Making Home A Sensory-Friendly Learning Environment

Are you preparing for at-home learning this fall? If you have a child with sensory differences, it can be helpful to consider the effect the environment has on your child’s learning. While there’s no need to completely remodel your house, some simple changes can help increase your child’s attention, regulation, and participation and make your home a sensory-friendly environment.

First of all…

It’s important to note that we all have sensory preferences. Think about if you prefer to work in a quiet room or one with some background noise. Think about how you might regulate yourself in a long meeting by tapping your pen or jiggling your leg. Sensory preferences are typical and only become problematic when they affect a person’s ability to participate in daily tasks. 

Most importantly:

Ask your child what their preferences are! You might be surprised at what they tell you. If your child is not able to communicate this effectively, keep a log of their response to sensory input as it occurs. In general, note if your child seems to be avoiding certain sensations or seeking them out excessively. If you’d like a checklist to guide this process, one can be found here:

Sensory Stimuli to Review: 

  • Consider noise. 
    • Does your child work best in a quiet environment? You can consider providing a quiet room, noise-canceling headphones, or earbuds. 
    • Rugs are another way to dampen sound. 
    • Even if the room appears quiet, consider what background noises may be more distracting/unpleasant than you realize – the hum of electronics, muffled construction sounds, fans, etc. 
    • Are there echoes in a large open space?
    • Warn your child if you know a loud noise may occur – such as an alarm being tested. Sudden loud noises are often harder to manage than ones that are planned. 
  • Consider movement.
    • Does your child need movement to refocus their attention? Scheduled movement breaks might be a good way to address this. Your child could go on a walk, do a short stretching routine, or complete a quick chore.
    • Fidget tools are another way to get some movement in while still focusing on schoolwork. Some students may also benefit from an oral fidget tool. 
Fidget tool for sensory friendly learning
  • You can consider alternative seating – many children benefit from standing to work or sitting in a chair that allows for a little bit of wiggling. Sometimes even just a position change during an assignment can be helpful. 
    • If your child appears to avoid movement, it’s important that they still have structured and safe movement opportunities available, even if it’s just as simple as taking a walk. 
  • Consider visuals. 
    • Are lights too bright? Consider using a dimmable bulb or a shade that blocks more light.
    • Is the sunlight too intense? Consider using curtains or blinds, or planning instruction for a different time of day if possible. 
    • Are there lots of decorations on the walls? Consider trying to use a less-decorated room if you find your child getting distracted. 
    • Could clutter be distracting? Consider taking a look at your organization systems and finding homes for everything. Have your child help you if possible!
    • Is there glare on a device screen? Consider if your child should re-position themselves to avoid windows or lights. 
    • If your child appears to seek out excessive visual input, consider providing them items such as kaleidoscopes or light-up toys to help them regulate more independently. However, consider your timing and make sure this does not interfere with their ability to complete a functional task. 
  • Consider feel. 
    • Some children don’t like the feel of certain textures – this could extend to paper or computer keyboards. Watch your child for signs of distress. 
    • Is your child bothered by tags or seams in clothing? Consider providing them clothing without them. 
    • Some children may like feeling various textures and seek them out. Consider providing these to your child if it appears to be an effective way for them to self-regulate, but make sure it does not interfere with functional tasks. 
    • Consider temperature – is your child too hot or too cold to focus? 
  • Consider taste. 
    • Many children who are thought of as “picky eaters” may actually have sensory aversions to certain types of food, mostly based on tactile or visual input.
    • Never force your child to eat a food that they show an aversion to. This can backfire and cause the aversion to worsen.
    • Feeding therapy by a trained medical OT or SLP can help in this area – talk to your pediatrician for more info. 
    • Some students report feeling more alert when chewing gum or eating a hard candy such as peppermint. 
  • Consider smell.
    • Is your child sensitive to cooking smells? If so, is it possible to time their academic work when this is not occurring? 
    • Is your child sensitive to candles or air fresheners? 
    • If your child seems to seek out certain smells, consider providing them ways to access those smells independently, i.e. giving them their own candle. Again, make sure they are not seeking out smells to the point of dysfunction. 
  • Consider the time of day. 
    • Is there a time of day when your child seems to work best/have the most energy? It may be best to schedule academic tasks for this time if possible. 

Keep checking in with your child. It’s possible for sensory preferences to change over time – reviewing accommodations periodically to make sure they are still appropriate is key. 

Want to take at-home learning even further? Here are some strategies for building fine motor skills at home.

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