Do I laugh or cry at the misguided professionals who borrowed an idea from an elite private prep school to create a overpopulated first-grade classroom for public school children, a group that includes kids with sensory processing issues? According to the New York Times article, the class is held in an open area with 60 first graders and 4 teachers who can all hear and see what’s going on with the other groups. Transitions that involve a change of activity and moving the children to a different part of the room are a nightmare, which is frustrating for the teaching team.
Up to ten percent of children have sensory processing differences that make everyday sensations such as background noise or visual clutter incredibly intense experiences that are difficult for the brain to process, distracting, and anxiety provoking. Although we can be grateful our own kids aren’t in the sensory hell of 60 kids, 4 teachers, no walls, this story is a good reminder of how important it is to be aware of how sensory kids experience auditory and visual clutter.
Neurotypical people and children have the ability to automatically “turn down the volume” on sensory input that isn’t important and “turn up the volume” (that is, pay attention to) priority sensory input. Neurotypical children can usually tune out the sound of a truck rolling by a classroom, a dog barking outside, a chair scraping as someone pulls it out, or the squeak of a marker on a whiteboard isn’t important noise–unless they’re bored or antsy because they’re hungry or tired of sitting. However, most of the time they probably won’t notice the sound or, if they do, they automatically know it’s unimportant and they don’t instantly break their focus. Of course, younger children do get distracted by sounds they find especially interesting–the sound of money jangling in a bag, described in the article, would probably excite a six-year-old eager to see how much money it is. The sound of a dog barking outside a classroom door might elicit excitement (“Ooo, there’s a doggie in the building? Can I see him? Can I pet him?) or anxiety (“Oh no, a dog. I’m scared! My aunt’s dog bit me once!”).
Imagine, though, that your brain simply can’t block out the sound of children’s feet as they move across the room, or the teacher talking to a different class. Imagine that your brain is taking in the sight of 60 kids all moving, some of them moving suddenly, or bursting into giggles that pierce your ears because of your auditory sensitivities. Your brain can’t process all this information quickly enough and some of it is being processed as danger signals. Sudden high-pitched sound? Sudden movement to your right? Your body responds with panic: the fight or flight response. You start chewing your fingertips and rocking, shutting down and not hearing the teacher’s instructions. You feel yourself getting agitated, and when another child moves too close to you, you take a swing at her. You feel yourself so excited by all the stimulation that you start hand flapping and making silly noises–which the other kids laugh at, which makes you more excited, so you start bopping your head side to side and rolling on the ground. Fight, flight, sensory overload–these are not responses that will help you learn in this environment. And if you have poor self-regulation, which many sensory kids have much longer than neurotypical children do, you’re not going to come back to a calm and alert state simply because the teacher says, “Tommy, calm down now.”
Does this sound familiar? Are you seeing these behaviors and situations in a classroom of just 20-25 kids? If there’s a child with SPD in that classroom, and statistics tell us there is, the answer is “absolutely.”
So what’s a parent or teacher to do?
In general, kids with sensory issues function better in smaller classrooms because of the lower amount of stimulation. Any time you can reduce sensory stimulation and sudden transitions, it will be easier for all children, but especially those with sensory processing differences, to focus and remain calm and alert. Many parents have found that having their child with SPD in a private school classroom with 8 children is more supportive of him than a public school classroom with 30 children, but then there’s the issue of can you get special educational services (such as OT for sensory issues) paid for by the school district if your child is in private school? It’s very difficult.
Small private school classroom but no services, large public school classroom but services, including in-class services? It’s a tough call for many parents. Whatever choices you have before you, do check out the information on my website, SensorySmartParent.com, about helping your child at school (start HERE) and the chapter on Advocating for Your Child at School in Raising a Sensory Smart Child. There are MANY ways to make classrooms more user friendly for children with sensory processing issues, and many of the accommodations are simple, low cost, or no cost. You can begin to set up a sensory diet for your child today (hopefully, with the help of a sensory smart OT). No child should be put in “sensory hell.”