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Teacher: “These kids just can’t attend! No one can stay in their seat! They’re constantly fidgeting and touching everything!”
Therapist: “Aha! I know just what to do…fidget toys to the rescue! You just need a bunch of great sensory stuff in your classroom and your world will be a better place!”
[Dumps an armload of seat cushions, putty, and squeeze balls onto the teacher’s desk and walks out of the room]
Teacher: [Tries using the items the next day only to find that the kids are even more distracted than before. Gathers up items and files them on the bottom bookshelf where they gather dust for the rest of the school year].
Now I’m sure there are therapists out there who have wonderful, informative, and seamless approaches to introducing fidget toys and sensory materials in classrooms. I just didn’t happen to be one of them. Not until recently anyway.
After years of dumping sensory materials on teachers and years of being frustrated by the “I told you fidgets wouldn’t work in my classroom” response, I realized that it wasn’t the fidgets that were failing. It was my approach.
I was trying to solve the problem too quickly, without laying any groundwork first. I wasn’t collaborating with the teacher to set him/her up for success. And I wasn’t trusting and respecting the students enough to also be part of the process.
That’s why, as a supplement to our book Sensory Processing 101, we created The Magic 7: A Guide to Teaching Kids About Sensory Processing.
The idea behind the printable guide is that when kids understand their own unique sensory preferences, they can become advocates for themselves. They learn language to express how they’re feeling and they can explore and create strategies to feel calmer, more alert, happier, and at more ease wherever they go.
Today, we’re going to delve into a much more teacher-friendly, kid-friendly, and therapist-friendly approach to introducing sensory materials into a classroom setting. If you’re a therapist, this would be an amazing multi-step, inclusion-based therapy plan.
If you’re a teacher, school psychologist, or guidance counselor who already has knowledge about sensory processing and you’re ready to take the leap on your own, this guide will be helpful to you as well!
How to Introduce Fidget Toys in the Classroom (Along With Other Sensory Materials)
1 || Introduce the sensory systems and talk about how they work.
No one can be expected to understand how to use fidget toys and other sensory materials if they don’t know how sensory processing really works.
And, if you’re thinking that a good old-fashioned overview of the 5 senses will work here…there’s a little more to it than that. Did you know that there are actually 7 sensory systems? Yep. We didn’t name it The Magic 7 for nothing!
Give kids hands-on experience with their sensory systems and allow them to experiment with different types of sensory input while explaining how sensory processing works.
There’s a great page in The Magic 7 guide called “What is Sensory Processing?” as well as an entire lesson plan that allows kids to explore their sensory systems by exploring various sensory stations.
2 || Have kids explore their own unique sensory preferences
Now that everyone understands the sensory systems and how they all work together, it’s time to teach kids that we all have our own unique sensory make-ups.
This is a time to reassure kids that their preferences and aversions, as long as they don’t stand in the way of daily life, are normal! They’re more than normal…they’re what make each of us special and unique!
Talk with them about the sensory experiences they find enjoyable and about the ones they really can’t stand. This is usually a really fun and lively discussion, as it validates everyone’s needs and differences.
As part of the discussion, ask kids what sensory experiences might help them stay calm, alert, and attentive in school. If you’re using The Magic 7 guide, the Sensory Preferences questionnaire and the Finding a “Just Right” Feeling pages will be perfect to use here.
3 || Make your sensory materials list
Once you’ve helped the kids identify their preferences and what works for them, make a list of the items and strategies you’ll include in your classroom sensory kit. Include items that will address the preferences and needs you’ve identified in the group of students.
Instead of calling the sensory materials “fidgets” or “toys”, consider reframing the items and reminding students that instead of “toys”, the materials you’re going to introduce to the classroom are “tools”.
Possible items to include in your kit:
-CD or website with movement break songs/videos
-a quiet space in the room
-headphones with quiet music or white noise
-photos of different stretches or a yoga deck
–clipboards so kids can work in different places away from their desks
-putty or play dough
Ideally, you’ll have lots of options that will appeal to different types of sensory needs and preferences. Some kids will need sensory strategies for calming, others will need sensory strategies to help with attention.
4 || Have everyone pitch in.
Having kids help assemble and create their own classroom fidgets and other sensory materials creates a sense of ownership and responsibility. Bonus…it’s also super fun!!
Set a couple of class periods aside to have kids work together to make their own materials to add to the classroom sensory kit! In the list above, you’ll find links to a few DIY sensory tools. This is also a great time to demonstrate and let kids experiment with how the materials should be used. Maybe even some “what not to do” examples would be helpful too!
When you’re finished, have kids help to label, organize, and store the sensory tools in an accessible place in the room.
5 – Create a Sensory Kit Contract
Divide the sensory materials into two categories: items that can be used during learning activities and items that can be used at break times throughout the day. Discuss how and when kids can request the materials or if there are certain materials that they can access without needing to ask permission.
Examples of rules/responsibilities to include in your contract:
-Be responsible for the items in our sensory toolkit – take good care of our tools!
-Wait for break times to ask if you can use a break-time item from the sensory kit.
-Raise your hand to ask to use learning-time items from the sensory kit.
-The items in our Sensory Kit are for all of the students in our classroom. Share and take turns.
-Use the items wisely to help you pay attention and calm your body, not to distract yourself or others.
If these rules and expectations are a fit for your classroom, download and print a copy of the free sensory toolkit contract.
The Magic 7: A Guide to Teaching Kids About Sensory Processing
See what I mean? Using The Magic 7 approach is a much more practical and sustainable way to introduce fidgets and sensory tools in the classroom setting. Is it a bit more work? Totally. Does it require some more time, effort, and planning? For sure. But most good things do, right?
If you’re reading this and thinking YES! This is exactly what I need to do in my classroom or with the kids on my caseload! But you’re feeling kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing…there’s no need to reinvent the wheel because we’ve done it all for you!
The Magic 7 guide is a colorful 22-page downloadable resource designed to teach children about sensory processing in an engaging, hands-on way.
Ideal for use in a classroom or in a small group setting, the digital lesson guide includes:
-An overview of sensory processing and the sensory systems written in kid-friendly terms
-Icons and activity descriptions for 7 hands-on Sensory Exploration Stations
-Printable worksheets to help kids explore their unique sensory preferences and strategies for finding a “just right” sensory feeling
-An instructor’s guide complete with discussion questions, explanations, and quick activities to demonstrate each of the sensory systems
If you’re a teacher and you’ve already done your homework on sensory processing, you know how important it is to meet your kids’ sensory needs for them to be able to reach their potential. If you’re ready to take things to the next level by integrating some sensory tools and strategies into your classroom, The Magic 7 guide is for you.
If you’re a therapist, we’re willing to bet that if you use this approach, rather than dumping that armload of seat cushions, putty, and squeeze balls onto the teacher’s desk, you’ll make a lot more teacher friends. And you’re bound to make a bunch of new kid friends along the way too because kids love using and learning about their senses!
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