Assessing the Sensory Needs of Preschool Children: A Guide for Teachers

Studies have shown that approximately 1 in 20 children have a sensory issue severe enough that it impacts their participation in daily routines and activities. So what does this mean for the classroom teacher? It means that there is a very good chance that she either has a child in her class with sensory needs, or will in the very near future. 

So, in her observations, what should the classroom teacher look for when assessing sensory needs in her students? And when during the school day is the best time to make these observations?
There is no designated time for the teacher to assess her students’ sensory needs, as every moment of the day provides an opportunity to make these observations. For example, when we’re assessing children ages 3-5, we can look for sensory needs during circle time, free play, tabletop (structured) activities, lunch/snack time, etc. We can even assess a child’s sensory needs when playing on the playground. In other words, you can assess a child’s sensory needs from the moment they arrive to school in the morning to the time they leave to go home.
Let’s delve a little deeper and use circle time as an example.
When children are in circle time, and are expected to attend to “morning meeting” activities (story, calendar, songs, etc.), is the child able to focus for age appropriate lengths of time? For children 5 years of age, we might expect them to attend for about 10 minutes, so if circle time is longer than that, we might want to consider shortening our circle time activities. If circle time is 10 minutes or under, and the child is constantly fidgeting on the rug, has difficulty keeping his hands to himself, or appears to be distracted by sights or sounds within his environment, we might want to consider making some modifications so that he is better able to attend. Providing the child with a fidget toy (Koosh balls, straws, stress balls, etc.), may help occupy the child’s hands, which may then help keep his hands to himself and away from his neighbors. For children who appear to have visual or auditory distractions, try limiting unnecessary background noise, and remind the children that only one person speaks at a time. For children who are visually distracted, try to limit distractions such as objects dangling from the ceiling, bright colors that might occupy the wall, etc. If the child is constantly moving around on the rug, he may not be aware of his body/position in space. Sometimes, children just need a defined space to better help them focus and attend for age appropriate lengths of time. Try having the child sit on a rug square, which might provide him with appropriate boundaries as to where to sit. So that the child is not being singled out, you might want to have every student sit on a rug square.
Remember, when we’re including children with learning differences, from mild to severe, we want to include them in the least restrictive environment. So, if there’s a way to include ALL of the students when incorporating interventions, by all means, include everyone! Yes, the child may need a more restrictive intervention (such as sitting on a bouncy ball for proprioceptive input), but it’s always best to start out with something less restrictive (such as a rug square) and work your way up from there, if necessary. Some children may need to sit on a chair with arms, as this would provide them with a more defined space. Again, if this is the case, you might want to try this with the whole class. Just use your best judgment as you are the professional and, next to the parent, you know your students better than anyone!
Also, some children are bothered by things that may not necessarily bother you and me, such as the tag in the back of their shirt. And simply clipping the tag may not do the trick (and may not please the child’s parents) as this may scratch the child’s neck if the entire tag is not removed. For children who are bothered by tags, you might want to recommend to the parent purchasing some tagless shirts. Doing so would eliminate this problem. And let’s not forget about fans in the classroom! Ceiling and floor fans may bother children when they’re attending for structured activities, as they may not like how this feels on their skin. (Honestly, I can’t even sleep with the ceiling fan on in the bedroom!) Sure, you may need to keep the fans running as classrooms often get pretty hot, but if the child is bothered by this, try positioning the fan so that the air is not directly hitting them.
Many of the issues I talked about could affect children not just in circle time but when participating in other activities as well, such as free play, lunch/snack time and tabletop activities. And let’s not forget children who are sensitive to certain textures and temperatures when eating lunch or snack. For children who have these sensory issues, consult with their parents as to what foods might be most appropriate. After all, what works for the child at home will probably work for the child at school, too!
Once you make your observations, try implementing appropriate interventions. Yes, much of it will be through trial and error but that’s the only way we’ll know what works. And, again, consult with the parent to see what’s working for child at home. It is also best to consult with an occupational therapist (if possible) as she has the training and expertise to recommend appropriate practices in regards to working with children with sensory needs.
Again 1 in 20 children has a sensory issue to some degree – but each child is an individual, and each sensory need is unique. One size surely doesn’t fit all, so keep that in mind when assessing your students and when determining the most appropriate interventions.


About Craig Gibson

Craig Gibson is Editor of SensorySpot and a writer for the projectLD family of companies. Craig spent twelve years in special education, and has since earned two degrees and has published on the local and national levels. Follow Craig as he shares his incredible insight, experiences and reflections.
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