Preventing Sensory Overstimulation in the Classroom

Discover steps you can take to reduce sensory overstimulation during your lessons by making slight adjustments to the environment, materials, and content.

Preventing Sensory Overstimulation in the Classroom
  • Planning
  • Teaching
  • Practical Tips & Accommodations

Preventing Sensory Overstimulation in the Classroom

Try

If enough natural light is available in the space, try turning off the overhead lights to reduce the noise from fluorescent bulbs.

Try

Instead of raising your voice to gain students’ attention and refocus the group, try using a visual method, like a “Quiet” sign or signal.

Try

Revealing each visual direction one at a time, and keeping the rest out of sight.

What is Sensory Overstimulation?

The more stimulation in an environment, the more competition there is for attention from the part of a student’s brain needed to focus. Processing may slow down or stop if a student is overloaded with visual/auditory information.

Students may be under or over-responsive to outside stimuli, so maintaining a balance in the classroom is important. In general, keeping a “low stimulus” classroom can help students focus on the stimuli on which you want them to focus.

Many of these tools might be more useful to classroom teachers and how they set up their rooms to begin with. However, they may be helpful for you to know as you choose what materials to bring in and as you move things around when you come in for your arts residency.

Setting Up Low-Stimulus Classrooms

Teaching Artists (TAs) are “visitors” to a classroom, but as you develop a relationship with the Classroom Professionals you may be able to integrate more of these strategies. You may be visiting the same room over a long period of time. This may give you the opportunity to have more of a say in the set up of the classroom or of the space you use while you are there as a guest.

Remote Teaching and Learning Tip:

Certain elements of the digital experience can be overstimulating to some students

  • Switching between various visual settings: screen sharing, multiple participant or single speaker view
  • Sound carries very differently and often in a harsher way on digital platforms
  • Lots of visuals moving quickly in and out of videos
  • Switching between full group and small group without prepping for transitions

Consider your space and digital box and the effect these can have on students

  • The light in your screen: is it hard to see you?
  • The background behind you: is it cluttered? Is it hard to focus on you? Are there distracting images or text?
  • Audio feedback or echoing
  • Angle of the camera

Consider how you balance between multiple modalities of instruction and expression and how you can offer sensory breaks

  • Everyone turns their cameras off
  • Everyone mutes their microphones to reduce background noise
  • Invite everyone to find a household item that makes them feel calm
  • Have a moment to focus on only audio input or visual input

Minimize Visual Distractions

  • Store resources out of sight if possible (especially the really cool things that you bring in; try keeping them in a bag or under a cloth so that students won’t be distracted by them).
  • Wait to distribute materials until they are needed.
  • Reveal one agenda item, visual object/cue and instruction at a time. Keep the others out of sight when not needed.
  • Use an arrow or other marker to point to a specific direction, focus, or visual aid as needed.
  • Try to put your visuals on blank backgrounds (i.e. not on top of the visual materials already posted on the walls by the Classroom Professionals). Alternatively, bring a larger blank piece of paper to create your own “blank space” for visual supports.
  • Turn off computers and SMARTboards when not in use.
  • Close blinds when necessary.
  • Position visually distractible students away from windows/doors, facing the front of the room and facing away from other students.
  • Use screens or folders to reduce visual stimulation during individual work.
  • If a student is over-responsive to tactile stimulation try positioning them at the end of a line or on the side with space between them and other students. Provide clear boundaries (e.g. colored tape, carpet square, polydots) to allow for adequate space between students.
  • Be judicious about what you share visually. Ask the following questions about any visual supports, posters, signs, and displays for your lessons:
    • What purpose does this serve?
    • Does it celebrate and support student learning?
    • Who is represented in the images? Do they reflect the diversity of the classroom and the community?
    • Is it current and in line with what is being learned at this moment?
    • Can it be made interactive?
    • Is there white space in between visual supports to help the eye distinguish what is important?

Reduce Noise

  • Raising your voice to gain attention might be overwhelming for a student who is sensitive to noise. Use a visual or non-verbal method to gain class attention (e.g. turning the lights off/on or holding up a “quiet” sign). Establish with the class what strategies you will use (i.e. do not surprise students by turning off the lights).
  • Consider how many times you ask students to move around the room or move their furniture.
  • Be mindful of music volume and speaker placement.
  • Put rubber feet or furniture sliders on tables, chairs, and set pieces to prevent a “scraping” sound when they are moved.

Other Tips

Be sensitive about scents

When working with materials that have strong odors, keep windows open so there is proper ventilation. Avoid wearing perfumes or strongly scented products.

Use color strategically

Colors can affect our own mood, and the same is true about the students in our classrooms. Colors that tend to calm = blues, greens, violet, white, and pastels. Colors that tend to energize = red, yellow, orange. Colors that stimulate imagination = purples. Learn more about Classroom Color Psychology in the Additional Resource below.

Let in natural light

Using natural light whenever possible can help reduce the need for fluorescent lighting, which might buzz or flicker. If there is a high level of stimuli outside, you may need to draw the blinds.

External Resources