Do you have a student with sensory processing disorder (SPD) in your classroom this year? The chances are pretty high you will at some point in your career — after all, as many as 1 in 6 kids in the US have sensory processing difficulties of some sort.
So what does an SPD diagnosis actually mean in relation to your students’ needs and the supports you should be providing? Our teaching team have created this guide to help you understand what sensory processing disorder is, how it’s diagnosed and how it affects a child’s educational needs. Read on to find out how you can better serve your students with SPD!
What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
In simple terms, sensory processing disorder is a neurological condition that affects how kids (and adults) receive and respond to information that comes in through the five senses.
Because of this, it can affect kids in the classroom in myriad ways. They may struggle to participate in certain classroom activities, such as group work or gym. Kids with SPD may also have difficulty concentrating and staying focused in noisy or distracting environments, which can have a cascading effect on their learning and academic performance.
What Are the Symptoms of SPD?
Diagnosis of SPD is typically going to be made by a mental health practitioner such as a psychiatrist, and that may mean specific things appear in their IEP due to their diagnosis. For example, some students with SPD may require special accommodations in the classroom —such as sensory breaks or modified assignments — to help them succeed academically.
But just what are the symptoms of SPD that you’re bound to see in the classroom? That’s complicated!
Although it was first diagnosed as sensory integration dysfunction in the 1970s, SPD is not actually in either the DSM-5 or ICD-10 — the diagnostic manuals used by clinicians in countries worldwide. That’s because there are no specific diagnostic criteria for SPD, and symptoms can vary pretty widely among kids (and again, adults!).
In general, however, here are some of the more common symptoms of sensory processing disorder. Students may have all or just a few on the list:
- Overly sensitive to certain sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, bright lights or certain textures
- Under-reactive to sensory stimuli, such as not noticing when touched or bumped
- Difficulty with motor coordination or balance
- Difficulty with social interactions and communication
- Difficulty with transitions, changes in routine, or unexpected events
Because SPD manifests in different ways, students may either seek out sensory experiences or avoid sensory experiences.
Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in the Classroom
Depending on how your student’s SPD manifests itself, you might notice myriad behaviors in the classroom or on the playground, such as (but certainly not limited to):
- Avoiding sensory experiences such as using messy activities, painting or playing in the sandbox
- Seeking out sensory experiences such as messy play, fiddling or scratching
- Showing heightened sensitivity to sound, touch or movement
- Appearing to be in their “own world” (distracted and lethargic)
- Being impulsive, easily frustrated or, on the flip side, overly compliant
- Being easily distracted by the things going on around them
- A love of movement (constant spinning, running, jumping, crashing in objects/people)
- Writing with too light or too hard a pressure
- Low muscle tone (slouch on chairs or on carpet)
- Preferring to play on their own
- Having difficulty coping with changes in routine or transitioning between task
- Fussy eating
Of course, while these are all possible signs of SPD, many items on this list can occur simply because a child didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before or is fighting a cold. It’s important not to self-diagnose our students and jump to conclusions!
Instead, if you suspect a student in your class has Sensory Processing Disorder, keep notes of your observations. Include as much information as possible regarding the behaviors you have observed, when, where and what triggered them. Your input can help pinpoint these behaviors’ context to other professionals.
When you have all your notes together, seek help and advice from your learning support team and principal, then request a meeting with the student’s parents. In this meeting, having a representative of the school’s Committee on Special Education is a good idea.
A good place to start in this meeting is to ask the parents whether they have made any similar observations at home. You’ll often find that parents are experiencing similar challenges and welcome your support. If everything is aligned and the students’ parents agree, you may want to suggest a referral to an occupational therapist.
Ways to Support Students With SPD in the Classroom
When you are thinking of ways to support kids with sensory processing disorder in your classroom, it is important to remember that each case of SPD is different and unique. In order to help students, you first need to understand how SPD manifests for them and the particular activities that trigger SPD-associated behaviors.
Here are some accommodations that can be made in the classroom to help students with SPD meet their educational goals.
Add More Movement Breaks
Incorporating active brain breaks into the school day isn’t just great for neurodivergent students. It helps kids of all ages and abilities by giving their brains some much-needed rest to reset and refocus while also allowing kids to get their wiggles out.
This goes double for kids with SPD as movement breaks can help to regulate the student’s sensory system and improve their focus and attention.
You may be familiar with the well-known trick of sending a restless student on a purpose-built errand while carrying a heavy bag or book. This is perfect for SPD students who seek out sensory experiences. Walking to another classroom to deliver a heavy folder can work wonders to regulate their behavior.
Create Flexible Work Areas
Sitting on a chair at a desk can be very challenging for some students with a sensory processing disorder. Try to have workstation choices to fit the needs of the students in your class, allowing them to stand, move around while sitting or even lie down. Clipboards are a brilliant learning tool for all students, and students with SPD will particularly benefit from the opportunity to move around while working.
Flexible seating is nothing new and has proven to be hugely popular with many students. Many students with SPD love to lie on their stomach on the floor, sit on a medicine ball or bean bag or move around on a wiggle cushion.
Provide Sensory Toys
Do you have a pile of fidget toys in your classroom? Welcome to the club!
Fidget toys are often used to provide sensory input in a less distracting way. When students are seeking things to touch and feel, they can provide just the right amount of sensory input to calm their nervous system. They can also help improve concentration and attention by allowing the brain to filter out extra-sensory information.
Check out this fun origami fidget toy your students can DIY!
Why not create a comfort bag for students, including those with sensory needs? A comfort bag encourages students to identify their own needs and to manage their own SPD-associated behaviors. So what do you put in a comfort bag? The bag may contain OT-approved fidget tools, stress balls, soft fabrics, velcro strips or anything that helps the student regulate.
Provide Noise Cancellation
A low hum in the classroom may mean kids are actively learning, but if you’re the sort of kid who gets overwhelmed by the noise, even a low hum can easily throw you off course. Having noise-canceling headphones available can help students with SPD to regulate their sensory system and manage their sensory needs.
Create a Chill-Out Zone
Your students with SPD may need a quiet place to breathe when they’re feeling over-stimulated, and a chill-out zone can do exactly that. Set up a table and a few bean bags with some mindful coloring, and download our Chill-Out Zone Poster now to remind yourself you make chilling out a priority.
Bonus: All the students in your classroom will benefit and enjoy the opportunity to reset.
Use Visual Aids
Whether it’s using pictures, diagrams or videos, visual aids can help students with SPD to understand concepts and instructions better. Visual aids can also help provide structure and routine, which can comfort students with SPD.