Problem Behavior In The Classroom: Dealing With Children And Sensory Processing Disorders At School

Problem behavior in the classroom is one of the most difficult aspects of a teacher's job.

It interrupts their lesson plans, tries their patience, interferes with the other children's learning environment and leaves many teachers feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and out of control.

Children with sensory processing disorders are often the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed, misguided and frustrating of the "challenging children".

Without a deep understanding of the reasons behind the behaviors these children exhibit (which is explained more in depth throughout this site), proper intervention and control within the classroom may very well be impossible!

Two of the most common problem behaviors in the classroom teachers see are a child's lack of focus, and the inability to sit/stand for an appropriate length of time to effectively learn.

Children with a sensory processing disorder often "under register" movement. Their bodies just can't seem to get enough or get the right amount at the right time to endure tasks that require focus and concentration.

There are multiple tasks a child needs to be able to accomplish on a regular basis for optimal school performance.

The inability to perform the following tasks warrants a referral to additional professionals (such as an Occupational Therapist).

These tasks are:

1. performing self-care tasks independently

2. ability to care for personal belongings

3. ability to handle a day at school without excessive fatigue

4. ability to organize and sequence information

5. ability to "read" social and environmental cues

6. ability to perform and stay on tasks without excessive distractibility

7. ability to take in and process sensory information properly The inability to properly process sensory information will elicit very particular behaviors.

Here is a very general list (you will find more specifics, however, on a variety of other pages within this site).

The following is a "red flag" list of behaviors which may indicate a sensory processing disorder:

  • children who avoid or appear fearful of particular activities such as; messy play, movement experiences, playground equipment, certain sounds, smells, or tastes

  • children who appear clumsy, uncoordinated or do a lot of crashing and banging into or on objects, sometimes accidentally breaking toys

  • children who have difficulty with transitions, ie, stopping one activity and starting another

  • children who have difficulty with social interactions and relating to their peers

  • children who are unable to adjust to and meet challenges/difficulties that arise, i.e., asking for help and/or problem solving

  • children who have difficulty maintaining an optimal arousal level for activities, ie, energy level that is too high or too low

    These are just some of the problem behaviors in the classroom that may exhaust children and teachers both. These children WILL need some additional help on a daily basis.

    I challenge you to look at the classroom as an environment that is bombarding kids with sensory stimuli. For some children, it is too much, for some it is just not enough to successfully get through the day.

    Whether the child is experiencing sensory overload which will make concentrating and learning difficult, or they need more sensory input to help them stay on task, THERE ARE modifications, techniques, and treatment you can implement within the classroom which will help children with sensory processing disorders (and even children without!)

    Here are some classroom accommodations which may help children remain calm, focused and organized:

    Physical Accommodations

    1. Use carpet squares for each child when sitting on the floor to keep them in their own space.

    2. Adjust chairs, desks, tables so children sit with feet flat on the floor and hips bent at a 90 degree angle.

    3. If a child is easily distracted, make sure his seat is away from doorways or windows.

    4. Use alternative seating equipment; sit on therapy balls, t-stools, disco-sit, bean bag chairs, or positioning wedges

    5. Allow children to work in a variety of positions; laying flat on the floor propped on elbows, standing at a table or easel, or lying on side and using a clipboard to write on

    6. Use a soft, plush rug in play areas to help muffle noise.

    7. If possible, have a rocking chair or glider rocker inside the classroom, and/or a hammock or swing chair outside the classroom where a child can go to relax.

    8. Allow children to use sleeping bags or weighted blankets in a quiet reading corner.

    9. Use a small tent or play hut with soft pillows and/or bean bag chair for a child to go to if over aroused.

    Visual Accommodations

    1. Post a daily schedule with pictures.

    2. Tape alphabet and number strips on a child's desk for them to use as a reference or guide.

    3. Place a drawing of a clock with appropriate day/time for therapy or assistant sessions outside of the classroom.

    4. Use tape, hula hoops or carpet squares to reinforce personal boundaries in seated learning or play areas.

    5. Use visual cues such as words or pictures for organizing personal belongings, containers, or shelves

    6. Keep visual distractions to a minimum; hang art projects on the wall in the hallway, keep bulletin boards simple and uncluttered, reduce hanging pictures and decorations.

