Christy Laarakker

When Activities are too Much: Responding to Sensory Needs

We all get excited as teachers about discovering activities and resources that will make our studios alive and our lessons fun and engaging. While learning is an exploratory process, that exploration can sometimes be too much for individuals with a variety of sensory needs. For example, for some children with autism, a multi-sensory room can become overwhelming. For children with sensory processing disorders, lots of colours, noises, and sounds can be intensely uncomfortable.

Here are a few tips for using resources that can set you up for success in creating an effective learning space for students with special needs: 


Pick one or two resources to use as a tool during the lesson. Using one or two resources allows the student to learn through a variety of learning methods (multi-modal approach) while ensuring that the student is not overwhelmed by all the new stimuli. This also minimizes the number of needed transitions between activities which would otherwise unnecessarily challenge students who require more structure and routine in lessons. 

Have the items/resources hidden until ready to be used. Having resources scattered around your teaching space can be distracting and lead to sensory overload for your student. Have a box or storage in your teaching space where you can have your tools ready and waiting to be used, but out of sight to your students. Additionally, for students who hyper-focus on items, it can be hard to do another activity if they have already seen the item.

“Clean up” between activities. Actively putting the item, object, or activity away can create closure and prepare the student to transition to the next activity. If the resource is still sitting out in plain view, the student may still focus on it to some degree, making it difficult to shift over to the next learning step. If you involve the student in cleaning up the activity (such as putting the xylophone back in its box or putting a music game back in its bag) the student can also better understand that that activity is finished.

Use a theme for your lesson. Even if your student does not understand the theme, having one can help ensure there is a structured flow to the lesson. A theme can assist in transitioning from activity to activity by harmonizing intended concepts. Themes also provide an outlet for learning when a student is hyper-focussed on a tool being used. For example, if you are using a squishy caterpillar for sensory needs during one of the lessons, the caterpillar can become the theme of the lesson. The student can learn about “caterpillar C” on the keyboard, make the caterpillar crawl quietly or loudly across the keys, and make the caterpillar dance to the beat.  

Observe your students’ responses. Paying attention to how the student responds to the lesson while using tools and resources is vital when deciding whether the activity is appropriate for them. These signs of over or under stimulation may not always be black and white and can sometimes be opposite of what would be expected. Perhaps the student is distracted or not able to stay in one place because of feeling overwhelmed. The student could also seem anxious or not willing to try an activity. Short attention spans could also, surprisingly, be the result of too much stimulation. In essence, the feedback you receive from students is not always easy to interpret. Consider that your interpretation may not be accurate and be willing to be flexible and open-minded. 


Having a fascinating tool or resource incorporated in the lesson can create excitement and encourage understanding. While there is no “perfect plan” to using resources, watch and listen to your student and be willing to adjust as needed. Your favourite activity may not be best suited for you student, even if it a stellar idea! Finally, give you student some time to adjust to using resources in the lesson. New activities may require some adjustment time, meaning even if they are not helpful in the first lesson, they could be a perfect fit by week two or three. Have fun discovering your students’ activity needs and see it as an outlet for creativity. 


Happy Teaching!
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