In a nutshell sensory overload is when the amount of stimuli exceeds the brain’s ability to process and understand it.
Parents do any of these sound familiar?
- Isn’t taking anything on board.
- Not coping with the work.
- Can’t keep up.
- Looks confused.
- Enters the classroom and doesn’t know what to do next.
- Flits from activity to activity.
- Wonders around the room.
These behaviours are indicators of the child’s possible difficulties with regulating incoming sensory information. Although sensory information impacts all senses at all times, it is when the stimulation of one or more of the sensory areas reaches a point where it is too much for the brain to take in and control. As with all stimulation the child’s ability to filter and process input is developmental in nature. For example, a baby is unable to see the outline of face for the first 7-10 days of life. This discussion focuses on what happens when a child is unable to regulate incoming visual, auditory and language stimulation.
Excessive visual stimulation occurs when there is too much in the child’s visual field for the brain to process and comprehend. In the school environment those working with children need to be mindful of the visual stimuli from both outside and within the classroom. Visual stimuli extraneous to the classroom, includes movement around the school, school traffic moving past the classroom and school walkways. Aware parents watch what is happening around the school at various times throughout the day.
Visual stimulation within the classroom may be static or mobile. The organisation of the classroom is a major factor in how easily and quickly the child can process what is happening within the room. Desk, seating spaces and walkways need to be well defined. Use of visual cue systems assist with organisation of information in and around the room. This may include highlighting information using colour, shape and visual representations. One example of a simple strategy that may be used within the classroom are stop/go buttons. A red stop sign with the word STOP inside the stop sign shape. A green go sign with the word GO inside the same sign shape. GO is placed at the beginning of when work begins, and the end is cued by the red STOP button. For example, in a special school this may facilitate the location of a pictorial presentation of instructions as well as the correct sequencing of a task. It can also be used to indicate the beginning and end of a worksheet. All worksheets and textbooks need to be appropriately set out and mindful of the child’s visual ability.
A tool such as MyBurrow® allows a child to work in a visually defined space, thereby reducing the amount of extraneous visual stimulation. This is most useful for children who have issues with bright lights and who have difficulty with spatial awareness, ie limited perception of personal space.
The increase of children who have had auditory processing assessments reflect the impact of increased auditory stimuli in the school environment. It is not uncommon for 5-6 students of a mainstream classroom to have been identified with auditory processing difficulties.
There has been a rapid increase in the size of schools, and hence the consequent increase in the associated “traffic.” E.g. noise from vehicles, parents, students and staff around the school. When looking at ways to address the regulation of auditory stimuli, the total picture within and without the classroom needs to be considered.
Outside factors include, traffic noise, construction, the physical number of people within the grounds, the physical location of the air conditioners and the proximity of classrooms and teaching blocks to each other. Within the school we have the nefarious loud speaker, fortunately many schools now have intercoms (which also have their problems).
Within the classroom, the sources of auditory stimuli include overhead fans, physical movement of bodies around the room, shifting of furniture, the background noise of students talking and noise from nearby classrooms and shared spaces.
The regulation of auditory stimuli on the child is the responsibility of everyone dealing with that individual. If you are concerned about excessive noise, a chat with the teacher may be all that is necessary to adjust the situation. Other interventions may include changing seating position, or if appropriate, use of noise cancelling headphones. MyBurrow’s® flexibility allows its easy relocation to a quiet area. It’s potential to increase a child’s focus makes it an effective tool for working with children with auditory processing skills.
Apart from overloading visual and auditory systems, the complexity of language needs to monitored to ensure children are not confused by lengthy instructions and explanations.
In giving instructions or explaining topics, teachers and parents need to be mindful of what is known as the language of discourse. That is, the language used by teachers to impart knowledge. A teacher who uses language of discourse appropriately, presents the information using language at the level most students in the classroom can comprehend. A second level of language is then used to reinforce the concept being taught, with sentences simplified and repeated. The third and final type of language used is like telegraphic speech, very simple phrases, directions and use of demonstration is used to teach the key concepts being presented.
It is assumed with this that the appropriate hands-on experiences/use of concrete materials is used to reinforce the learning concepts whenever possible. Example lesson plans illustrating the teaching of language concepts can be accessed through subscribing to the MyBurrow® website.
All those working with children need to be mindful that the complexity and length of instructions, they are using is consistent with the developmental level of the child. Additionally, research has shown that voice tone is also a factor in gaining a child’s attention. This is why children tend to respond to a male’s, lower tone voice, than to a female’s voice which becomes higher pitched when stressed. Hence, females should drop their tone when giving instructions.
All children’s skills develop at different rates, albeit within a wide range of average for age. It is easy to recognise a child who is attempting to cope with information overload because they simply do not know what to do. It should always be remembered that any child who has difficulty coping with sensory information, will need time and usually assistance to cope. The energy that the child expends to focus, to filter and to comprehend the information that is being presented, is taken away from the general learning time. Children who have problems with regulation of stimuli need to work harder than the average student and extra time needs to be a major consideration when teaching.
Every year that you have a new teacher make use of the test reports that you may have gained through NDIS practitioners and school based assessments. NEVER EVER assume that the teacher has had time to go through and understand in detail your child’s issues.
In order to successfully advocate for their child, parents need to be able to understand the information in these reports. Unfortunately, many reports are written in technical language which means either the parent becomes a semi-professional interpreter of reports or they ensure the author of reports includes the explanation of how the identified issues impacts the child’s learning and specific strategies to assist the child to cope with learning. Parents, you are paying not only for the assessment but specific strategies unique to your child’s needs. (Note this should be the case for all assessments and reports).
We believe that MyBurrow® provides an excellent resource to maximise the positive effect of strategies used to address sensory overload. For further information and free resources sign up at www.myburrow.com.au. There are strategies and tools to assist with sensory overload. These and extra time will help your child to learn.
Dimitra Baveas & Helena Smith