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.  www.sensoryprofile.com

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


Transdisciplinary School Strategies Enhance Inclusion

It is common for early education classes to include undiagnosed special needs students.  While the students often eventually qualify for special education services their teachers need strategies to meet the immediate needs of these students within the regular classroom.  This is important for both the special needs students and the ability of all the other students to learn.  Fortunately, transdisciplinary use of positive behavioral support strategies improve behavior and learning in regular and special education students in a variety of settings.

Teachers are becoming overwhelmed with the demands of increasing academic standards and students with developmental, behavioral, and mental health challenges.  Meanwhile, related services personnel are recognizing the importance of working in conjunction with classroom teachers to best serve students.  There has been much hostile criticism of related services staff by some early childhood faculty and organizations.  Despite this teachers, parents, and students have increasingly recognized the contribution of related services staff including occupational, speech/language, physical, and mental health therapists (social workers, school psychologists, guidance counselors). Teachers and related services staff have particularly found value in teaming together in implementing evidence-based positive behavioral support interventions.

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Teachers and related services staff learn from working together to more effectively educate students using positive behavioral support interventions.  In my over thirty years working as a school occupational therapist with regular and special education students I have learned from teachers and other special services school staff many strategies to improve student learning and behavior.  Particularly using positive behavioral support strategies we have effectively integrated special and regular education students in activities to improve their behavior and learning.  My attached list of Evidence-BasedClassBehaviorStrategies has resulted from this collaboration.


Riggs, N.R., Greenberg, M.T., Kusche, C.A., Pentz, M.A. (2006).  The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum.   Prevention Science, 7(1), 91-102.

Simonsen, B., Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D., & Sugai, G. (2008).  Evidence-based practices in classroom management: Considerations for research to practice.  Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 351-380.

Simonsen, B., Britton, L. & Young, D. (2010).  School-wide positive behavior support in an alternative school setting.  Journal of Positive Behavioral Intervention, 12(3), 180-191.


Implementing Sensory Strategies in Preschools & Kindergartens

Many excellent discussions debate the best ways to responsibly integrate sensory strategies that help young children. While I don’t have a conclusive answer for this dilemma I have been struggling with this question all of my professional life. The attachments presented in this post describe my FAB Strategies for integrating environmental adaptations, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies in preschool and kindergarten classes.

My hope is to offer an approach for teachers and therapists in the schools to help children both who have and who have not yet been diagnosed with special needs and are having difficulty learning.  The FAB “Functionally Alert Behavior” Preschool & Kindergarten Strategies form can be used by teachers and therapists for children both with and without identified special needs.  It guides home programs, serves as a check list for teachers and therapists of strategies that help children with behavioral and developmental challenges learn, and can be used to guide goal-directed interdisciplinary interventions for children receiving special education services FABPre&KStrategies

I offer small two-day workshops for occupational, speech, physical, and mental health therapists that include direct practice for developing, implementing, and consulting with parents and teachers implementing FAB Strategies (see Schedule of FAB Strategies Workshops Page of this blog). I will be releasing an additional schedule of my 10 larger, one-day workshops in January and March 2014 for teachers, parents, and school therapists.

I have included for teachers, therapists, consultants, and researchers my recently published paper describing my research supported theory of FAB Strategies for preschoolers and kindergarteners.  I am currently conducting research regarding the relationship between children’s behavioral and sensory processing challenges.