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It’s a well-established fact that quality early education plays a crucial part in a child’s developmental and educational journey. 

However, every child is unique.  They all learn in different ways and this is particularly evident among neurodiverse children whose brains are simply ‘wired differently’. 

Neurodiversity is a broad umbrella term for variations in the human brain and includes Autism Spectrum Disorders, Aspergers, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.   Neurodiversity impacts on the way children think and learn and an early learning or school classroom is very likely to include several children with diverse learning styles - some of which may not yet have been diagnosed.

It is very apparent that classroom environments can’t simply be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ arrangement. 

The more an educator understands neurodiversity, the greater their ability to make a positive impact on a child’s life.  They will be able to tailor their teaching style and adapt their classroom environment to cater to children’s different learning styles.  Some children may be auditory learners, while others may be visual, sensory or tactile learners and creating a learning environment that meets these different needs is key for a child’s early development. 

When differences are embraced rather than rejected or ignored, the child is likely to develop a stronger sense of self and be more willing, eager and able to learn.

Here are some practical ways for educators to adapt their teaching style and create sensory-friendly classrooms in order to help children find a positive learning path that fits their unique brain function.

Creating a sensory-friendly classroom

Many classrooms are very ’busy’, very colourful and have lots of distractions, which may intuitively seem appropriate for sensory stimulation.  However, a sensory-friendly classroom doesn’t need to be elaborate - it actually needs to be a more peaceful template which support the needs of the children in a very natural and inclusive way.

Educators should aim to:

  • Have a neutral colour scheme for furniture and decor
  • Reduce visual distractions by keeping wall decorations to a minimum
  • Take steps to minimise noise and give advance warning of any sensory triggers (eg a bell or fire alarm).   It’s a good idea to put felt pads on the bottom of chair and table legs to reduce noise and fix any auditory distractions like a creaking door or squeaky furniture which can bother children with sensitivities.
  • Be mindful of lighting.   Unnaturally bright fluorescent lights may make a high-pitched buzzing sound which can be a distraction to auditory-sensitive children.  LED lights create a more natural feel.
  • Keep temperature fluctuations to a minimum
  • Avoid things which have a strong smell (eg highly fragranced flowers)
  • Create a quiet space in the classroom where a child can retreat for relaxation, readjustment or regulation
  • Provide alternative seating options (eg an exercise ball) and allow students to work in different positions
  • Schedule regular movement breaks.  If a child needs extra stimulation, the teacher can always use tape to demarcate an appropriate area for them to move around in.
  • Provide a range of appropriate sensory tools, such as a wiggle cushion, sunglasses and fidget toys

Just as the physical environment is really important to support children with special needs, so too is tailoring the educational approach so that their needs can be better recognised and met.  It is also helpful to provide tools and techniques which help children develop their self-regulation skills.

Here are some suggestions for educators:

  • Use visuals to set out directions and reinforce routine and expectations.  These help all children with communication and verbal skills.
  • Give children advance notice of any changes in the daily routine
  • Break tasks down into easy steps and avoid information overload
  • Be mindful of where the neurodiverse children are during class time.  Things to consider include where they are within the group, their proximity to the teacher, how close they are to other children (if they are sensitive to touch) and if they are near any potential distractions.

Essentially, a sensory-friendly or sensory-informed classroom is one which meets the needs of children in a natural way that is supportive, compassionate, and inclusive.  All children, regardless of their diverse needs, should feel accepted in the classroom.  Seeking expert advice and input from specialists such as occupational therapists, psychologists and professionals in the field of neurodiversity will help educators create environments that unlock every child’s potential for learning success and which facilitate healthy growth and development.

Simone O’Brien

Simone O’Brien has been in the childcare industry for 14 years and owns Treasured Tots Early Education, a leading childcare provider in Perth, Western Australia. Treasured Tots has three childcare centres in Mandurah, Bibra Lake and Fremantle and under Simone’s expert leadership, they have established a strong reputation as the benchmark for quality early education in Perth.  Simone was only 22 when she opened her first early education centre in Melville in 2011.  She had completed her Diploma in Children’s Services and had been working in early education for several years when she spotted a gap in the market for a quality childcare option which offered families a ‘home away from home’. 

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