Sensory Issues In The Classroom



I was asked to observe Marcos* in his third-grade class. His parents were facing an expulsion from school if his behaviors didn’t improve, and his teacher was overwhelmed by him. She wanted me to know that Marcos was very well loved by herself and his peers. I came into the classroom and quietly moved to the back of the room with my clipboard.

Marcos required constant redirection and engagement. Marcos defiantly refused to follow directions. In fact, even simple directions like, “Let’s stand up and stretch” prompted a collapse in his chair followed by exaggerated and agitated sounds. When he was asked to put his journal away, he refused, launching his pencil across the room and clutching his journal to his chest. When instructed to be silent, he hummed loudly and tapped his markers on his table. The teacher reminded him again to be quiet, at which point he pulled out a book from his desk and started to bang it against the desk over and over again until the teacher took the book from him. During carpet time, he hugged his knees and rocked back and forth, disturbing other children’s space and concentration. Every behavior the teacher warned me about, I saw.

However, I also saw much more. I saw a very discouraged little boy who was doing his best to succeed in a classroom that was very over-stimulating for a child with sensory issues. I saw a child that was constantly being rejected by peers. I heard from almost every child in the class during my observation, “Stop it, Marcos! Move, Marcos! Quit, Marcos!” . I saw his little face fall when he picked a snack buddy to sit with and sat so close to him that his snack buddy said, “Marcooos, move!”. I observed that every transition was hard for him, and I counted 65 transitions in two hours. With each one, he struggled. He was always initially resistant, but usually by the end of the activity, he was moving along nicely, only to be given another transition.

I saw that he asked to use the bathroom often, and he stayed gone until the teacher sent a classmate to find him. After each potty break, he experienced a small window of time when he needed no redirection. I saw that the teacher, although very nurturing, was not structured. She was so overwhelmed by him that she was very reactive with him. She was very kind and very overwhelmed. She used words and phrases to describe him like defiant, bad choices, decides, stubborn, difficult, and uncooperative.

My words to describe this same sweet little guy were discouraged, lonely, sensory- seeking, eager to please, stressed, unable to transition without support, overwhelmed, and doing the best he could with the tools he has. If we see children as having positive intentionality, then it would completely change the way we treat children.

Sensory interventions in the classroom make a huge difference for kids. Many teachers will add sensory support even without an IEP. There are many sensory tools that can be added without causing any disruption. Some examples of these are as follows:

  • Elastic bands wrapped around the legs of children’s chairs. Children can push their feet against them.
  • Seats that move: Hokkis, T-stools, exercise balls, etc.
  • Letting the child wear Chewlry: sturdy bracelets and necklaces a child can chew on.
  • Providing support during transition: “Changing activities is hard, isn’t it buddy? You can join us in a minute when you are ready.”
  • Providing an area where the child can retreat: a small pop-up tent, a bean bag, or even in a different location like the library.
  • Providing a child with extra recess time or structuring his/her recess time more.
  • Sticking different textures to the bottom of the child’s desk: felt, Velcro, and silk.
  • Providing all the children something they can hold: for example, a 6” soft ruler that all the kids can use when they sit down to make sure they have enough space between them and the child next to them. This is a great tool for standing in line as well.

If I can shift the way teachers view misbehaving children, this goes further than any list of suggestions that I can give to a teacher. A teacher naturally has more patience for a child “who can’t” rather than for a child “who won’t”.


*names and identifying information have been changed