Developing continuous provision for sensory needs

Minimising barriers to achievement for pupils with sensory and physical needs should be a priority throughout the school day. Joanna Grace provides examples of activities you can use

Author details

Joanna Grace is an international inclusion and sensory engagement consultant, trainer and author, and the founder of The Sensory Projects.

A programme for sensory inclusion relies on a good start to the school day, coupled with continuous efforts to support sensory processing in the classroom.

This means personalising experiences to pupils with more profound disabilities, and ensuring that the activities you run - in a sensory circuit or at other times in the day - will reinforce auditory, visual, olfactory (smell), taste, touch, vestibular and proprioceptive development.

In this guide, you will find:

  • an introduction to two of the main senses: sight and smell
  • suggestions for designing a sensory circuit to target these specific senses
  • suggestions for providing continuous support for sensory needs
  • ideas for simple classroom activities
  • some final suggestions for including pupils with sensory needs in the classroom. 

An introduction to sight

As a society, we share the majority of our information visually – these little squiggles you are currently reading, for example. Almost 30 per cent of our cerebral cortex is dedicated to the processing of sight information.

As teachers, it’s important to acknowledge that not all pupils will process visual information the way we do. The implicit assumption therein is that all teachers are neurotypical, but you may not be. Anyone who knows how visually overwhelming a patterned carpet or boldy-decorated room can appear will understand why this can affect the behaviour of a pupil with autism, for example.  

For some senses, you would use a sensory circuit or classroom activity to provide an experience where previously there was none. Sight is an exception. The background to the stimulus is integral to how successful the stimulation itself proves.

For example, if you ask pupils to look at an object and focus on it, think about how you present it. Do you hold it up against a background of other visually stimulating items, so that pupils may pick it out? Or do you display it against a plain background that wouldn’t place as great a demand on their visual processing?

Including visual experiences in a sensory circuit

Visual experiences are often left out of sensory circuits, for the aforementioned reason. Practitioners typically assume that the bright colours of the materials and equipment will be enough. But for the more ambitious, tunnels and parachutes provide pupils with opportunities to move from light to darkness: a valuable visual experience.

Similarly, running or crawling under a multi-coloured parachute canopy offers the opportunity to be covered in colour. During the circuit sessions, give visual instructions as well as verbal ones: ask all pupils to move so they are standing under a yellow section of the parachute or under a red section, for example.

A responsive teacher will change the classroom environment to match the needs of pupils, not present things strictly in their own preferred style

Contrast these immersive sight experiences with challenges that ask pupils to process visual information in a more focused way, for example simple target activities. Make sure the target stands out visually from its background, and ensure the object being propelled towards the target is itself easy to identify.

Continuous provision for visual needs

Is your classroom visually overwhelming or does it support visual focus? There is no right or wrong way to lay out a room, but visual information needs to be presented so that it is accessible to all pupils. A responsive teacher will change the classroom environment to match the needs of pupils, not present things things strictly in their own preferred style

Brightly-coloured wall displays are often thought to be the mark of a good classroom. However, there is a case to be made against having displays on every wall. Even those pupils who are resistant to visual overload will stop processing new information at some point.

While your carefully-crafted displays suck up hours of your time, they won’t necessarily be a benefit to your pupils.

  • Consider having just one or two display boards for pupils, perhaps on adjacent walls. Make displays of essential items, such as your break duty rota, muted in tone. Matt paper will not reflect light and become unduly distracting.
  • Using Velcro dots across a wall is a great way to create an interchangeable display, perhaps have a ‘word wall’ one week and a ‘times tables wall’ the next. Pupils could create these displays over the course of a lesson, velcroing on their contributions.

If you are worried about pupils who may rely on seeing key words on display for their spelling during independent writing, find another way of providing this information – not everything has to be on the wall! A desk tidy with a hundred square and a list of key words could be a good start.

Create a background for your teaching rather than a display that detracts from it

Think about where you stand when talking to your pupils and what you wear. Create a background for your teaching rather than a display that detracts from it. Natural colour tones are good to use as we are all programmed to find these soothing.

Classroom activity

On a typical day, how often do you instruct your pupils to look at something? It is likely that most of the tasks you set rely on your pupil’s ability to use their vision. But when you ask pupils to look in a certain direction, what do you expect from them?

Try re-framing the instruction so that everyone stands up to point at something; a movement-based instruction as opposed to a visual one.

If it is important that pupils actually look at something, you should:

  1. ask them to shut their eyes and imagine what they expect to see, in detail
  2. ask them to open their eyes again and compare what they actually see with what they expected to see. 

An introduction to smell

While our other senses are processed by the thinking brain (thalamus), our sense of smell is processed by the emotional brain (limbic system). This creates some useful opportunities to create sensory experiences for pupils.

When including aromatic experiences in sensory circuits or classroom activities, be sure to check that no pupils are sensitive or allergic to certain smells

If you ask pupils to describe what they can see or touch, they have the vocabulary at their disposal. They can describe its shape, texture or colour. But scents are far more difficult to describe, an oddity which could form the basis of a creative writing challenge.

Smells can support our long-term memory. When including aromatic experiences in sensory circuits or classroom activities, be sure to check that no pupils are sensitive or allergic to certain smells.

Including olfactory experiences in a sensory circuit

When running sensory circuits, staff may instinctively prioritise physical activities. This needn’t be the case.

  1. Make sure that pupils are well hydrated, as the process of smelling involves the dissolving of scent molecules in the nose. A dehydrated pupil will have an impaired ability to smell.
  2. At the start of the circuit, offer an awakening smell: something zingy and bright, such as lemon grass or peppermint oil.
  3. Put a few drops of the liquid on a cotton pad in a sealed plastic container. This infuses the air and amplifies the smell.
  4. Include a calming smell at the end of the circuit. Lavender and camomile are recognised for their soothing aromas. Each pupil could hold a lavender flower and gently manipulate it to release the aroma. Lavender oil or a hand lotion could be used as alternatives.

Continuous provision for olfactory needs

You may have considered the light and noise levels in the classroom. But have you thought about what it smells like?

When the students have gone home stand in your room and breath in slowly and steadily through your nose (don’t sniff). How does your room smell?

Consider keeping the classroom door and windows open to keep the air refreshed.

Classroom activity

  1. Place different fresh herbs into pillow cases.
  2. Invite students to scrunch up the cases – the breaking of the leaves will release the scent – and smell.
  3. Ask them to write a description of their favourite smell. Discourage them from simply identifying what they can smell, and encourage them to think of good words to describe the fragrance. 

The processing of smells is critical to our mental wellbeing: engaging with the right smells at the right times can help us deal with stress, anxiety or depression.

Be aware that for students who are struggling with poor mental health, ordinary smells may not be enough. For these pupils, you should look to include bright bold smells in all manner of activities.

Top tips for sensory inclusion in the classroom

  • Begin your lesson with something to capture pupils' attention: a taste, a smell or some music. A rich sensory experience can be more memorable than a learning objective on an interactive whiteboard. 
  • Offer low-level sensory experiences throughout your lesson, especially to those who need them most. This could be something to fiddle with, opportunities to move around or textured cushions.
  • Make use of everyday resources, such as blue tac or textured pen pots. Depriving pupils of objects to manipulate is a barrier to their concentration and inimical to their learning. 
  • Offer intervals in your lesson: movement is the best way to stimulate our proprioceptive and vestibular senses. If you have something technical you want pupils to learn, try associating each section of it with a movement. 


Last Updated: 
16 Aug 2017