Everyone experiences things differently and some people experience noise, smells, lights, tastes and the feel of things in a very heightened way. In your setting, you may have a child that keeps on removing a certain item of clothing. You may have a child that really doesn’t like loud noises and often seeks the quieter corner of your setting. You may have a child that doesn’t like the glare of bright lights. It could be that these children are experiencing their senses in a much stronger way than their peers.
Children that are oversensitive to sensory experiences often hear noises louder than others, they smell things in a stronger way than you or I, plus they have been known to find that certain materials hurt their skin. For some children, a trip to somewhere such as a supermarket is quite stressful for them because of the bright lighting, the different noises and all the different activity. The hum of a radiator or fridge may be unnoticeable to one person but really distressing to another. A child that has sensory needs may appear to be misbehaving or ‘playing up’ during a certain activity, when in fact they are struggling to cope due to sensory overload.
This child may also be the child that loves other sensory experiences. They may love putting their hands in gloop or shaving foam, they may spend ages running their hands under the tap, enjoying the feel of the water pressure running over their fingers. Activities such as these are often very calming for children so it’s a great trick to have up your sleeve if they ever become really upset. When my own daughter was little, I used to stand her on a stool at the bathroom tap if she became really worked up – she quickly calmed and became completely absorbed in her water play.
So how can you help the child with sensory-processing needs?
"Not only may sensory toys and messy play calm and engage a child but it is also a great way to extend their learning"
The one single thing that you can do that makes the most amount of difference is to be aware. Keep an eye out for that child and just know that the reason they may be opting out of a certain activity is because they simply can’t cope with it. Your understanding will go a long way towards building a bond with that child, and their carers.
Next, make other staff aware. You often find certain members of staff will insist the child comes and joins back in with the noisy experience. Educate them and help them understand why that child needs to be somewhere quiet.
Provide alternatives – have another activity for the children that can’t cope. We all enjoy different things – don’t expect ALL children to enjoy the same activity, no matter how exciting it seems. Try to create a quiet/calm zone or room that is free from over-stimulation.
Provide a variety of sensory experiences – this may seem a bit strange when I’ve just talked about some children needing to remove themselves from such an activity. But just because they struggle with one type of sensory experience, they may really gain from another. Certain experiences can help children learn about different feelings (smells, sounds, taste, sights etc.) and can be really helpful in calming a child.
Use sensory play as a route to learning - not only may sensory toys and messy play calm and engage a child but it is also a great way to extend their learning. Children learn best when they are learning through their senses. Use this time to bring in new language – what does the slime feel like? Is it cold? Soft? Slippery? Also, if you want them to practise a particular area of learning, bring this into the sensory play. Put numbers in the water tray, put shapes in the gloop, encourage mark-making in the shaving foam. The other day I visited a pre-school that was encouraging children to scoop and pour tea leaves! The smell was amazing (to most!) and the children loved the feel of the tea and watching it pour.
Since all children are so different, there is no one answer to supporting all children with sensory needs, other than to build awareness and understanding. Remind colleagues that just because a certain experience doesn’t bother them, it could really bother others. Once this understanding is in place you will go a long way towards supporting children with sensory needs in your setting.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.