  One the first field trip he completely panicked while waiting for the bus.  I looked away for one second and then in a heartbeat I saw him running through the parking lot back to the school.  The teachers told me this happened every time field trips last year. I recognized the signs of sensory overload and on the next field trip I had him wear the noise cancelling headsets.  They were so effective for him that he wanted to wear them the entire field trip, which we let him do.  He also wore them during the holiday play performance and he did a fantastic job on the stage.  I do explain the reasons behind using the headsets to parents and make sure that they are on board, but so far I’ve yet to encounter a parent who doesn’t want their child using a tool that is helping them to learn and be successful.

I also use fidget tools for the children who need something in their hands.  We use things like squishy balls, wikki sticks (small, pliable tools that look like waxy pipe cleaners), and pencil toppers for the kiddos who need to chew.  I also have a calm corner in my class and tools for helping kids find their calm when they become emotional overloaded and shut down.  I’ve talked to kids about “fight or flight” so they recognize when their brains are at that point.  One child in my class who is on the autism spectrum was able to articulate his intense fear of getting on the stage for the holiday show, so rather than putting him in a position where he would most likely run, we put him behind the scenes as our light and sound man.  He was proud to be part of the play in a way that worked for him. 

We have several kids who have a strong need to chew like the boy in the first example.  One child uses a pencil topper and we also use various fidget tools (wikki sticks) to help them focus and listen during lessons. 

We also have calming tools like squishy balls for when a kid gets emotionally overloaded and shuts down.  This doesn’t happen often but the tools are there for when they do.  We also practice breathing techniques as a whole class every day using the Go Noodle website (Google it- it's free!).


My students need lots of opportunities for movement.  I design my lessons so that the children rarely stay in one place for longer than 30 minutes.  We build in brain breaks though the day (love that Go Noodle!) but if a child needs more movement than this (which a couple of ours do), we let them take it.  The difference is that we teach the child to recognize that this is a tool to help them learn rather than avoiding their work.  Rather than penalizing kids by making them push themselves to a breaking point, we teach kids to recognize when their bodies are getting restless and then we teach them to use a strategy to address it.  

Teaching Self-Advocacy

The bottom line is that each child has specific needs, and I work hard to teach the child how to use tools to help meet those needs.  I do my best to set my classroom up to help each child experience success.  I expect my students to work hard and I hold them accountable to their learning.  However, I also design the learning environment to help provide the tools for success.

It’s not hard to implement these strategies, but it takes a change in the adult’s mindset about student behavior.  It takes believing that a child is doing the best he or she can in any given situation.  It takes a desire to understand the root cause of behavior and rather than doling out blanket consequences.  It takes recognizing that a child is having a hard time, not trying to give the big people a hard time.
It also takes stepping outside a grown up’s comfort zone and recognizing that not every child learns the way that we do.  It also takes a touch of humility as we give up some authority and control so that our children’s voices can be heard.

My advice to parents is to schedule tours prior to enrolling your child in a school.  Look for these elements in the classroom or ask if the school is willing to allow these tools to be put in place.  Ask what sorts of training and professional development have been made available to the teachers in the areas of differentiated instruction and specifically understanding sensory needs.  And finally, keep the dialogue going with your child's teacher.  It's easy to get frustrated when things aren't going well but those parents who stay involved and offer ideas and possible solutions are more likely to get results.  Be assertive but not aggressive.  Advocate for your child but teach your child to be an advocate as well.  I love partnering with involved parents who show a deep interest in their child's learning.  We usually get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time by working together.

My wish is that each child would find a learning environment that meets his or her unique needs.   Honestly, own son has been my best teacher.  I’ve learned over the years through trial and error what works for him and which tools help him to be successful.  By using these tools with the students in my classroom, everyone succeeds.  

Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!


  1. I think this is my favorite post you've ever written. I intend to share it as much as possible with the teachers I know as it is incredibly wise, thorough, and FAIR.
    Thanks and love,
    Full Spectrum Mama

    1. Thank you for sharing. I know I don't have all the answers for what works best for kids, but I do know that kids always deserve the best chance we can give them. Hopefully this post will help open the dialogue for others to the realm of possibilities for meeting the needs of all children- in whatever ways they need.


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