How do we support and guide the ‘senses’?

I’ve read a really sensible article today in the Times Educational Supplement where a teacher writes about the opacity of how teachers understand ‘sensory’ as an adjective to describe learning, teaching and needs.

‘Sensory’ could be viewed as a bit of a buzz-word at present. As written in the article I describe above, there may often be little active planning as to the outcomes related to activities which may be described as ‘sensory’. Craig Clarke writes from the perspective as Deputy Head of a special school in Oxfordshire and this in itself is very important to note. Special schools fulfill a very different purpose from their mainstream counterparts, in that they meet complex and multiple learning needs for very small numbers of students, providing much more personalised programmes of study.

Within mainstream settings, there are many young people who have sensory processing difficulties, which may or may not be linked to Autistic Spectrum Conditions, and for whom teachers’ awareness of their needs and how to support them can make or break their school experience. I will focus on the use of ‘sensory rooms’ here, as this is the area that I am most familiar with (I do need to research more!).

Some students need to have a safe space to retreat to when they become overwhelmed in school, often known as a sensory room. In such an instance, the aim of the room is clear: to provide a space where young people can decompress and recover from an overload, hopefully avoiding a full ‘meltdown’. However, there may be instances where the overlying purpose of such a space becomes conflated within a school.

Space restrictions, staffing limitations and multiple, sometimes conflicting, student needs can mean that different students may need access to a smaller, quieter space away from other learners. The reasons for different students needing access to separate spaces can be diverse and thus the function of the space can become unclear. Where learners have sensory processing difficulties linked to autism, the need can often be for quiet, darker and calming spaces whereas learners whose needs stem from needing time and space to move freely due to needs linked to ADHD. Thus there can be tension in the use of extra, smaller spaces with learners’ needs eclipsed in the push for greater inclusion’ and higher student numbers.

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