As an adult with attention and sensory needs of my own (more on that at the end of this post), I thought I’d offer some suggestions for easy ways to provide accommodations for students with similar issues. These aren’t cure-alls or magic potions, just little things that have worked both for me personally, as well as in my classroom. There is no one-size-fits-all accommodation – things that are calming for one person can be over-stimulating for another. So it’s all a matter of working with students, parents, and other professionals in your building to find support systems that work for each individual based on their needs. Sometimes that means there will be some trial and error involved, but hey….we’re teachers. We’re trial and error PROS. 😉
DIY Sensory Bin
I require a lot of tactile input, so I like to offer lots of options for my students who may have similar needs. I’ve used a lot of “real” fidget toys and sensory tools, but I also always kept a bucket full of random “stuff” I found for students to choose from. Putting together a DIY sensory bin is just a matter of keeping your eye out (or keeping your fingers out, maybe?) for items that may be of interest. No need to buy a bunch of stuff or have a million things in there from day 1 – just add to it as you find interesting items. Some of the things that have found their way into my sensory bin over the years:
Especially the ones with two sides! These are great because they have two different textures, a softer one and a rougher one. They can also be squeezed, twisted, mashed, and generally abused. They are cheap, tend to come in packs, and can be easily replaced.
2) Dish Scrubbers
Are you noticing a “cleaning” theme? I’m better as using them for sensory input than cleaning, but that’s neither here nor there. 😀 Like sponges, dish scrubbers often have interesting textures and can be squeezed and manipulated easily.
3) Fabric Scraps
I don’t know how to sew, but I love going to fabric shops. I’m an odd duck. Different fabrics are a great way to offer a variety of sensory input – silks, suedes, fleeces, linens, faux furs, burlaps, etc. Basically ever fabric offers a different feel, which makes them perfect for a DIY sensory bin. I’ve had great luck going into fabric shops and explaining that I’m a teacher looking for scraps of fabric for my students. A 4 in. by 4 in. scrap of silk would usually end up in the trash bin, so most shops are thrilled to help you out by giving you these remnants for free. If you have a friend or family member that sews, you can also ask them to set aside their scraps for you.
Not used ones, obviously. Haha. But sometimes they come in packs of 2 or 3, so I’d set one aside to put in the sensory bin. Great texture, good squeezability, etc. (Squeezability should be a real word, no?)
5) Velcro Strips
6) A Small Rope
This is an idea I got from my vice principal, and it’s a great one. A small rope allows students to tie and untangle knots, which can be a great calming activity. I’ve even taken a piece of rope and tied it into a bunch of crazy knots myself, and then allowed a student to untangle it. If you’ve ever sat and tried to untangle a necklace with extreme determination, you know it can be an oddly therapeutic experience.
7) Nuts and Bolts
Twirling these things is calming. Obviously, with the littlest kids, you need to be mindful of anything with small parts, so large plastic versions made specifically for children may be best. But for older kids, regular ol’ nuts and bolts from your junk drawer can work perfectly.
Again, not used, although I assume that would go without saying. The bristles provide great sensory input for little fingers and hands. Cheap, easy, and chances are you already have a couple of extras lying around the house. This is certainly not an exhaustive list – just keep your eyes out and your fingers “perked” for interesting items around the house that might work for your students.
“Real” Fidget Toys and Sensory Tools
There are so many great fidget toys and sensory tools on the market, and I was always lucky to have great OTs who made recommendations and brought in items for me to try with specific students. Here are some items I’ve used with success.
My grandmother had one of these when I was growing up. It was a “museum sized version” – a fancy, grown-up model if you will. It was white and chrome and I loved it VERY much. As a little kid, my grandparents tended to be less than thrilled whenever I grabbed their stuff off the shelves, but since this thing was made to be twisted and turned, they always let me play with this guy and tangle away with it. 😉 It didn’t occur to me until much later that the reason I loved it was that it’s really a fidget toy – and as someone with ADD and sensory issues, it was perfect for me! I may or may not have one in my home now. 😀 You can see it in this picture I took of my dog being ridiculous and making me question the efficacy of purchasing a glass side table. The tangle in this picture is the larger version – the junior size is much smaller. These tangles are a good fidget toy for students who need a little something to keep their hands busy. The “jr” versions are a great size for kids and they provide a nice range of motion without making noise or being too much of a distraction. You can buy them in a pack of 3 on Amazon by clicking here – there are more options available, which you can easily peruse by clicking around the related products found on that page.
From the product description: “These plastic brushes may look simple but their results are nothing short of extraordinary. These sensory brushes provide a therapeutic combination of deep pressure and tactile stimulation to help everyone self-regulate, calm down and focus better. As an added plus, the comfortable size is great for a purse or pocket.” These have worked really well for my students! You can find a pack of 6 on Amazon by clicking here.
