How to Prevent Sensory Overload at School
We live in a fast-paced world. Take New York City, for example. With millions of people bustling around the same city limits, loud sounds battling for attention and LED visuals competing to stand out, it can be a lot to handle.
Sensory overload can happen to anyone, even those who live a quaint life comfortably in the middle of nowhere. However, some are more prone to sensory issues than others.
At school, we should be aware of the possibility of sensory triggers that can lead to meltdowns or triggered fight-or-flight responses. Students deserve a comfortable space to learn.
Here is an explanation of sensory overload and ways to prevent common triggers. By understanding these, your child or student can feel comfortable in their learning environment.
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- What Causes Sensory Overload?
- How to Prevent Sensory Overload in Children
- How You Can Help Children With Sensory Overload
- Create an All-Inclusive Playground With Miracle® Recreation
What Causes Sensory Overload?
For some people, particular stimuli could be too overwhelming. This sends their brains into overdrive. As a result, their brains cannot process the situation properly, potentially causing them to exhibit symptoms like:
- Difficulty focusing
- Rapid heart rate or breathing patterns
Sensory overload is caused by a specific sensory trigger. Anyone can experience sensory overload, and the triggers differ depending on the person and situation. We are all familiar with the five basic senses — sight, sound, smell, taste and touch — but these senses extend to vestibular, proprioceptive and inner-body types, too. When a person gets overwhelmed by one or more of these senses, they experience overstimulation.
A variety of possible stimuli could cause sensory overload. Here are examples of each sense and possible triggers:
Visual triggers overwhelm your vision to the point where your brain can’t process all of them. These are some examples of visual triggers:
- Bright lights.
- Flashing lights.
- Vibrant colors.
- New environments or people.
Students encounter a lot of visual materials at school that could potentially instigate overload, such as:
- Bright infographics.
- Fluorescent lighting.
- Disorganized workspaces.
- Television screens.
- Computer monitors.
Many people are also overwhelmed by auditory stimuli. Examples of auditory triggers include:
- A large group of people talking at once.
- Loud or triggering music.
- Background noises.
- Sudden alarming sounds.
Schools are often loud places, filled with noisy hallways and busy classrooms. Hallways may be particularly challenging to navigate for those with sensory issues. Common auditory school triggers are:
- Static sounds.
- Fire alarms.
- Distracting noises outside the classroom.
- Noisy classmates.
For some, a sudden introduction to a new smell might send them into sensory overload. A student could experience many unfamiliar or overpowering scents while at school, like:
- Perfumes or colognes.
- Chemicals used during science experiments.
- Lunchroom smells.
- Gym locker rooms.
For those sensitive to extreme or new flavors, they might be triggered into an overload by:
- New flavors.
- Intense flavors.
- Displeasing flavors.
At school, these triggers are most likely to happen in the lunchroom, especially when students buy hot lunches from the cafeteria.
People can also become overpowered by new tactile experiences. Examples of tactile triggers include:
- Unfamiliar textures.
- New fabrics.
- Sudden contact.
- Environmental conditions, such as rain or wind.
Some school-specific instances of tactile triggers are:
- Bumping into other students in the hallway.
- Being approached from behind.
- Playing outside on a particularly windy day.
- Engaging in dramatic play with costumes.
Vestibular and Proprioceptive Triggers
Your vestibular system is what gives you a sense of balance throughout everyday life, while proprioception refers to your body’s ability to sense movement and placement. These are examples of vestibular and proprioceptive triggers:
- Oscillation, like when swinging.
- Carrying heavy objects.
- Changes in air pressure.
Students with sensory issues may find recess or select playground equipment particularly challenging for their vestibular senses. Other examples of school vestibular and proprioceptive triggers could involve being surrounded by a large group of students and doing certain gross motor movements, like dances associated with an educational song.
The term “inner-body” means your internal physical feelings. For instance, feeling hungry would be an inner-body experience. You can also become overwhelmed by inner-body triggers, like:
- Being too hot or cold.
- Sudden changes in temperature.
- Having to use the restroom.
Some students may experience inner-body triggers at school when they have to use the restroom but are too nervous to ask. It can also occur when entering a room that is recognizably colder or warmer than the one they were just in.
How to Prevent Sensory Overload in Children
Identifying possible sensory triggers is the first step in preventing sensory overload at school.
Using this knowledge, you can take the appropriate precautionary measures to prevent triggering a sensory meltdown or flight-or-fight response. Doing this promotes a healthier and more inclusive learning environment for all students. Here are a few tips to start:
1. Be Aware of the School Environment
At school, a large portion of students’ time is spent in the classroom. Creating a school environment that recognizes sensory overload triggers requires communication between teachers and parents or caregivers.
For teachers, you can:
- Minimize your movements or gestures.
- Avoid wearing perfumes.
- Get your students’ approval before incorporating any scent, like essential oils, into your classroom environment.
- Try your best to approach students from the front.
- Avoid overly complicated visuals.
- Replace fluorescent lightbulbs, which are prone to flickering or making noise.
- Keep the classroom organized and free of clutter.
If you’re a parent, you can:
- Pack your child’s lunches.
- Encourage your kid to bring a jacket or cardigan.
- Provide sensory-overload suppressant tools.
- Empower your kid to talk to their teacher when they’re experiencing a problem.
Most importantly, parents should communicate with their kids about any potential triggers they might be experiencing at school.
For kids prone to sensory overload, parents or caregivers may consider touring the classroom and school environment. You could also provide recommendations to teachers on how they can enhance certain precautionary measures.
2. Maintain a Consistent Schedule
Surprises or sudden changes in daily routine can be a huge trigger for students. To combat this, try your best to stick to a comfortable daily routine and inform your student or child when you know there will be a pattern break.
