Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is quickly becoming a cornerstone in the world of education, and the inclusion of those with special needs is becoming increasingly important. Central to SEL being effective is being able to apply it in a learning environment designed and equipped to create in students a sense of well-being such they feel safe and secure, and, thus, ready and willing to learn. This is no less the case for those with special needs. To illustrate that, let me step you though some examples of how one SEL competency, self-management, can be instilled in students with special needs with simple, yet effective, enhancements to the classroom.
Understanding Sensory Processing as Part of SEL
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is defined as a process for helping children gain critical skills for life effectiveness. These include concepts such as developing positive relationships, behaving ethically and handling challenging situations effectively. (AOTA SEL Info Sheet). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) further identifies Five Competencies for Success as part of their framework and mission to “….educate hearts, inspire minds, and help people navigate the world more effectively.”
For many students, especially those with special needs, the Competencies in Self-Management (the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors which includes managing stress, and controlling impulses) are a challenge to implement. They may be over or under responsive to touch, movement, sights or sounds and so their sensory systems may need adjusting before they can take on more complex cognitive and emotional tasks of problem solving and/or responding appropriately to peer interactions.
Sensory Systems that Impact Self-Management
Below are some of these main sensory systems which may have the most impact on Self- Management:
Movement sense and our relationship of our bodies to gravity. Movement can be used for calming or alerting, such as a baby that is calmed by gentle linear rocking or a student that stays alert during class by wiggling in a seat and/or swinging/tapping a leg or foot. An Egg Chair Swing or a Core Disk Cushion are good examples of sensory options to meet vestibular needs.
Touch sense from our skin receptors. Some children are oversensitive to touch and become defensive to input from sand/water tables or finger paints, while other students seek extra touch input so often have trouble keeping hands to self or tend to chew on inappropriate items (clothing, pencil tops etc.) to help stay focused and calm. From Abilitations Squash It Series of Fidgets to the Chewigems necklace we offer a sensory buffet of items from to find that just right touch input for each child.
This is information from receptors in muscles and joints that help with body awareness. Deep touch pressure and heavy work activities (like a massage or carrying bags of groceries) activate this sense which may also help with self-regulation/calming. Many students need extra input in this area to help them define where their bodies are in space. For example, the child that crashes/bashes deliberately into furniture or other children (NOT good self- management!) or the student that uses their hand to trail along the wall during a busy hallway transition. Abilitations solutions like the Kordy Weighted Giraffe for younger children, or the Covered in Comfort 3 Ring Binder Weight Insert for older students offer discrete options for providing extra heavy work input for calming and organizing during busy transitions or circle/study time.
Children with SOR (Sensory Over Responsivity) may be easily over whelmed with sights and sounds in the classroom. Fluorescent lights can cause excess glare, while auditory background noises like an hvac fan, computer or shuffling papers and classroom chatter may feel like a bombardment to their auditory system. This can lead to withdrawal and isolation or escalation in the form of aggressive behavior. Solutions like the Cozy Shades for overhead lights or the Vibes Earbuds for sound reduction may help promote better choices in self management by reducing the incidence of sensory overload.
Learn More About Sensory Tool Bags
To Learn more about Sensory Processing and our new Sensory Tool Bags with solutions designed for Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Students check out our website shop for sensory processing tools.
Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L has a BS degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Florida, and her Master’s degree in Education from Georgia State University. She is SIPT certified and has over 25 years’ experience in pediatrics with school-based services, acute care, and outpatient pediatric settings.
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