We have all heard of fiddle toys, and children with “sensory needs,” and there is a dilute understanding amongst educators of the value of such things. Some of us provide our students with them, some of us feel the costs in terms of disruption and clutter in class outweigh the benefits. As with any tool, the utility of these items is partly dependent on the choice of item and partly on how it is used. Imagine teaching a class handwriting skills but providing them with crayons. Similarly imagine a class equipped with the very best fountain pens but taught none of the skills associated with learning to write. Neither group is going to be producing calligraphy very soon. It is the same with sensory resources, there is absolutely value to be had from having them around, but we need also to be teaching the skills associated with their use. In my coming articles, I will be examining individual sensory resources and unpicking their application in the classroom.
We will begin with a search jar, and in my next article, I will cover gak or slime.
What is a search jar?
A search jar is a transparent container typically filled with granulated material within which are hidden small objects which are revealed when the container is manipulated.
How does someone use a search jar?
Search jars vary, some may have a list of the items inside attached to them: the challenge is for the person exploring the jar to spot every item and check it off the list. Others may simply have a number displayed on them telling you how many items are within the jar, and it is the searcher’s job to find the items and remember what they are.
How to make a search jar?
- A transparent container – 500ml drinks bottles work well.
- Granular material, e.g. rice, lentils, small plastic beads, sand, glitter etc.
- A range of objects small enough to pass through the neck of your container and diverse enough to be separately identifiable. In search jars I have made I have used: coins, small plastic figurines, nuts and bolts, snippets of coloured thread, shells, brightly coloured beads, bits of old jewellery and objet d’art treasure-hunted from charity shops.
- Pop the search items into the container and cover with granules. You can do this in layers to ensure they are spread out within the jar, just don’t fill the jar with, granules first and then try to stuff them in as that just ends up in a mess.
- Secure the lid: depending on who you will be sharing the jar with, you may want to glue the lid shut, or simply ensure it is well screwed on.
- Label accordingly, either with a list of items or simply the number of items within. You can also add a short instruction along the lines of “What can you find in me?”
From the description so far, you might think you have yourself a good way to keep a child or young person occupied for a few moments between tasks. That much is true, and if you are looking for ways to keep them entertained, have them make their own search jars, and/or go for walks to hunt for natural resources to hide in them. But a search jar can has utility beyond that which is immediately apparent.
Think of the child who has just ‘blown up’ over something, this is not the child messing about and being silly, it is the one who has just done something big: they’ve hit someone, overturned a chair, stormed out. What currently happens to that child as a result of their actions? It is likely that during or immediately after the event they will hear stern words, and be relocated. Once in the new location there will be more stern words, perhaps from several people as senior members of staff are notified. Consequences to their actions will be explained to them: the loss of playtimes, phone calls to parents, after-school detentions, removal of privileges. They will be chastised for what they have done, it will be made clear to them that their actions are wrong.
Perhaps you are thinking of a particular child. Has this happened to them before? Do you think it will happen to them again? If our current strategies are good, why don’t they yield behaviour change? And if your answer is a fault within the child: that it is “just the way they are” then give yourself another attempt at the question until you come up with a better answer.
Although the strategies are good in principle, they rarely yield the desired effect, of a change in behaviour patterns. It is true the child must know the behaviour is wrong, and providing consequences for negative behaviour is educative for that child about how life works: if you do not behave as society expects you to then society will punish you for that. Do not make the mistake of thinking that punishments stop anyone from producing bad behaviour in the future. If that were true, our prisons would be empty. So why, when there is so much sense within these approaches, are they so ineffective and how could a search jar help?
A child who ‘blows up’ is a child whose physiological systems have entered a state commonly referred to as ‘fight or flight’. This is an animal instinct in all of us, regardless of ability, disability and neurodiversity, and for all of us, when we enter that state, our brain chemistry changes and the functionality of various aspects of the brain changes. Stress hormones flood the brain, making us more prone to acts of violence or escape. The body prioritises these responses over all others to ensure the survival of the organism. The effect of this prioritisation in the brain is that other systems are shut down in favour of the systems that will attack our enemies or get us out of their way.
The systems that get shut down when a child enters fight or flight mode are critical to learning. They are things like: the ability to process language; the ability to access memories and to lay down new ones; the ability to process emotions.
Consider what you would want from the child who has just ‘blown up’ and done something awful. You would want them to understand what they had done was wrong; you would want them to feel remorseful and to resolve not to do it again; you would want them to remember this learning so that their behaviour was changed in the future. Which of these things can they do with those systems shut down? None of them. A child in a state of fight or flight can no more learn than a child without legs can walk. The problem is a physical one, and increased punishments, prolonged explanations, and so on are not going to work. Even if they are out-putting language, it is unlikely that they are processing it successfully. Have you ever heard people express frustration along the lines of: “I just don’t know what to do with them, nothing works” or “you can talk to them until you’re blue in the face, it makes no difference” and “they just didn’t seem to care” (it’s very hard to care when your emotional processing centres are down).
Here is the change:
- The child ‘blows up’
- With as little language as possible, and in as mooted a way as possible, remove the child from the environment, or remove the people and items under threat from the environment and leave the child there. The child ends up on their own with a trusted adult nearby.
- Hand the child a search jar. Wait. At first it is likely the child will just hold the jar appearing stunned or shut down. After a while they may begin to turn it over and show interest in the items appearing within. When this happens, you know a little of their processing is returning.
- Wait some more, it can take several hours for those stress hormones to leave the brain and for normal functioning to return. Those hours need to be clear of added stressors otherwise the process restarts.
- Then have those conversations about behaviour change, explain what the right response could have been, what alternatives were on offer, explain the consequences they will face and how they can avoid those again in the future.
On Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour we discuss additional sensory ways you can support the behaviour of children, young people and adults. We consider environmental changes you can make, and there are even ways to make a search jar provide added sensory support. If you have children who require a lot of sensory support or who struggle particularly with the sensory world, it is worth exploring sensory support for behaviour. Remember that many neurodiverse conditions have both a sensory processing element to them and a behaviour/emotional regulation element, making it doubly hard for these children and young people to learn the behavioural skills we expect from them. Ensure you and your team are respecting physiological differences within the brain just as much as you would respect visible physical differences. Listen to behaviour, and if you want to change it, focus your attention on prevention not punishment.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.