Recognizing and responding to students with sensory issues (SPD)

Christy Isbell

Christy Isbell


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was inspired by an webinar entitled Sensory Integration: Recognizing and Responding to Young Children with Sensory Issues, presented by Christy Isbell, PH.D OTR/L, and sponsored by Kaplan Early Learning Company.

Do you have students in your classroom who can’t seem to sit still? Or those who can’t stand to be touched? This might be indicative of sensory processing disorder (SPD). Over 5 percent of children aged 4 to 8 suffer from this, and over 90 percent of students with autism have SPD, said Christy Isbell, author and pediatric occupational therapist, during a December 2015 webinar.

Nearly all of us have some sort of sensory issue — for example, an aversion to fingers on the chalkboard, or the way clothing tags feel, or disliking a certain texture of food. But those with SPD have such strong reactions that they cannot function normally.

There are actually seven senses which affect SPD. There are the five most recognized (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing). And there are two more: vestibular, involving movement and balance (located in the inner ear), which tells you when you are moving in space, and proprioception (brought in through our joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons), which makes you aware of body position, so that you can use your hands and do things like touch your nose with your eyes closed.



SPD sufferers come in two categories: sensory seekers, who crave more and more input, and sensory avoiders, who equate input with pain. Some children are both seekers and avoiders, seeking one sense and avoiding another.

There are two categories of SPD most recognizable by teachers: a vestibular (movement/balance) seeker, and tactile (touch) avoider.

Vestibular seekers are sometimes misdiagnosed as having ADHD because they can’t seem to sit still. Although nearly every child likes to move around, these students want 10 to 20 times as much movement as other children. They are in constant motion, take safety risks, are impulsive, and run instead of walk.

Tactile avoiders say “Ouch!” to everyday touch experiences. These children may respond to light or unexpected touch with an excessive negative response such as screaming, running away, or hitting or biting, which leads to fights. They avoid messy experiences. They might be extremely picky eaters. They refuse to hold hands and don’t like to be kissed or hugged.

As a teacher, your role is to be sensory-aware, prevent problems, and respect the child’s emotions. Here are some practical ideas for dealing with SPD.

Vestibular seekers

  • Provide more movement throughout the day — at least one hour total of large motor activity, inside as well as outside with things such as a small trampoline, therapy ball, or balance beam.
  • Give the child a standing table so he or she can stand instead of sit while learning, and put tape on the floor as a visual boundary of where to stand.
  • When the child must sit, provide a child-sized rocking chair, pillow, or ball to sit on. (One teacher made pillows in a variety of shapes and colors and used them as a learning tool.)
  • Alternate active and quiet learning activities. Understand that if a child is sitting, even if having a lunch or snack, it’s a quiet activity.

Tactile avoiders

  • Do not force the child to touch! This is like force-feeding someone and does not build trust.
  • Tell the child before a touch is going to occur (for example, “I’m going to help you wash your hands” or ”I’m going to take your hand to walk down the hall.”)
  • Prevent unexpected touches when possible and do not put the child in the middle of other children. Instead, make the child a line leader or follower, or have him or her sit next to an adult.
  • Allow the child to initiate touch.
  • Look for other ways to allow the child to participate in learning activities, such as using tools instead of hands, or watching first then touching later. Some kids may progress gradually after watching other kids. Be patient.
  • Create a quiet corner, where the child can go if overwhelmed by sensory input. The space should be very small but easily reachable.

sensory book coverChristy Isbell speaks on SPD and other related early childhood topics on her website, You can also read Ms. Isbell’s book, Sensory Integration: A Guide for Preschool Teachers, available from and


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