With school starting again I have been thinking about our kids with Autism, Sensory integration disorder, anxiety, and all types of special needs. How can teachers and schools make their classroom environment a better place to learn? This topic came up in discussion yesterday. And it occurred to me that with some small inexpensive changes, a school can be much more user friendly for our special needs kids.
First, I need you to know that my experiences have been with elementary aged kids. I know some high schools are getting more progressive and have decompression rooms. The kids at these high schools are encouraged to go use the facility when they feel they need it.
But young children are not in tune with their needs and often can’t tell you when they need a break. They may not even be able to identify the emotion they are feeling in the moment. As the leader in the classroom it will fall to you to guarantee these kids get their breaks.
Should these changes be made only in special needs classrooms, or in every classroom? I would say that they should be in every classroom.
The higher functioning an autistic individual is, the later their diagnosis often occurs. So, there are children in your classroom that simply haven’t been diagnosed. And every individual will benefit from a more soothing environment. With that in mind, let’s dive in.
Switch to LED
So many schools have the dreaded fluorescent lighting. Sensitive individuals can see the tiny flickers that occur in a traditional fluorescent bulb. And they are known to cause migraines and a more stressful environment.
A simple switch to an LED bulb would make a huge difference in the classroom. LED lighting is better for the human nervous system and uses a lot less electricity. So, you are saving the planet along with helping your students.
When you are preparing your classroom for the coming year, the colors you choose can make a big difference. A lot of elementary teachers will use the whole color scheme creating a rainbow of color in their classroom.
Fun as this sounds, for sensitive children this is quite overwhelming. If you will reduce your color palette to two or three more relaxing colors (think spa), these kids will have an easier time. If you are looking for inspiration, blues and greens are soothing. But as long as you keep to a couple colors you should be fine.
Reducing the number of decorations on the walls will also help distractible and sensitive individuals. I’ve been in classrooms where every inch of wall space is covered in posters, projects, banners and flags. Your eyes don’t know where to look first. Although visually interesting, this will quickly become overwhelming for a young child trying to focus.
Recently I was consulting an expert on how to make my homeschool room better for my son. I wanted to help reduce distractions, and her first suggestion shocked me. She said I needed to clear the clutter.
Every pile of papers, supplies, books and projects draws the distractible eye away from the subject you are discussing. She recommended that I only have out what we are doing right then.
And as we finish a topic that we should put away the supplies for that subject before we get out the next. In this way young minds are able to focus on what you have planned.
She taught me that for an ASD individual, or one with ADD/ADHD, their favorite topics are always swirling in their minds. If they love vacuum cleaners, Xbox, and hamsters, all these intense interests are there competing with your message for airtime.
That’s why they often seem in their own world, because their internal dialogue is busy! So decreasing the external noise, and clutter, is vital.
For a kid who has a lot going on in his mind, getting more parts of his body engaged in the world will increase his focus. Having soothing music without a dominating melody is one great way to do that. Enya, Yani, or classical music turned down very low will give you a soothing background.
Also having the students read then write a summary of what they just read engages more of their body and mind. Hands on projects, or even having quiet fidget toys handy can help keep your audience engaged.
Finally, multi Modal learning is something my son’s doctor recommended when she gave him his diagnosis. I have learned multi modal means multiple communication types being used at once.
A video is multi modal because there are pictures and sounds. Building a model is multi modal because you are reading instructions as you assemble it. So the more you can integrate multi modal learning into the classroom, the better for these kids.
Avoid strong smells and bright lights
This is all a balancing act, so my next suggestion may sound weird. Keep the scents in the room to a minimum. Some kids are sensitive to smells, and for a sensitive kid one more sense being too engaged can lead to a meltdown.
Overly bright lights are often overwhelming too. If your classroom gets a lot of sunlight, especially direct sunlight, make sure to use the shades. No student can learn when the sun is in their eyes. And reducing the intensity of the light will help calm your nerves as well.
Separate place for lunch
Something that never occurred to me until my son was refusing to go to lunch at school, was how overwhelming all the different smells and sounds were for him.
His lunchroom held 2-3 grades at a time. And with several hundred lunches the smells mixed in his super sensitive nose and made him want to gag. So, we asked the administration if he could eat lunch in the conference room.
They soon had a small group of kids (all sensitive to the noise of the lunchroom) eating together every day. When a principal is mindful of their student’s needs, they can be a powerful ally. If you can manage it, a separate location for lunch will help these sensitive kids a lot.
Sound dampening panels
One of the drawbacks of a large room, such as a school room, is that it tends to echo. The walls bounce the noise around and magnify the cacophony of sound. Traditional sound dampening panels are expensive.
But I found a tutorial where you can make your own from an artist’s canvas filled with bath towels. We put them up in my son’s room and covered them with posters. It’s a creative way to reduce the noise and it has helped my son sleep better.
If you have read this far, you are dedicated to helping your students be more comfortable at school. I commend you! These changes can make a big difference. And with a more friendly learning environment, everyone will go home at the end of the day less stressed.
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. Having completed training to be an RBT (Registered Behavior Technician) for ABA therapy she is beginning to understand her son. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism, Abby wants you to know that the challenges can be overcome, and there are blessings in autism. You or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.