    7. Help the child stay organized and focused by;

  • using his finger or index card under the line he is working on during reading or math
  • use graph paper for visual help aligning numbers during math work
  • use minimal visual information on each page
  • cover other areas of the page not currently working on to keep the child focused

    8. Use study carrels to decrease stimuli

    9. Minimize amount of toys, games, and decorations in the environment

    10. Have enough organized storage space, containers, and shelves to put all items away (label containers)

    11. Keep chalkboard clean

    12. Use dim lighting and pastel colors. Turn off lights during quiet breaks

    13. Keep memos and informational posters away from the front of the classroom so children can focus on the teacher

    Auditory Accommodations

    1. Have earplugs or sound blocking headphones available for children who are sensitive to, or distracted by environmental noises

    2. Ask child to repeat directions back to you before they start their work to ensure they understand

    3. Establish eye contact with the child before speaking to them

    4. Teach children to ask for help and make yourself available to them if they are having difficulty

    5. Break directions down into steps and allow extra time for children to process them if needed

    6. Warn children of any loud noises before they occur (bells, fire alarms etc.)

    Organizational Accommodations

    1. Give simple, step-by-step directions. Have child verbalize steps needed to accomplish the task. Use peer or yourself to demonstrate/model task first, then ask the child to try it

    2. Use a consistent approach when teaching a child a new skill and allow time to practice and master the new skill

    3. Present directions to the child consistent with their best modality for learning (i.e., auditory, visual, or multi-sensory). Model, demonstrate and repeat as needed. Monitor the child to make sure they understand and are able to start the task

    4. Help the child plan for each task by asking questions such as, "What materials will you need?" "What will you do first?" and/or "What do you need to do when you are done?" etc.

    5. Provide a few suggestions or a peer brainstorming session if a child has difficulty formulating ideas for assignments

    6. Help children who have difficulty with transitions by using a timer or give them a verbal cue that it will be time to change activities

    7. Transitions may also go smoother if a list with pictures is on the blackboard showing the day's activities

    8. Help prepare the child for transitions with an orderly clean up and a consistent musical selection which makes it fun and signals it is time to move on to the next activity

    9. Give children a consistent and organized place to store materials when they are finished using them

    Sensory Accommodations (for consistent, appropriate arousal levels and decreasing distractibility):

    Alerting Activities For The Lethargic Child

    1. Allow the child to sip on ice water in a water bottle throughout the day

    2. Use bright lighting

    3. Have the child pat cool water on their face as needed

    4. Take frequent "gross motor" breaks during difficult tasks (i.e., jump, hop, march in place, sit ups etc.)

    5. Encourage an active recess with swinging, jumping, climbing, playing ball etc.

    6. Have the child chew strong/flavorful sugar-free gum or suck on sugar free candies (use sweet or sour gum/candy or fireballs)

    Calming Activities For An Overly Active Child

    1. Use low level lighting, no fluorescent lights!

    2. Allow the child to listen to calming music with headphones

    3. Use a soft voice and slow down your speech and movements while talking

    4. Allow the child to lay on the floor in a secluded area with weighted blankets, heavy pillows or bean bag chairs on top of them during written work or reading

    5. Push down heavily on the child's shoulders, with equal and constant pressure

    6. Avoid rushing the child

    7. Have the child be responsible for the heaviest work at clean up time; putting heavy books or objects away, moving/pushing chairs in, wiping down tables etc.

    8. Plan ahead, allow enough time between and during activities

    9. Make the child the "teacher's assistant"; carrying books to the library, allow them extra movement breaks with in-school errands (taking notes to the office or another teacher, passing out papers etc.), or giving them "heavy work" chores such as sharpening pencils, erasing and cleaning blackboards and erasers, etc.

