Create Positive Environments
Do what you can to create school environments (classroom, cafeteria, hallways, etc.) that help all students feel good emotionally (calm, safe) and physically (comfortable) and function successfully. So 'tune into' all of the social, physical and sensory aspects of the spaces students spend time in.
Remember that students have varying preferences and needs depending on their unique developmental and neurological makeup. Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example, may be highly sensitive to loud noises or light touch resulting in feeling anxious or 'on edge'. It's important to consider the individual learning needs of ALL students. Embrace Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in order to give all students equal opportunities to learn and participate. UDL emphasizes the importance of creating instructional goals, methods, and materials that can be customized for individual needs. See www.udlcenter.org to learn more.
Social – Create inclusive, learning-friendly environments that promote respect for differences (skill-level, cultural, religious, ethnic) and foster family engagement. Refer to Embracing Diversity: Toolkit for Creative Inclusive, Learning-Friendly Environments (UNESCO, 2004).1
Physical – Tune into the physical environment. Are spaces clean and free of clutter? Does it look like a place you would like to spend time in? Make spaces appealing for students! Consider how the classroom or cafeteria layout of tables, desks and chairs influences interaction. Check out, 8 Tips and Tricks to Redesign Your Classroom (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-tips-and-tricks-redesign-your-classroom) and Classroom Layout and Design on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/luv2teach/classroom-layout-and-design/
Sensory – We are all unique sensory beings and respond to what we feel, see, hear, touch and how we move in our own ways. It is important to teach all students and adults to respect each other's sensory needs (e.g. less noise, more movement, less eye contact). Consult with the school's occupational therapist to learn more about sensory processing. Think about the effects of sensory input, for example:
- Visual input: Lighting – florescent lighting does not create the best visual environment for humans! Try turning off a bank of lights in the classroom, bringing an incandescent lamp in to the room you work in, or draping thin solid color (blue or green) fabric from the ceiling panels. These fluorescent light filters are available commercially (see Therapy Schoppe® at http://www.therapyshoppe.com/category/P2284-fluorescent-light-covers-filters) Think about the effect of color on attention and mood. Blue and green are generally calming; red, orange and yellow are alerting.
- Sound: Some students work best with background noise while others prefer quiet. Have noise reducing headphones or earplugs available and help prepare students ahead of time before entering a noisy environment. Refer to 'Classroom noise management' on Pinterest for ideas on how to regulate sound.
- Movement: Students differ in how much movement they need in order to feel alert and attentive. Overall, it's important to allow changes in body position during quiet work (e.g. standing at desk, carpet squares in hallway, bean bag corners, chair balls, or fidget cushions). Remember that even short movement breaks lead to better attending and learning (see #5 MOVE and be active). Also, visit Fun and Function 'Move and work' tab for wiggle cushions and other seating suggestions at https://funandfunction.com/move-and-work.html
- Touch input: Students vary in the amount of touch they need or want. Some may avoid touch. However, many learn best when they can have their hands on instructional materials. Make sure to use offer students a variety of learning materials for hands-on learning. Check out 'Hands on Learning' on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=hands%20on%20learning&term_meta%5B%5D=hands%7Cautocomplete%7C1&term_meta%5B%5D=on%7Cautocomplete%7C1&term_meta%5B%5D=learning%7Cautocomplete%7C1&remove_refine=kindergarten%7Cguide%7Cword%7C1
- Smelling Sense: Smells can be calming or alerting. For students who are over-sensitive to smells, try having the child use a scented hand lotion to mask the unpleasant smell (e.g. locker room) and verbally prepare the students for the smell he/she may encounter. See Therapy Street for Kids for more ideas at http://therapystreetforkids.com/Sensory2.html
- Taste and mouth 'work': Although chewing gum is often not allowed in school, it has been shown to increase attention and memory. A recent study showed that 8th grade students who chewed gum performed significantly better than those who didn't in standardized math scores.2 Chewing gum or chewy/crunch foods may also have a calming effect when a student is anxious. Make sure to set limits if gum chewing is allowed – "no noise and no mess". Gum must be discarded in garbage cans. If gum is not allowed, encourage students to keep a water bottle at their desk for sipping.
- Therapy Street for Kids. (n.d.). Sensory strategies by sensory system. http://therapystreetforkids.com/Sensory2.html
- Saunders, D. (2005). The importance of sensory processing. (handout) Written by an occupational therapist; reviews sensory processing difficulties and environmental considerations. Easy to read. Available from http://sociallyspeakingllc.com/my-mission-for-socially/free-pdfs/the_importance_of_sensory.pdf
- Thompson, S. D., & Raisor, J. M. (2013). Meeting the sensory needs of young children. Young Children. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Written by teachers, this article is filled with user-friendly ideas for addressing sensory processing needs in the classroom. Retrieve from http://www.naeyc.org/yc/files/yc/file/201305/Meeting_Sensory_Needs_Thompson_0513.pdf
1 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Embracing Diversity: Toolkit for Creative Inclusive, Learning-Friendly Environments. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001375/137522e.pdf
2 Johnston, C. A., Tyler, C., Stansberry, S. A., Moreno, J., & Foreyt, J. P. (2012). Brief report: gum chewing affects standardized math scores in adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 455-459.