These seat cushions are a gift from the heavens. As a person with her own sensory issues, I’ve found that most of the things that work for my students also work for me. Personally, however, sitting on one of these drives me bonkers. BUT when it comes to my students, I’ve found that they are nothing short of magical – they have helped stabilize some of the wiggliest bottoms in my class. WHATEVER WORKS. I like this one from Amazon because it’s fairly inexpensive and comes with its own air pump.
These stools are pricey, but awesome. (Although they are MUCH less expensive than similar brands, this is still probably one you’d want to try to order with school funds!) I really love sensory tools that work with students’ instincts instead of against them. Instead of trying to keep kids still, these stools allow students to use that wiggly energy in a safe and productive way. There’s tons of research to support the idea that movement can increase productivity and focus, and these stools are a great way to make that happen in the classroom in a non-disruptive way. They won’t tip over, they don’t make noise, they just provide a way for students to move while they work. You can find them on Amazon by clicking here.
Another great way to help support students who have trouble sitting for stretches of time. I found that these worked really well for some of my students and can be used either on a chair or while on the rug. Our OT also used them strategically with certain students to encourage proper posture. Find this seat wedge by clicking here.
6) Chewable Necklaces
I’ll admit. “Chewable necklaces” were not an item I knew I needed for my classroom until I KNEW I NEEDED THEM. I had one little friend who chewed the neck of his shirt so much, that by lunchtime, the entire front of his shirt was drenched. It broke my heart, because he clearly needed a tool to help him during the day, but I had no idea what. Luckily, there’s a necklace for that. WHO KNEW?! Well, clearly a lot of people knew, but I didn’t know. These necklaces were a godsend for that student. They come in a variety of sizes, colors, and styles, and quite honestly, I would totally wear some of these. I mean….they’re way cute. If you have a student who chews the top of pencils, these may also be a great tool. I know they make chewable pencil toppers, but the beauty of the necklaces is that the chewed-up tool won’t end up rolling around on a shared table….or in the pencil bin…or accidentally in your hand. 😉 You can click the pictures above to find those specific necklaces, or click here for a search result to find a bunch of different options.
I don’t know why, but because of my own sensory needs, I CRAVE weighted items. I’ve been known to place heavy books on my lap, pick up heavy boxes, or even make my dogs and/or 200+ lb husband sit on my lap when I’m feeling like I’m about to crawl out of my own skin. These weighted lap pads are an easier solution for the classroom though. If you have sewing skills, you could probably make your own with fleece and beans, rice, or other filling. Weight resistance in general is helpful for me – sometimes I’ll lie on my back and hold hand weights straight above me for a few minutes. I don’t lift them up and down, there’s just something about holding my arms straight against the resistance of the weight that I find calming. I wouldn’t really suggest having students do this, as dropping the weights could be really dangerous, but if you have students you think would benefit from this type of sensory input, you may ask an OT to observe him or her and make recommendations. Sometimes even carrying an appropriately heavy box to another classroom can be helpful for some students.
These thera-bands can be placed around the legs of students’ chairs to provide a great way to channel energy and control those wiggly feet. The resistance is really calming for some students to push and pull against as well. This is a great picture from The Starr Spangled Planner’s blog showing how they can be used – check out her blog post for more great ideas on how to support students with sensory and attention needs!
Meeting students’ attention and sensory needs creates the best learning environment!
I have a special appreciation for students with attention and sensory needs – because I have those needs myself. I have Attention Deficit Disorder, an auditory processing disorder, and a sensory processing disorder. Seeing all those “disorders” on a student’s IEP or 504 plan would be intimidating for a lot of teachers, and I totally understand that. First of all, the word “disorder” is such a negatively charged word. It implies that something is wrong, when really, it’s just different. I won’t lie. The reality is, a lot of things are really challenging for me. My ADD in particular impacts my life in very real ways each and every day. I consider myself a pretty successful and well-adjusted adult, in large part because I’ve learned to recognize my own needs and accommodate for them. These “disorders” aren’t life-threatening conditions – they’re just challenges that need to be managed with thoughtful accommodations. I’ve found that when my attention and sensory needs are met, my auditory processing issues are often managed as a byproduct. Attention issues and sensory needs present in many different ways. Many students can benefit from tools such as these – not just the ones who can’t sit still or are disruptive. I have never been hyperactive – my ADD presents very differently than it does in most people with ADHD. Many teachers over the years believed that I was being lazy, purposefully “tuning out”, or just bored. I knew as early as 3rd or 4th grade that something was off – and although I spoke out about it and my parents took me seriously, teachers continued to write off those concerns for many years because I got good grades, wasn’t disruptive to classmates, and wasn’t a typical “problem kid”. The reality is, I had just figured out enough coping skills on my own to compensate. It would have been a lot easier for me had I been appropriately medicated as I am now and if I had had access to simple accommodations in school to provide extra support. I hope these ideas have been helpful. As this is certainly in no way an exhaustive list, I’d love to hear about things that have worked in YOUR classroom – leave a comment on this post to help another teacher who may be looking for more ideas! 🙂
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