    10. Provide opportunities for the child to jump on a mini trampoline, bounce on a therapy ball or sit on one instead of their chair to give them extra input

    11. Allow the child to have quiet fidget toys, chew toys/tubing, or squish/stress balls to squeeze while sitting and listening or during desk work

    12. Encourage twirling, spinning, rolling and swinging during physical education or recess

    13. Have child do "chair push ups" (raising their body off the chair with hands next to them on their seat) and/or tie Thera-Band around their chair and have them stretch it using their legs while doing desk work

    Behavioral Accommodations

    1. Empower and encourage the child, avoid rescuing when the child is struggling (i.e., "hang in there", "you can do this", "you're ok" and "way to go")

    2. Use positive praise and awards when the child tries his best, attempts something new, does something independently, initiates a project, asks for help, follows the rules, or accomplishes something even if the outcome is not exactly what it should be

    3. Be specific with constructive criticism; make positive statements about what the child DID accomplish then make suggestions or ways to improve clear, concise and/or elicit suggestions from the child on what is missing or how to improve next time

    4. Validate them, their efforts, choices and feelings no matter what!

    5. Establish firm, clear rules with appropriate consequences if the child breaks them. Follow through!

    6. Talk through a task/problem with the child if they are struggling

    7. Be aware of the child's signs when they are starting to lose control. Be proactive in dealing with the issues BEFORE the child has a meltdown

    8. Teach children about personal space and enforce staying within those boundaries and keeping their hands to themselves

    9. Help the child generate ideas, problem solve, make choices or think creatively

    10. Use alternative approaches (through the senses) to alert, calm, and stabilize the nervous system

    One of the most important messages I try to help teachers understand is that many problem behaviors in the classroom may actually be due to sensory processing disorders.

    This perspective and awareness leads to a variety of interventions not normally addressed by strict behavioral guidelines or treatment.

    When a child hits another child because they were bumped into, it may be a fight or flight response to being touched; a case of tactile defensiveness, not a child who has never been taught not to hit or who has parents that don't discipline at home.

    New behaviors may come out in the school environment that parents have never seen in their child. It is so easy for us to blame and slap negative labels on children or their parents when a classroom is continually disrupted by a particular child who poses a significant behavioral challenge.

    Teachers are often the first to notice the signs of sensory processing disorders, sometimes before parents notice anything at home, by the problem behavior in the classroom.

    One reason for this is that the child may have fewer coping skills at school and much less control over his sensory environment than at home. It is a very different place and no one will anticipate his needs unless they get to know him.

    I encourage teachers to take a step back and look at some of these children through a sensory lens.

    Our world is constantly bombarding us with sensory input; from sights, sounds, smell, taste, to movement, touch and input to our muscles and joints.

    If a child can not effectively process this information we will see behaviors erupt as they attempt to cope and maintain control of their bodies and maintain an optimal arousal level to focus and learn for 6 hours every day in a world of unpredictability and potential sensory overload.

    I challenge you to take notice of the particular problem behaviors you are seeing and become observant as to what incident or environmental stimuli was present at the time this child's "behavioral incident" occurred. Notice the child's reaction, notice what type of input they may be seeking or avoiding.

    If you suspect the problem behavior in the classroom may be stemming from a sensory processing disorder, talk to the Occupational Therapist at your school. They can observe and evaluate the child if necessary and give you specific tools and techniques to use with the child which will decrease some/most of these behaviors.

    If it IS a sensory processing disorder, it must be treated and accommodated for differently than a "typical" behavioral approach.

    With help, these children can learn...

  • what their own bodies need
  • learn to appropriately seek out or avoid certain sensory stimuli
  • begin to feel more in control
  • improve their self-esteem
  • disrupt the class less
  • be able to focus and learn better
  • and begin to master their environment.

    All kids need this to develop properly!

    Your classroom will be a calmer, less chaotic, more focused, and wonderful place to be! YOU will benefit as much as the child!

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