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Sensory Success in the School

Marjory Ackerman, MA. OTR/L, MPA
Joan Epstein, MS OTR/L

"You know, when I first saw Ms. S's sensory center I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me, this is a magnet for trouble. This is ridiculous.'"

This was the initial reaction of a very well respected and seasoned first grade teacher, Ms. J, upon observing the use of a sensory center in an adjacent first grade teacher's classroom at WW School. We as occupational therapists are often confronted with this problem. How do you draw teachers into collaboration to meet the sensory needs of our students?

What steps are we taking to engage teachers in collaboration? How did we influence this teacher, as well as others, to value the use of sensory strategies? As experienced occupational therapists in the schools we have developed the following model with success.

Put up a large sign in the lobby to welcome the school community to the sensory smart school! We included meters and figures that we created using Stickids.

Educate the educators!

Use PowerPoint presentations with vivid pictorial illustrations to define sensory processing and demonstrate the use of sensory centers and sensory strategies. Show pictures and give real life examples of what children look like when they are meeting their sensory needs in the school setting. Demonstrate the effectiveness of sensory strategies that are easily incorporated into the day. Use case studies of children, teachers and classes that have had success incorporating sensory strategies into the classroom culture. Suggest applying a sensory lens to view problem behaviors. If possible, collaborate with teachers who are already invested in using sensory strategies when giving presentations.

During the presentation, take time to educate teachers about their own sensory needs. Use a sensory questionnaire, include movement breaks, provide hand fidgets and alternative seating (such as therapy ball, air cushion seats) and alerting snack foods. Point out tactics teachers are using to stay alert during the presentation such as foot jiggling, playing with a necklace or earrings, hair twirling, standing and moving, knitting.

Find a teacher who is an "early adopter"

Early adopters make serious use of the ideas and innovations that come their way. They are great sources of information on 'what works' and other early adopters will look to them to help sort out the good innovations from the bad. (Everett M. Rogers, 2003) In our experience, the "early adopter" teacher leads by collaborating with an occupational therapist to meet the needs of children with sensory processing issues. They will pilot methods and collaborate with their teaching colleagues. They incorporate innovative sensory approaches into existing teaching and community building philosophies. Other teachers look up to them for advice and information about changes in their classroom.

In Ms. J's 1st grade sensory center, reversed bookshelves create a sensory nook while sensory items in the basket are rotated periodically. The center is near the meeting area so students can be a part of the community.

It is recommended that therapists collaborate with teachers who are committed, enthusiastic, and serious about embedding sensory strategies into their curriculum and classroom culture. If the opportunity presents, attend a sensory conference with teachers to provide them with in-depth information and resources on sensory processing. Their classrooms may emerge as a model for other teachers interested in implementing sensory strategies.

Validate Teacher's individual styles and classroom needs

Behave as a guest in the teacher's classroom just as you would when invited into someone's home. Remember, this is their classroom and culture. You are the collaborator, not the expert. Observe their teaching styles, assess student needs, and then make recommendations. Support the teacher by incorporating sensory strategies in the classroom that are compatible with their use of space, comfort level with materials, and classroom management styles. Try to find a seamless fit so that changes are perceived as very doable.

Sensory items stored next to the seat on a tray are available to the students to use on their own or with teacher facilitation.

For example, Ms. J, our initially skeptical teacher eventually developed a sensory center that reflected her style of setting up a classroom and her teaching philosophy. Her classroom was visually calm, very organized, and uncluttered. Essential sensory materials were stored in bins and baskets in locations that were easy to access. She created a sensory center that was very simple. Two bins stored one large pillow, a vocabulary meter and five to six items addressing the different sensory domains. Materials were rotated weekly to add novelty. She also incorporated strategies within her teaching of a non-violent communication curriculum, in which she emphasized empathy and community building.

Educate the students!

