In this insightful blog, Rena Johnson, English Teacher and SEN Subject Leader, explores the nuances of experiencing sensory sensitivities, and how teachers and other school staff can be better aware of how these may present in pupils, and how to better support them.
‘Clair de Lune’ has earned itself the title of my most adored classical composition for longer than I can recall. Debussy has soothed me in moments of solitude and reduced me to an inconsolable wreck in periods of grief. Nevertheless, I have claimed it as an auditory form of therapy on innumerable occasions. Yet, if someone crinkles a particular brand of bottled water in front of me, I am enraged to the very depths of my core and encapsulated by excruciating auditory agony. It is as if the sound has been sponsored by Bang & Olufsen. Some may read this as a hyperbolic statement, but I exaggerate not. I present to you, misophonia: a hearing sensitivity that causes one to feel angry. Whilst some may argue that feeling a sense of rage is an irrational response, for those of us who suffer from sensory overwhelm, rationale has nothing to do with it.
It became quickly apparent that I had arrived and unpacked at my middle-aged destination when a week would not go past without me touting the good old-fashioned phrases, “In my day…” and “School days are the best days of your life…” when conversing with my many school children. The latter is a patronising assertion for many of our young people for a myriad of reasons. Having overly sensitive senses is merely but one of them. So how can we support our sensory sensitive students in the classroom?
School settings do not come with dimmer switch options, but the reality is that the glare of overly bright lights may prove problematic for some of your learners. Replacing artificial light with natural light where possible could be a welcome remedy. On dark mornings and afternoons, choosing one central light rather than having all on may very well be the difference between distraction and engagement. It is also possible that sensitivity to light may cause sleep issues. That child who falls asleep in class regularly, may have only had two hours sleep before arriving at school. Not because they have been watching television or gaming until the early hours but because they are trialling new medication to alleviate their sleeping problems. It is our job to find out the bigger picture by speaking with other professionals and their parent/carers.
Keeping displays and worksheets uncluttered may seem like a simplistic strategy but not for those who may be affected by cognitive overwhelm. An esteemed colleague of mine has adopted Lebron James’ mantra of ‘Keep the main thing, the main thing’ for KS4 assemblies. This is easily adopted when planning slides and worksheets that introduces new concepts. Cognitive overload has gained recognition in recent years because less, truly is more.
When sounds are magnified and cause distress, it can almost be impossible to convey how awful the experience is to those who struggle to understand. When playing videos for learning purposes or taking your class to see a performance, please forewarn your students who may struggle with sudden, loud or particular noises.
Secondary schools in particular can be extremely noisy places in the corridors and playgrounds having larger buildings and hundreds more children than a primary setting. There are now very discrete ear plugs on the market that can reduce the difficulty of navigating through the sensory minefield of school. A child or young person may not always cover their ears when in distress. Speak with your students to find out what their triggers are so you can prepare accordingly. Having this in mind when preparing for school trips is vital when using public transport; using the underground can be a debilitating experience for some. Using an alternative route for a small group who require it is nothing more than a reasonable adjustment.
I personally, am partial to the synthetic notes of spiced apple but many of my learners are not. Having been touted as having the best smelling classroom by many, depending on who I am teaching that day, the plug-ins remain switched off. For those who are over-sensitive to smells, particular scents are received as an intense attack which can often result in headaches. For those of us who were born in the 1900s, it was often joked about that teachers reeked of cigarettes and/or coffee. The ‘good old days’ – when smoking was permitted in the staff room…but I digress. If this is you (there is no judgement here; I too am guilty) and you float around the room conducting live marking and 1:1 support, I put it to you that we have a duty to spend a portion of our salary on mints. If the stench of nicotine and tar is offensive to our students, we need to address this. It is also worth noting to be mindful of perfumes and cologne as they too can cause sensory overwhelm.
Being overly sensitive to touch is not limited to a child or young person not wanting to high-five their peers. A daily task like handwashing is done without thought by many but imagine if the thought of plunging your hands into water was alarming, suddenly, it wouldn’t be done without thought would it? This can also be regarding certain materials. You may think that a child is being grumpy, not knowing that the inner label of their school shirt is making them feel incredibly uncomfortable. Liaising with your SENCo and support staff can prove to be invaluable as you get to know the needs of each of your learners. Their needs can and will change over time, so whilst reading pupil passports and EHCPs are fundamental to your practice, conversations with the child/young person and their network is vital too.
Many people have food intolerances or dietary requirements that are easily catered for. Again, when planning school trips, consider if the lunch provided by your setting will be acceptable for all. Having an overly sensitive palette can manifest as particular textures causing discomfort. We all have our culinary preferences but for many, dislike of a certain food does not equate to a feeling of overwhelm. Talk to your students ahead of time where necessary to ensure their needs are met. If they prefer bland foods, that is fine. If they only eat smooth textured foods, that is equally fine. Talking with them about foods that you dislike can encourage celebrating differences and inclusive environments.
Building a holistic picture of individual needs begins with an understanding of what the needs are. This can be said for all learning differences. We cannot effectively meet the needs unless we can comprehend how and why they occur. And if a child is self-conscious of any of the above, reassure them - their sensitivity is their superpower.
Rena has started a petition to make SEND training mandatory for all staff. Take a look here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/607849