Sensory Craving vs Sensory Avoidance: The Telltale Signs - Stanfield


Sensory Craving vs Sensory Avoidance: The Telltale Signs

Have you ever wondered why some of your students can’t sit still or seem to seek out strange or extreme sensory experiences? It’s possible they’re dealing with sensory craving. 

On the flip side, have you observed some students who avoid certain sensory experiences altogether? They might be struggling with sensory avoidance. 

But how can you tell the difference – and do you even need to?

The short answer is yes – knowing the difference between sensory craving and sensory avoidance is absolutely essential for educators.

Here’s why.

What Do We Mean By “Sensory Input”?

sensory craving vs. sensory avoidant

Before we explore the differences between sensory craving and sensory avoidance, we need to first break down what exactly we mean by “sensory input.”

Think of sensory input as the way our brain interprets information from the world through our five senses: touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste.

For example, when it comes to sight, some kids may be drawn to certain visual patterns or bright objects, while others may become overwhelmed or anxious by these stimuli. The same goes for smells – some kids have a heightened sense of smell and may detect scents that others don’t even notice.

And when it comes to taste, some kids may have specific preferences or aversions to certain flavors or textures.

But it’s not just about the five senses – spatial orientation also plays a role in sensory input. Some kids may seek out physical stimulation, such as rocking back and forth or jumping from heights, while others may be more cautious and avoid these activities. 

With that definition in mind, let’s discuss the key differences between sensory craving and sensory avoidance. 

What is Sensory Craving? 

sensory craving vs. sensory avoidant

Sensory craving, also known as sensory seeking, is a term used to describe kids who have a constant need for sensory input. It’s like they have a sensory diet that needs to be fulfilled in order for them to function properly. Sensory seeking behavior is not a choice, a child acting out, but rather a biological need. 

Recent studies have shown that at least 1 in 20 children experience sensory seeking behavior, with a higher prevalence among children with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This means that if you have a class of 20 kids, there’s probably going to be at least one with some sensory seeking tendencies. 

So, how can we recognize sensory craving in our students? Look out for the kids who are constantly touching objects or people, who seem to have no sense of personal space, who love jumping, spinning and rocking, and who can’t seem to sit still. These kids may also have a higher tolerance for pain, prefer rough play and be drawn to loud noises and bright lights. 

As educators, we are uniquely positioned to help our sensory-seeking students. By incorporating activities that provide sensory input and allowing for movement breaks, we can help these kids feel more focused, less agitated and more ready to learn. 

So let’s get creative! Instead of punishing the kid who can’t sit still, try giving them a fidget toy or a wiggle cushion. Incorporate sensory activities like tactile play with sand or water, or give students the opportunity to take a sensory break by jumping on a trampoline or swinging on a swing. 

What is Sensory Avoidance?

sensory craving vs. sensory avoidant

Sensory avoidance is when a child actively avoids or becomes overwhelmed by certain sensory input. This can include anything from textures and smells to sounds and bright lights. 

Basically, it means that some kids experience sensory input more intensely than others and can become easily overwhelmed in busy or chaotic environments.

Now, you may be thinking, “But isn’t that just being sensitive?” Well, kind of. 

Many sensory avoidant kids are those who are hypersensitive, picking up on sensory input with more intensity than the regular Joe.

This can result in kids who seem timid, picky eaters, or particular about the types of clothes they wear. It’s believed that just about everyone has some sort of sensory-seeking or sensory avoiding behaviors, but the difference is when these behaviors start affecting everyday life. 

So, how can you spot a sensory avoider in your classroom? These kids might not be big fans of physical affection, even from people they know and love. Hugs and kisses can feel overwhelming and uncomfortable for them, so they might pull away or avoid them altogether. 

Loud noises and bright lights? Yeah, those can be major triggers too. What might seem like everyday background noise to you and me could be unbearable for them.

And it’s not just sounds and lights that can throw them off. They might feel extra sensitive to touch, too. Being bumped in line or accidentally jostled by another kiddo can really rattle them. Sometimes, they might even struggle to understand where their body is in relation to everything else around them. That can make crowded or chaotic environments feel downright overwhelming.

What is the Difference Between Sensory Seeking and Sensory Avoidance?

sensory craving vs. sensory avoidant

To recap – sensory seeking refers to a person who actively seeks out sensory experiences, while sensory avoidance refers to a person who avoids or is bothered by sensory experiences.

For example, a sensory seeker may enjoy jumping on a trampoline or spinning in a swivel chair to feel the sensation of movement. On the other hand, a sensory avoider may dislike loud noises or certain textures of food.

It is also important to note that sensory seeking and sensory avoidance can coexist in the same person. For example, a child may seek the sensation of pressure through hugs or tight clothing, but may also avoid certain smells or tastes.

So why is understanding these sensory processing patterns important? Well, for starters, it can help us as educators to better support our students in the classroom.

For example, if we know that a child is sensory seeking, we can provide them with opportunities to move and engage in activities that provide sensory input. This can help them to stay focused and regulated during class.

Similarly, if we know that a child is sensory avoidant, we can work with them to create a safe and supportive environment that takes their sensory needs into account. For example, we can provide them with headphones to block out noise, or offer them alternative options during sensory-rich activities.

How to Help Both Sensory Craving and Avoidant Students

sensory craving vs. sensory avoidant

Whether they are sensory craving or avoidant, there are a few things we can do to help our students thrive. 

1. Offer Deep Pressure Input

First on the list is offering deep pressure input. This can be done through the use of weighted blankets, which provide calming and comforting input to the body. 

Weighted blankets aren’t just a marketing gimmick. In fact, did you know that deep pressure input has been found to improve behavior and attention in students with sensory processing issues? 

