Improving classroom behaviour: understanding sensory processing disorders

Posted by Jan Daines

Improving classroom behaviour: understanding sensory processing disorders


It’s always gratifying to be in the right place at the right time – especially when, as a result, you learn something so significant that it colours the way that you perceive things from then on. Such was the time when I first became aware of sensory processing disorders. Through an extended conversation with an occupational therapist, I began to understand that it is possible that many of the challenging behaviours that we see in schools have a sensory processing root.

Josh was completely incapable of focusing on any task in the classroom. He would be distracted by anything and when there were no distractions he would do the distracting himself. His behaviours were disruptive to others and extremely difficult to manage because he seemed unable to concentrate.

Much of what is regarded as ‘bad behaviour’ stems from the environment that we expect young people to fit into. It is quite possible to make environmental and routine-based adaptions that will dramatically improve behaviour, concentration and, in so doing, remove an (unrecognised?) barrier to higher achievement for some of our students. Whilst this will be ‘bread and butter’ to many working in special schools, who in mainstream school leadership won’t also want to consider this?

"Some of the challenging behaviours that we see in schools have a sensory processing root"

What is a sensory processing disorder?

Most of us are able to process the information that we gather through our senses in an appropriate way: the 5 that we know well, plus vestibular (to do with balance) and proprioceptive (to do with the perception of our body and where it is located in space). We automatically filter out the hum of an electrical appliance, the flicker of a light or the feel of our clothing against our skin. However, for those who have heightened or suppressed sensory awareness, life can be more challenging and for some, the inability to process sensory information to achieve a ‘just-right’ state can lead to behaviours (some of them extreme) in an attempt to block out or stimulate, as necessary.

A sensory processing disorder may be indicated by behaviours such as:

  • dislike and avoidance of noisy crowded places;
  • prolonged anxiety and an inability to self-calm;
  • lethargy/ unresponsiveness;
  • continual fidgeting;
  • seeking extreme sensations;
  • avoidance of motor-based tasks;
  • handling objects without care, perhaps using inappropriate force.

Of course, whilst these may indicate sensory under or over-responsivity, sensory craving, sensory-motor or discrimination problems, they may not be the result of a sensory processing disorder at all.

"Much of what is regarded as ‘bad behaviour’ stems from the environment that we expect young people to fit into"

5 things you can do if this sounds like a student you know

1. The best thing that you can do is to arrange an assessment by an occupational therapist (OT) with experience in this area who will help to identify whether there is actually an issue and devise a series of strategies for you to implement. Your local authority may have a therapeutic intervention team or you can find a therapist through

If obtaining external support as described above is not possible or slow to materialize, try the following:

2. Work with the student concerned and be open about the outcomes that you’re seeking. ‘Let’s try these things to help you when you begin to do/ feel x or y’.

3. Be analytical… look for trigger points (people, moments, times, transitions, stimuli) and document them. A colleague may be able to help with this by observing in an unobtrusive way. Aim to build a picture of behaviours and possible triggers.

4. Use the ‘trigger list’ to compile a number of things to ‘do differently’. Have a go (one at a time) and observe any impact. Respond by continuing, stopping, amending or making further changes as appropriate.

5. Produce a daily ‘social story’ to help students prepare themselves for the events and experiences of the day ahead. This approach sits well with ensuring that approaches are person-centred and that the student concerned is actively involved.

"For those who have heightened or suppressed sensory awareness, life can be more challenging"

Following an assessment by an OT and the regular implementation of a sensory diet, Josh’s behaviour changed radically. The school was flexible, allowing him time outside in the fresh air and space to address his sensory needs (sometimes using a cocoon swing) during the day. This enabled his system to reach the ‘just-right’ state and resulted in him being able to access the learning in the classroom. Longer-term, academic and personal development benefits for Josh have been just as significant.

If you’d like support or advice on special education needs provision in mainstream or special schools, get in touch. Tribal’s highly qualified SEN specialists, are on hand to provide supportive challenge or external reviews tailored to your exact needs.

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