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Five Ways To Decrease Sensory Seeking Behaviors In The Classroom

When a child is displaying sensory seeking behaviors, it is imperative to discover the antecedents leading up to the behavior’s occurrence in order to better manage and maintain the child’s actions. Whilst some sensory maintained behaviors may be caused by hypersensitivity, hypersensitivity also needs to be considered in order to fully understand the cause of such behaviors so that they can be effectively managed.

The definitions of such are defined below;

Hypersensitive children are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming.

Hyposensitive children are under-sensitive, which makes them want to seek out more sensory stimulation. 

Sensory maintained behaviors are pleasurable for the child which is why these actions are continued, despite them being damaging or even injurious on some occasions.

Sensory stimulating behaviors, such as flapping, tapping, making vocal noises or leg wiggling, usually do not require the reinforcement of another person as the behavior reinforces itself, often making these actions difficult to manage. It is for this reason that you may notice the child engaging in sensory motivated behaviors whilst they are alone, even when the stimulant may not be obvious to others. By decreasing these sensory behaviors, we work towards reducing the disruptions and negative behaviors that these actions may cause, such as frustration from other students due to repetitive noises or actions. 

Examples of sensory seeking behaviors

To be able to effectively manage sensory seeking behaviors, we need to be able to identify them. The definition of ‘sensory’ relates to an action that feels good and elicits a pleasure response in the body. Examples of sensory seeking behaviors have been outlines in C. S. Kranowitz’s book, ‘The Out of Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder’ which include the following actions that may be evident within the classroom:

  • Chewing on objects or clothing
  • Constantly moving all parts of the body
  • Fidgeting and struggling to sit still
  • Splashing in mud, seeking dirty types of play 
  • Loves loud noises, TV or music volume, crowds and places with lots of action
  • Frequently wants bear hugs and vigorous playground activities

Other sensory seeking behaviors may include repetitive or continuous vocal noises or cause and effect actions that are visually pleasing (such as scratching, twirling objects or tipping things over).

Tips to decrease sensory seeking behaviors

Teach students when and where these sensory seeking behaviors are appropriate.

It would be mistaken for us to assume that our students do not have specific sensory needs and related behaviors. Whilst it would be inappropriate to attempt to entirely eradicate these sensory motivated behaviors, instead, we can guide our students to understand when these behaviors are appropriate to engage in. 

By clearly displaying when it is an acceptable time to flap, tap and shout, and when it is not, we are teaching our students the opportune occasions to engage in a sensory seeking behavior. For instance, we might actively encourage them to tap a drum at playtime, but discourage them to tap a table during work time.

Give students an appropriate way to meet their sensory needs.

For many students with a strong desire to engage in sensory motivated behaviors, refraining from engaging in such behaviors for an extended period of time can cause distress. In these instances, providing students with an appropriate method of receiving the specific sensory feedback may be a useful tool to eliminate stress and frustration caused by being discouraged to engage in the sensory seeking behavior. 

Specific examples of redirecting the sensory seeking behaviors to more acceptable actions may include;

  • Proving a student with a textured ‘wriggle cushion’ if they struggle to sit still.
  • Encouraging a student to play with a tactile object, such as play doh or a fiddle toy, rather than tapping the table.
  • Reminding the child to clap their hands, rather than their face or another body part whilst ‘flapping’ to avoid them leaving marks on their body.

By considering the theory behind the sensory seeking behavior, we are able to encourage more acceptable behaviors to replicate the stimulation with a less harmful or disruptive way to receive the specific sensory input.

Incorporate sensory-related activities into the student’s schedule.

By considering your student’s sensory diet and including various sensory-related activities during the day, we are allowing the students to regularly receive the sensory input they desire. For some students, meeting their sensory needs at various points throughout the day may mean that they display less sensory seeking behaviors later on. By providing a variety of sensory-related activities, we are also allowing students to experiences and process different sensations, too.

Reinforce positive behaviors with sensory breaks

Whilst some sensory seeking behaviors occur without the student applying much thought, others may require the student’s full attention which subsequently distracts the students from the tasks set within the classroom. By reinforcing on-task behavior with regular sensory breaks, we are acknowledging the student’s sensory needs by using the sensory motivated behaviors as a reward. 

For some students, a visual ‘now and next’ timetable may help them to understand that in order to engage in the stimulating activity, they must complete a task first. This method may help to settle students into a task, as the uncertainty of not knowing when they can next engage in the sensory break may cause distress. These activities often help to calm students which in turn, allows for a better working environment and a more positive frame of mind for the students.

Think about the bigger picture

To effectively manage sensory seeking behaviors, first, we need to consider the following;

  • Why is the student seeking to engage in this specific behavior? 
  • Is this behavior something that we need to act upon?
  • Are there any simple adjustments that we can make to the classroom or the child’s routine that may stop the student from frequently feeling over or under-stimulated?

By considering all of the aforementioned points, we can support the student with their sensory needs whilst reducing challenges in the classroom to establish a successful learning environment for everyone. 

By Jodie Pedwell

Jodie qualified as a Primary in the UK but quickly found her passion lay within the field of Special Education. Whilst teaching within an ASD specialist class, Jodie discovered her expertise lay in supporting individuals who displayed challenging behaviors and has since held various positions where she could fulfill this dream. In her free time, Jodie loves to explore the outdoors and practice yoga and meditation.

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