For example, schools are required to perform fire drills to practice evacuating the school in the event of an actual fire. Teachers can notify the students and take preventative measures to make sure the sudden alarm sounds or mass groups don’t trigger a sensory overload response.
3. Have Sensory Breaks
Teachers, parents and caregivers are becoming more and more aware of children’s holistic and mental well-being. Incorporating sensory breaks into students’ daily routines helps them practice coping techniques, almost like hitting the pause button on their triggers.
During sensory breaks, encourage students to:
- Practice deep-breathing exercises.
- Take a moment to be silent.
- Get up and stretch their bodies.
- Take a moment to sit still.
Students prone to sensory overload may find it hard to relax in a classroom with other students. Establish an open line of communication and find a safe, quiet place for them to go whenever they’re feeling overwhelmed.
4. Try Specific Strategies
You can also try specific, sense-based strategies to avoid sensory overload. If you know you have students who are strongly affected by a particular sense, you can plan around it. For instance, if a student is particularly affected by visual overstimulation, you could reduce the visual components of your classroom.
Here are some examples of prevention options for each sense:
- Sight: While most teachers enjoy decorating their classrooms with vibrant posters and decorations, too much color could cause overstimulation for some children. To help with this, try to make your classroom visually calming. If you can, avoid using harsh lights or ones that might flicker often. Keep decorations as simple as possible. These strategies could keep a student from experiencing overload.
- Sound: Classrooms are busy places. There are often external noises you can’t control, like lawnmowers, nearby classrooms or teachers talking in the hallway. A student could become overwhelmed fairly easily by all the stimuli. To help, try creating a quiet space in your classroom where students can retreat. You could also allow students to use headphones when needed to tune the noise out.
- Smell: Some students might be easily bothered by strong smells. To avoid this, don’t wear intense perfumes to class or use strong scents, like candles, in your room. When doing art projects, try not to use materials with severe smells.
- Taste: Students usually only use their sense of taste at lunch time in the cafeteria or during a designated snack time. If they encounter an unfamiliar taste, it could trigger a sensory overload. Schools can combat this by offering similar meals each week or providing consistent options on the salad bar. This way, students have safe foods to eat even if they aren’t comfortable with the primary option.
- Touch: For students who get overstimulated by touch, the classroom could be an overwhelming place. To make it as comfortable as possible, make sure to approach all students from the front so they can see when you are coming. Try not to make a student touch any material they’re uncomfortable touching, either.
- Vestibular: Vestibular triggers most commonly occur during gym class or recess. Teachers should provide options for activities in gym. This way, if a student knows a certain activity would give them sensory overload, they can opt out of it. Administrators should also strive to offer a variety of activities on the playground so that students have choices.
- Inner-body: Because inner-body triggers are specific to the student, it can be a little trickier to plan for them. Give students ample time and opportunity to use the restroom, and consider allowing food in the classroom if a student voices their hunger. Aim for making your classroom as comfortable as possible.
How You Can Help Children With Sensory Overload
Although anyone can experience sensory overload, some individuals are more likely to experience it than others. Types of people who are more sensitive to sensory triggers include those who have:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Tourette syndrome.
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
You can consider consulting an occupational therapist for personalized help tailored to your child’s specific needs. These professionals can create specific plans for how to address and respond to triggers in the child’s environment.
In addition to the precautionary measures already outlined, help these students feel more comfortable in their learning environment by practicing these additional safeguards:
1. Learn From Their Triggers
Sensory triggers aren’t universal. Some students react differently to certain stimuli. Using your established line of communication, talk to students about their potential triggers and make the necessary adjustments to their academic environment.
Communication between teachers and parents or caregivers is equally important. Teachers may notice certain triggers as they get to know a student. Parents or caregivers can supply guidance based on the student’s home-life sensory triggers.
2. Avoid Overscheduling Activities
Just as sudden changes in a student’s daily routine can feel triggering, stuffing too many activities into their day can provoke the same response.
Encourage students to participate in after-school activities. Guide them to choose activities that can be easily managed or are specifically tailored to students with sensory issues.
If you notice your student or child is starting to feel overwhelmed when balancing their daily schedule, find ways to reduce this feeling. You can do this by either rescheduling activities or supplying various coping techniques.
3. Consider Sensory-Overload Suppressant Tools
In addition to behavioral coping techniques, your child or student may find it helpful to keep a sensory-overload suppressant tool with them at school.
Tools you may want to consider include:
- Sensory socks: Sensory socks are loose-fitting body socks that allow children to move and stretch the fabric. They create a gentle “hugging” compression for soothing.
- Sensory headphones: Silencing hundreds of students at school can prove to be a challenge. Some students may find it useful to keep sensory headphones with them to soften loud noises while working.
- Weighted vests: Particularly helpful for students who struggle with proprioceptive triggers, a weighted vest keeps controlled, gentle pressure on a student’s body. It sends signals to the brain that keep them focused and calm.
For teachers, it may be a good idea to keep sensory-overload suppressant tools in your classroom in case any student feels the overwhelming — and at times surprising — effects of sensory overload.
Create an All-Inclusive Playground With Miracle® Recreation
Sensory exploration plays an important role in child development. At Miracle Recreation, we recognize this can be challenging for kids who struggle with sensory issues — but that does not mean they cannot experience thrilling adventures at the playground.
We have earned our reputation as a trusted leader in the playground industry with our innovative and all-inclusive equipment and sensory play equipment. We are inspired to keep expanding our selection of products from seeing firsthand the positive impact our playground equipment has on kids with sensory issues.
If you are ready to start designing an all-inclusive playground that fits your community’s needs, contact a Miracle Recreation Customer Service representative today!