Develop a co-teaching model with the teacher to educate the students about sensory systems and self-regulation. We usually ask the teacher to talk about the 5 senses and the OT discusses the 2 hidden senses, vestibular and proprioception. After the introduction, the students use hands-on sensory related activities to experience the effect on their energy and attention levels. The activities should be graded to meet the developmental level of the class. Be an ongoing support for the class by following up with weekly check-ins to provide new materials, assess how the strategies are working and to instruct the class on additional sensory approaches. Create visual materials, such as picture books, sensory charts or posters and bookmarks that give reminders for the use of sensory strategies throughout the day. Invite classroom peers to join individual therapy sessions. This provides an opportunity for peers to be sensitized to the sensory needs of their classmates and to learn about their own sensory systems and ways to self-regulate.

This sensory center is a one-person spot created by a preschool classroom teacher using a cut-out carpet roll.

Develop a sensory smart school and school district!

Use April, OT Month or October, Sensory Awareness Month to educate the teachers, students and school staff about sensory processing disorder. We found the following ideas very successful. Write tips for movement breaks in the school memos and newsletters. Give the staff sensory questionnaires to fill out to assess their own needs for sensory input. Teach the special teachers, including Art, Physical Education, Library, Computer and Music, to use sensory strategies in the beginning of their sessions and, in particular, to target students and classes who have been identified as having sensory needs. Put up posters throughout the school to promote the use of sensory strategies throughout the day. Create sensory stations in various spots throughout the school, such as reminding students to take an "alerting" cold drink of water as they pass the water fountain. Help the principals or guidance counselors make use of sensory centers when meeting with students who are struggling with behavior or emotional issues. Plan a Parent Guardian Organization (PGO) night to present sensory processing theories and incorporate activities for parents and caregivers to use at home. Address self-regulation, sleep, transitions, and readiness for upcoming busy events.

Valuing Sensory Strategies

After utilizing our model for success, Ms. J, our very well respected and seasoned first grade teacher became a sensory strategy collaborator. In her own words: "Addressing sensory needs fits in with the non-violent communication curriculum I teach, basically a teaching of compassion. We refer to it as heart talk and we open our hearts up to ourselves, self-empathy, and we open our hearts up to others, empathy for others. We have all these needs. Do you need community and belonging? Do you need to use the sensory center to calm down, increase your energy and focus? So having sensory needs and meeting them, is now just another level of needs-based language and vocabulary we use in my classroom".

Visual schedule for sensory center choices with meter to note how different strategies impacted energy and focus.

Thank you to the teachers, staff, and parents in the Amherst Pelham Public Schools for their interest, support and collaboration in using sensory strategies to benefit our students. Special thanks to two of our "early adopter" teachers, Stephanie Joyce and Alicia Chin Gibbons. Thanks to June Bunch, Jan Hollenbeck, and Sharon Ray for their mentoring inspiration. A very special thank you to Ellen Rainville, for her generosity and vision, and to all of our sensory sisters in the Western Massachusetts OT Pediatric Group.

Marjory Ackerman, MA. OTR/L, MPA, has been an Occupational Therapist for 25 years. She works as a school-based occupational therapist, focusing on sensory processing and sensory strategies in the classroom. Marjory also holds a Graduate Degree in Public Administration in Health Care from New York University.

Joan Epstein, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist with thirty years of pediatric experience. She has worked in the Amherst Public School System, SI clinic settings and early intervention. She provides ongoing teaching and mentoring for entry level master's degree occupational therapy students. She recently graduated from the post professional Master's program at Springfield College. Her qualitative research study was centered on teachers' perceptions of the use of sensory strategies in the classroom. She is SIPT and NDT certified.


Ayers, A. J. (1979). Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Bunch, J., Hollenbeck, J., Ray, S., & Walker, D. B. (2005). Guidelines for Provision of Occupational Therapy Services In Massachusetts Public Schools. Waltham, MA: Massachusetts Association for Occupational Therapy, Inc.

Miller, L. J., Fuller, D. A., (2006). Sensational Kids: Hope and Help For Children with Sensory Processing Disorder. New York, NY: Putnam & Sons.

Shellenberger, S., Williams, P. (1994) How Does Your Engine Run: The Alert Program for Sensory Regulation. Albuquerque, N.M.: Therapy Works, Inc.

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