A study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found that deep pressure input, such as that provided by weighted blankets, can increase on-task behavior by up to 25%. That’s a pretty significant improvement!

But weighted blankets aren’t the only way to provide deep pressure input. Other options include therapy balls, compression clothing, and even hugs (if appropriate and welcomed by the student). The goal is to provide a sense of security and grounding that can help students focus and regulate their emotions and behaviors.

2. Provide Opportunities for Movement

For students who are sensory craving, movement can be a powerful tool to help them stay engaged and focused in the classroom. Even brief periods of physical activity can improve attention and reduce disruptive behavior. 

On the other hand, students who are avoidant may benefit from movement breaks that allow them to disengage and reset their sensory systems.

So, what does this look like in practice? Depending on the age of your students and the space available, you could try incorporating movement breaks into your lesson plan. 

For example, you could lead a quick round of stretching, yoga poses, or dance moves in between activities. You could also provide fidget tools like stress balls or wiggle seats that allow students to move and fidget quietly at their desks. These small adjustments can go a long way in helping students manage their sensory needs and stay focused.

3. Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment in Your Classroom

This means taking a holistic approach to your classroom setup and considering how each element could impact students with sensory processing issues. 

For example, you might adjust the lighting to reduce fluorescent glare, provide noise-canceling headphones or white noise machines, or offer a variety of seating options to accommodate different preferences.

By creating a sensory-friendly environment, you are sending a message to your students that their needs and preferences are valued and respected. This can go a long way in building trust and rapport, which in turn can improve behavior and academic performance. 

Plus, a more comfortable and calming environment benefits all students – not just those with sensory issues.

4. Add Sensory Toys 

For sensory-craving students, having sensory toys readily available within the classroom can have a calming effect over them. The toys can be small, easily accessible, and not distracting to other students. These sensory toys, such as fidget spinners, squishy stress balls, and textured pillows, can provide a much-needed outlet for the student’s need to fidget or alleviate stress.

One study found that a multi-sensory environment significantly reduced the frequency of challenging behaviors of students with autism, as the students developed a more positive emotional state. 

As sensory avoidance can lead a student to avoid sensory input, and sensory-craving students crave sensory input, providing them with the right tool can go a long way in helping them concentrate and feel comfortable in the classroom.

5. Practice Respecting Boundaries With Your Students

For sensory avoidant students, respecting boundaries is vital. Some students may recoil or even lash out when in contact with touch or personal space, so you need to get to know each child’s limits. You can encourage all students, regardless of their sensory profiles, to respect boundaries.

Start by making a ‘no-touch’ zone visually on the carpet, live with your students, explaining that it’s not polite to touch another person without their consent. 

As they become more comfortable with each other, they may reduce their boundaries’ need; however, it’s better to allow for that rather than imposing boundaries that can lead to an uncomfortable or unsafe classroom environment.

6. Remove Clutter

Another way to help students with sensory processing difficulties is by removing visual and auditory clutter. 

Sensory overload can be overwhelming for any student, let alone a student who experiences sensory processing disorder. That’s why it’s important to create a clear and concise learning environment that limits visual and auditory noise and clutter.

You might think your cute wall decorations are fun and whimsical, but for a student with sensory avoidant tendencies, they could really be distracting from their learning – and causing a lot of unnecessary distress.

Remove unnecessary items from around the classroom if they are not serving a specific purpose. This might include decorations (ideally just the ones that the students have not made), or extra furniture that takes up valuable space. This not only helps sensory processing but can increase productivity for all students by reducing all that visual chaos in the classroom.

7. Get Noise Canceling Headphones

For students who have sensory cravings for certain sounds, noise-canceling headphones can be a game-changer. These headphones filter out background noise and help students focus on specific sounds that they crave. 

For example, a student who is comforted by the sound of rain may benefit from wearing noise-canceling headphones during class. Giving students the tools to regulate their own sensory needs not only helps them feel more comfortable, but it can also improve their focus and concentration.

8. Create Separate Quiet Areas in the Classroom

Students who have sensory avoidant tendencies may benefit from having a designated quiet area in the classroom. This space should be free of distracting sounds and other stimuli, such as bright lights or strong smells. It can be a small nook or corner of the room with comfortable seating, such as bean bag chairs or floor pillows.

Creating a quiet space not only helps students focus, but it also provides a safe haven for students who may become overwhelmed during class. 

9. Take Pre-Emptive Steps to Avoid Triggers 

For both sensory craving and avoidant students, it’s important for educators to be proactive in avoiding triggers. This can include things like dimming the lights, using natural or low-level lighting instead of fluorescent lights, and avoiding strong smells or foods that may be triggering.

But it’s not just environmental factors that educators need to be mindful of. Some students may have sensory sensitivities related to touch, such as certain fabrics or tags on clothing. Keep all these things in mind as you’re planning out your classroom, your curriculum, and your strategies. 

10. Help Them Understand and Identify Their Own Sensory Needs

Finally, one of the most important things educators can do is help students understand and identify their own sensory needs. This means encouraging students to speak up when they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable, and creating a safe space for them to do so.

One way to do this is by providing students with sensory checklists or surveys. These tools can help students identify specific triggers or needs that they may not have been aware of before. By empowering students to understand their own sensory needs, educators can help them take ownership of their learning experience.

Final Thoughts

sensory craving vs. sensory avoidant

Accommodating the diverse needs of our students can be a daunting task. But by helping students understand their own sensory needs, educators can create a comfortable and supportive environment for all students. 

And when students feel comfortable and supported, that’s when they can thrive – and reach their full potential.


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