Sensory Strategies Improve Learning

Classroom environmental adaptations can enhance behavior and learning.  However, effectively using adaptive equipment and techniques involves more than handing out adaptive equipment.  To improve learning and avoid causing additional classroom management problems it is important to specifically consider how sensory strategies can improve an individual student’s behavior for enhanced learning.SensoryRoom

Sensory Integration and Positive Behavioral Support strategies can be combined to develop effective coping strategies.  The first step is to choose one specific goal involving adaptive equipment and techniques that improves the student’s behavior, learning and future.  Select a goal that is most important for improving behavior and is attainable within six months.  The goal is worded positively and is incompatible with the inappropriate behavior that interferes with learning.

For students who have multiple needs research suggests prioritizing goals that can reduce future school aggression such as: safe hands (no hitting), polite voice (no yelling), as well as increased attention and seated attention.  After the goal is chosen collect base line data on how often the desired behavior occurs.  Use the base line data to refine the goal before choosing adaptive equipment.

Next consideration is given to the student’s specific need for sensory input.  The Sensory Profile and an activity analysis are useful tools for finding effective adaptive equipment and techniques.  The Sensory Profile is a reliable, valid assessment that identifies significantly different sensory behaviors.  If a student’s scores show a definite difference in Sensory Seeking/Low Registration (e.g. a significant difference found in only 2 out of 100 students their age) this provides clues about the sensory input needed.  Sensory processing disorders are complicated, and each student’s individual sensory needs must be addressed.

Next an activity analysis is done to explore the sensory input the student may be getting through the inappropriate behavior, sensory strategies that have helped him in the past, and his favorite activities.  Begin the activity analysis by considering the sensory input the student receives from the problematic behavior (e.g. wiggling his fingers in front of his eyes so frequently that it interferes with learning).  Determine if he is doing this for attention, sensory input, or both.  If he is doing the behavior for sensory input, go where no one will see you and imitate the student’s behavior to determine the sensory input it provides (e.g., finger movement, visual stimulation, or both).

Further assessment for developing coping strategies can be gathered using the FABTriggerCopingForms filled out by the student or parent, who choose on each page the three most frequent situations and body reactions that precede the inappropriate behavior and the most helpful coping strategies for avoiding inappropriate behavior.  This provides greater information regarding the role served by the behavior and possible alternative activities that provide the needed input. INSERT  Choose the adaptive equipment or techniques that will help achieve the student’s goal using information from the SensoryProfile, activity analysis, and FAB Trigger & Coping forms.



Once adaptive equipment or techniques are chosen introduce them in a way that maximizes success.  Given current school inclusion practices many classrooms include students with diverse developmental levels.  It is helpful for teachers and therapists to initially explain to the class that they have different needs and abilities, and will be treated fairly but not equally.  Students will be given different rules, equipment and expectations based on their individual needs.  Adaptive equipment is then tried with individual students “for the day as an experiment that will be continued only if used appropriately to help reach their goal”


Specifying rules for continued use of adaptive equipment or techniques before introducing them avoids potential problems.  Many teachers forbid adaptive strategies because they interfere with classroom management (e.g., forbid gum chewing because gum is stuck on seats; don’t allow fidget toys because students throw or make loud noises with them).  Setting clear limits that adaptive equipment will no longer be used if students break the rules or don’t progress toward their goal make teachers and parents more willing to try them.

It is also important and challenging to be sure parents/guardians approve of adaptive equipment before it is used.  The best way to do this is by discussing it at a parent conference.  When this is not possible write a note describing the goal and reason for the adaptations.  Then ask the parent to sign permission for the goal and specific adaptive equipment to be tried on the bottom of the form.


Finally, additional reinforcement with a sticker chart or other reward is given to the student for making progress towards their goal.  By keeping track of goal progress from the base line, it is easy to show that the plan is working or modify it if it is ineffective.  While this process of combining sensory and behavioral strategies is criticized because it does not show whether the plan worked for sensory or behavioral reasons, it affectively improves student behavior and learning.


Dunn, W. (2007).  Supporting children to participate successfully in everyday life by using sensory processing knowledge.  Infants & Young Children, 20(2), 84-101.

Seifert, K. (2011).  CARE-2 Assessment: Chronic Violent Behavior and Treatment Needs.  Boston, MA: Acanthus Publishing.


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