Creating a Sensory Friendly Classroom -- with Dr. Roya Ostovar

I had the great pleasure of  interviewing Dr. Roya Ostovar author of The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder (available for purchase here) last April, and one of my favorite things about that interview (and her book) was learning about her dedication to creating sensory friendly classrooms in her community.

That sparked an idea -- What can I do to help parents, teachers and schools make classrooms sensory friendly?  The logical thing was to start by asking Dr. O for some advice. 

I was just thrilled that she took the time to answer my questions, especially since this time of year she dedicates every spare moment to running an Autism camp near her practice in MA

I think you will find her answers insightful and worth sharing with your child's teacher.  Get ready to click print and then tuck that page in a copy of This is Gabriel Making Sense of School for your child's first day back this fall!


Welcome back Roya!  Thank you so much for returning to HLW3B!  I am excited to hear your ideas on making a sensory friendly classroom.  Let's start with why changing the classroom (vs. just accommodating the child) is necessary?

Thanks for having me back, Hartley.  SPD is on a continuum; it is a variation on a universal condition. We all have experienced times when we need to take a break from the overwhelming sensory information around us. For those with SPD, it is no longer about having sensory preferences, rather it is about having a real disorder that significantly affects their learning and quality of life. Having sensory friendly settings is common sense and it benefits everyone, all students and learners as well as teachers and staff. Changing the classroom also teaches all students how to find practical and adaptive ways of making their setting work for them to allow for optimal learning and functioning, a skill that is beneficial to everyone. It also makes more sense to change the environment to fit the child’s needs and not the other way around. Changing the classroom helps the child with SPD blend in with other students, and it is not isolating, or stigmatizing.
Helping kids with SPD not stand out or be stigmatized is important to parents and teachers alike, but a sensory friendly classroom can be beneficial for all students.  Tell us how a sensory friendly classroom helps all children.

A sensory friendly classroom improves attention, concentration, ability to focus for longer periods of time, learning, social functioning, and it also reduces the overall level of stress. It creates the optimal level of arousal for learning and socializing because the students are not in an over-reactive or under-reactive state, rather they are at just the right level for learning. The opposite is also true that if they are anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed they can not access learning or socializing opportunities.

Many teachers are overwhelmed at the idea of 'changing everything' in their classroom for one child.  Of course they want to help, but change is hard for everyone.  Give a simple example of how each sense can be accommodated in the classroom that every teacher could easily do.

For more specific and multiple examples of the accommodations that can be made, a book I authored titled “The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder” offers a comprehensive guide. However, here are just a few examples:

Vision: Reduce/ eliminate clutter and visual distractions; modify assignments to be shorter; use a highlighter

Auditory: Reduce/eliminate distracting noise; play Mozart or calming music in the background when possible

Tactile: Allow students to use chalk on the board because it is more tactile rich

Olfactory: Use scented markers to wake kids up; have lavender lotion or soap; and avoid noxious odors in the classroom

Vestibular: Allow movement and breaks; offer therapy balls to sit on; Movin-Sit cushions benefit the whole classroom; stretch breaks, start class with movement activities

Properioception: Movement, Movin-Sit cushions, Brain Gym, Yoga, Chair push ups (i.e. sitting on hands and pushing up); chairs and tables at right height and positioned correctly

Great ideas -- and so easy for teachers to actually do!  How can parents help make this happen? What ‘donations’ or ‘projects’ can they volunteer to do to make this easier for teachers?

Parents must think of themselves as the teachers’ partners in the classroom. Instead of telling teachers what to do, parents should provide collaborative support and offer their assistance in creating an environment that benefits students, improves learning and reduces behavioral problems. Volunteerism is the best form of team-building with parents and teachers. For example, if furniture noise is a problem, offer to purchase and outfit the bottom of chairs with tennis balls after schools hours. Another example would be to volunteer to make a fidget basket for kids to make available for circle time/morning meeting/homeroom. An additional simple and inexpensive, but helpful, example is to supply more proprioceptive snacks, such as crunchy foods, popcorn, pretzels, and sugar free gum. Clearly, teachers must be privy to and approve all volunteer efforts ahead of time.

Why is a sensory-friendly classroom so important for kids with SPD/Autism?

A sensory friendly classroom gets the kids with SPD and ASD ready to learn; improves the overall functioning of the child including learning, attention, concentration, social functioning, and behavioral presentation; and lowers their stress and anxiety levels. Without a sensory friendly classroom and a well integrated sensory system, the child’s basic needs for a calm and responsive state of functioning are not met, therefore, academic learning can-not take place effectively.

A good analogy would be if a child is hungry, they can not focus on learning and they may be irritable, distracted, and lethargic. Until the child’s hunger need area is met, he/she can-not be ready to learn. Hunger is a more basic need compared to the need and desire to learn. Similarly, unless a child’s sensory needs are met first he/she can not focus on learning and academic tasks.

What is the first step to making a sensory friendly classroom for a new teacher?

The first step is to understand SPD, see the classroom from the perspective of the child with SPD, put yourself in the child’s shoes and take it from there. Chapter 2, page 49, of my book can help greatly walk a new teacher through this process. Two quick suggestions: 1) Simplify the classroom: Less is more. Take a minimalistic approach to setting up the room and; 2) Support all learning styles: Some kids learn through auditory channels, some visual, and some through kinesthetic and hands on activities. By the same token, incorporate activities that support the sensory channel and each child’s sensory profile.

Where can teachers get ideas for more sensory-friendly things they can do in their classroom?

My book, “The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder”, provides detailed information on sensory-friendly classrooms. A step-by-step guide for teachers, as well as parents, can be found in chapter 6 – How to help Create a Sensory-Friendly Classroom – on page 173. There are also two powerful case examples of how the right sensory classroom makes a difference in the academic performance and behavior of a child.


A heartfelt thank you to Dr. O for sharing her insights with us!  Making classrooms sensory friendly is an amazing way to provide a deeper level of understanding and compassion for our ASD/SPD kids -- and it allows them the space they need to practice social skills and make friends. 

How will you help your child's teacher make the classroom sensory friendly?

1 comment:

Mia @ Finding Balance said...

Great ideas and interview. Thank you.