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Sensory Strategies for Young Children

Overstimulation for children with sensory issues can get in the way of their development. Learn strategies to support children with sensory issues in your classroom.

Sensory Strategies for Young Children

Sensory Strategies for Young Children

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental delays, sensory issues and challenges in the classroom can prevent them from learning, interacting, and focusing as effectively as possible. Sounds, smells, rapid movements, different textures, or other unique sensations can overstimulate children with sensory issues and get in the way of their overall development. 

Providing all children with inclusive, sensory-aware learning environments and strategies designed to prevent or reduce overstimulation can help improve their mood, behavior, and emotional self-regulation.

Young girl wearing headphones.


What are sensory issues? 

Sensory processing issues are challenges that limit the ability to perceive, process, and organize information received through the senses. While sensory issues are often considered a symptom of ASD, not everyone with sensory issues is on the autism spectrum. 

Sensory processing difficulties were first identified by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D. in the 1970s. Dr. Ayres noted that some children and adults were unable to process all of the information coming in internally and externally through seven (not the traditional five) senses. Along with sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, Dr. Ayres added body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular) senses as other forms of information that those with sensory issues could have trouble processing. 

Children with sensory development issues may behave in ways that seem confusing to parents or caregivers. They might have a strong negative reaction to loud noises or bright lights or might complain about their clothes being uncomfortable. Children struggling with sensory processing can also display developmental delays, such as trouble with actions that require fine motor skills, like turning a doorknob or fastening a button.

Classroom strategies for sensory processing disorder

When children have trouble processing sensory information, it can make learning less enjoyable and less impactful. Here are a few classroom sensory strategies early childhood educators can consider to improve participation and comfort for their children with sensory issues.

Have children hug their knees

Ask children to sit on the floor, knees up, feet firmly planted on the floor, and bring their knees under their chin, hugging them tightly. They can rest their chin briefly on their knees as if using them as a table. This strategy integrates proprioceptive input (the ability to perceive the position and movement of the body) when children apply deep pressure from their chin to their knees. 

Create personal learning spaces

This is a good strategy for children who are sensitive to auditory and/or visual inputs. When a child is having strong emotional feelings, it can often be helpful to allow them to move away from the challenging situation at hand and relocate to a private space. This allows them to calm down and helps support self-regulation skills. Create a designated location in your classroom where children can go and use a visual boundary, such as painter’s tape, to mark the space. This will provide visual recognition of where the space is located.

Give children a chair

While circle time on the floor is great for some children, those with sensory issues can benefit from sitting in a chair with a back when they are feeling low-energy. The back support gives them information about where their body is in a space and provides tactile and proprioceptive feedback. 

Use sensory support tools

Ensure that your classroom is stocked up on sensory support tools, like noise-reducing headphones, multisensory toys with different textures, or something in the personal learning space that blocks children’s visual field altogether, such as a folder standing up vertically, to decrease sensory stimulation.

Build a sensory support box

Find a large, firm, and shallow cardboard box and fill it with a few pillows. Children should be able to sit in the box, slightly squished, when dealing with sensory overload. Using this seat the right way, on the rug with their peers, allows them to participate while receiving increased proprioceptive, visual, and tactile feedback.

Sensory accommodations

Studies have shown that sensory processing issues affect 5% to 15% of school-aged children. That is why it is important that early childhood educators structure their physical classroom, schedules, and routines in ways that are inclusive to the needs of children with sensory issues. Here are a few examples of what you can do in your classroom. 

Classroom planning, schedules, and routines

  • Have a daily routine that changes as little as possible
  • Give advance warning of routine changes
  • Build in brain breaks throughout the day
  • Establish clear starting and ending times for tasks
  • Post visual schedules, directions, class rules and expectations 
  • Use visuals with pictures of sensory input choices

Building self-regulation skills

  • Provide a quiet workspace to use when needed
  • Seat children away from doors, windows, or buzzing lights
  • Let children use alternative seating, like an exercise ball or a stand-up desk
  • Consult with an occupational therapist (OT) about attaching a stretchy exercise band to the chair legs or desk for children who need to bounce their feet
  • Let children work in a different position, like lying on the floor using a clipboard or standing at an easel
  • Provide a weighted lap pad, weighted vest, wiggle cushion, or other OT-approved sensory tools
  • Provide earplugs or noise-muffling headphones to help with noise sensitivity
  • Let children use handheld fidget toys
  • Let children sit on a carpet square or beanbag during group seating
  • Let children move as needed within a space outlined with tape or at a seat to the side
  • Work with the children to come up with nonverbal signals to use when overwhelmed or in need of a break
  • Create a proactive behavior plan for handling sensory triggers
  • Give advance warnings and verbal reminders of loud noises like bells, announcements, or planned fire alarms

Giving instructions and assignments

  • Allow extra time for writing to accommodate motor skills fatigue and trouble with body awareness
  • Let the children use speech-to-text software or a computer if possible or necessary
  • Reduce the amount of visual information on the pages of books
  • Provide colored overlays for reading to reduce visual distraction
  • Use blank pieces of paper to cover all but a few of the questions on a page
  • Use manila folders as a screen to block visual distractions
  • Offer pencil grips, slant boards, and bold or raised-line paper for writing
  • Use a highlighter or sticky notes to help the children stay alert and focused
  • Allow the children to listen to music while playing or learning to stay focused and regulated

Activities for sensory processing disorder

When children with sensory processing issues face overstimulation, it can cause them to act out and display inappropriate social and self-regulation skills. Incorporating activities that help reduce overstimulation can help children build healthier self-regulation habits to deal with their emotions when they have trouble processing information. Here are a few sensory strategies you can use for children in your classroom. 

  • Practice deep breathing exercises
  • Read books
  • Blow bubbles or pinwheels
  • Blow into an empty bottle to make soft noises
  • Use finger paint
  • Create with play dough
  • Play calming music or have a dance party 
  • Have children color or decorate a picture
  • Take learning outside

There are a wide number of activities and sensory strategies you can incorporate into your lessons to help support children with sensory issues and developing self-regulation skills. And using a tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report feature can help you easily share real-time updates with families and create individualized learning portfolios for every child in your classroom to make incorporating strategies for them easier and more effective. 

IEP for sensory processing disorder

To ensure all schools and learning facilities provide reasonable accommodations for children with sensory processing issues and other disabilities, the U.S. government passed the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 to enable educators to work with families of children with disabilities to develop customized education plans. 

These plans are known as 504 plans, and they provide necessary accommodations to a child’s learning environment so they can learn in standard classrooms alongside their peers. Similar to 504 plans, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) also serve as a blueprint for creating inclusive special education experiences for children with disabilities. 

The eligibility criteria for a 504 plan and an IEP differ, however. For example, to qualify for an IEP, the child must have one or more disabilities belonging to the 13 categories in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which includes challenges such as learning disabilities or autism, and the disability must affect the child’s ability to learn from a general education curriculum. These provide individualized special education and related services to meet a child’s specific needs. 


Children with sensory issues deserve the same inclusive learning experiences that all other children do. Using sensory strategies and activities designed to help children in your classroom avoid overstimulation and practice self-regulating their emotions is critical to helping them learn, interact, develop, and reach their full potential. 

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