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Accommodating Student Sensory Differences

Education World is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction. 

Have a student in your class who's fidgety and disruptive? Maybe she's always daydreaming, or maybe you're constantly repeating verbal directions for him. Dr. Jane Bluestein suggests that these types of challenges may be due to a mismatch between the classroom environment and the child's sensory needs.

Dr. Bluestein offers helpful tips on differentiating instruction and adjusting instructional style to ensure the success of every learner. There are probably hundreds of ways to accommodate differences in sensory processing, ranging from different seating, a change in lighting (or protection from strong light), auditory input (music or headphones), other tactile/kinesthetic options (like velcro glued to the desk, or a bungee cord around the legs of the chair), etc.

Educators should remain sensitive to what works for the child and choose a specific intervention accordingly. They also should keep in mind that not all disruptive or distracting student behaviors have sensory causes; a complete functional analysis will help uncover the conditions that increase the likelihood of particular behaviors.

Below are just a few examples of instructional practices that vary sensory modalities, taking into account verbal, visual, auditory and kinesthetic abilities and preferences.

  • In addition to saying them verbally, put directions in writing so that children with auditory processing limitations make sure to get them.
  • Before assigning fine-motor activities, ensure that kinesthetically limited students have prior training in ways of adapting them.
  • Teach fidgety kids how to self-regulate without disturbing others (e.g., grab a kinesthetically stimulating object to help themselves focus during a seated task).

Want to delve deeper? Try printing out this handy Tips Sheet and discussing it at your next staff meeting. Teachers also can keep the tips sheet in the classroom as a reminder.

Accommodating variations in children's sensory needs and abilities doesn't have to be complicated or costly. The first step is simply being aware of differences between students, and accepting them for who--and how--they are.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is your school emotionally safe?
The art of setting boundaries
Tips for positive parent interaction

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.


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