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Deb Hopper


___________________________________ Creating Optimal Learning Environments For ALL Children Deb Hopper with Nadia Loguch Occupational Therapists Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


The incidence of learning disabilities is on the increase, and evidence is showing that up to 16% or 1 in 6 children are struggling with sensory processing disorder (over responsiveness). It is imperative that we identify and support children and make sure their difficulties are understood. This is posing challenges for early childhood educators and teachers who have increased workloads to manage these children who require additional support in an already full class. The Classroom Sensory Environment Checklist is a tool that can be used by early childhood educators, teachers, Occupational Therapists etc to look more closely at the classroom environment and make easy changes which will have big impacts on helping not only the children who are struggling, but the whole classroom.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT SENSORY CHECKLIST AND GUIDELINES CREATING OPTIMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS FOR CHILDREN Children spend up to 1/4 of their day at schools and in classrooms, learning valuable skills for life. The school and classroom is a highly complex environment, like no other that children interact with. The demands of the classroom learning environment can assist or detract from a child’s ability to learn. This is especially true of the growing numbers of children with learning difficulties. The School Environment Sensory Checklist has been developed by our team of OT’s here at Life Skills 4 Kids in consultation with teachers and learning support staff. Below is some guidance for completing this form section by section and some suggestions for why looking at the environmental side of classrooms is so important for supporting children’s learning. Welcome to our School Environment Sensory Checklist guidelines. Here you will find useful information about why it’s important to re-look at our schools and classrooms and how the various environmental factors can impact and either support or impede children’s ability to engage, focus and learn. You will find a checklist at the end of this tool kit that will guide you to start creating best practice classroom sensory learning environments. The classroom environment can also impact on children’s behaviour and ability to self-regulate.

WANT MORE? For detailed training on sensory processing and how it impacts on children’s learning and behaviour, book Deb Hopper for a full day sensory processing workshop. Email [email protected] Deb can travel to your centre to present.

We also invite you to join us on our 20 Day Classroom Sensory Detox. In these 20 days you will be included in a supportive environment and be guided through tips to set up your classroom which supports best practice guidelines to support children’s learning. See teachers page at for more info.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

THE VISUAL ENVIRONMENT The layout and appearance of your classroom involves several important aspects, such as • • • •

the light levels, colours, contrasts and moving objects, to name a few. Some people (not just children) often have underlying sensitivity to bright lights, fluorescents and day light. Be aware of windows or doorways that are untinted, and be aware of brighter times of the day. Glare from windows can reflect on white boards and smart boards and be distracting and difficult to look at for some children.

The high speed flickering of fluorescents and physical responses that our eyes have to very bright light can cause issues for a number of children who may have ‘Scotopic Sensitivity’.

Teachers have reported to us that using special light filters (or mood filters) over the standard classroom fluorescents has an overall calming effect on students, and it also reduces the incidence of migraine and headaches in affected people.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

The visual ‘busy-ness’ of a classroom also has a stimulatory effect on some children who may be overresponsive to lots of competing visual information such as too many overlapping objects on the walls, high colour contrast pictures and wall paint that is too bright/strongly patterned etc.

Having all the beautiful works that students have made up in the class (particularly hanging objects and pictures) can actually serve as big visual distractions for children who lack the underlying abilities to filter out the things they don’t need to be focusing on.

One really effective tip is to use ‘visual blocking’. This is where posters who children’s art work is “blocked” together through using a block of colour behind a group of posters or craft. Visual ‘blocking’ is really effective as a strategy to make brick walls, which are often very busy much easier on the eye. With a creative and mindful eye, it is possible to strike a balance between the visual demands and the need to display children’s beautiful crafts and creations.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

THE AUDITORY ENVIRONMENT While most people with a mature auditory nervous system can tune out irrelevant noises and chatter, students who show persistent difficulties with focusing and listening may actually be struggling on a neurological level to do this. For children with a Central Auditory Processing Disorder, or people with specific difficulties in certain areas of ‘listening’ and not just hearing, even the most well behaved classroom can provide an onslaught of noises to process and filter. Clocks ticking, pencils scratching, people talking outside or cars driving past the school are things that can trigger a stress response in people with auditory difficulties. When children get older, they will often learn the ‘top-down’ or thinking skills to cope with some of these triggers, but for others it is just ‘too much’ all of the time. This is highly distracting and often distressing for the children who never learn to identify the things that are bothering them. And often they aren’t aware themselves, as they have never known any other experience of noise!

Some children also struggle specifically with hearing and sometimes processing language in the presence of background noise, so it is important to consider where they sit, how far away they are from the speaker, and how close they are to competing noises like fish tanks, windows and distracting chatter. Sometimes all it takes is to rearrange seating slightly, and provide the children who really struggle with noise-cancelling headphones and/or the opportunity to have a quick movement break out of the classroom.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

THE TACTILE / TOUCH ENVIRONMENT Classrooms (especially in the earlier years) can be wonderfully messy, explorative places with a wealth of tactile information to play with and learn about. For a large amount of children, playing with paint, water, plant materials, glitter etc. is the most fun part of any deskwork time. Unfortunately for the child with touch or tactile sensitivity, these messy materials can cause a distressing physical response due to an issue with processing light touch. Any kind of feedback issue in the skin on our hands and bodies can lead to a very uncomfortable feeling and even a pain or fear response. If you put yourself in the shoes of a young person with these kinds of distinct responses to touch, it’s easy to imagine how ‘on guard’ they must feel during the day in the presence of so many people moving about who may brush up against or bump in to them. Similar to children who struggle to identify their auditory issues because they have never known any different, it can be difficult for students to articulate this fear and stress response to touch – especially when they are getting in trouble for lashing out ‘for no reason’ at the child who just walked near them on the playground. Being on the edge of this kind of flight or fight response all day due to the ongoing ‘threat’ of uncontrollable touch input takes its toll on the nervous system, and produces very real stress responses that have the same impact on long term health and mental wellbeing as any fear or phobia. Deep touch pressure, firm massage and movement breaks that engage the large muscles of the body can have a counteracting effect on light touch sensitivity, and a gentle and consistent desensitization trial with triggering textures can also be helpful with the appropriate training.

Figure 1 Pencil Toppers are a great fidget

Many children struggling with seeking out touch input in class. This can be seen in children who fidget and can’t keep their fingers and hands to themselves. These children are fidgeting because their nervous systems are seeking and craving touch sensory input. By allowing them to fidget and move, they are actually able to more easily concentrate and therefore engage and learn.

Figure 2 Surecatch - very strong and great for fidding

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

SEATING OPTIONS Many children struggle with low muscle tone and poor postural control. This makes ‘sitting up’, ‘sitting still’ and sitting for long periods difficult to do. Many children benefit from using different options for seating such as -

move n sit cushions, core disk cushions disco sit cushions hokki stools ball chairs/ chair balls

Figure 3 Move n sit cushions - a tried and true seating favourite

or other seating options to be able to maintain a seated position and be able to concentrate in class. Figure 4 Core Disks - Available in different textures

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


Our bodies are designed to move, and research shows that our nervous systems need movement input ‘before’ we are able to learn. Having playground time before school starts is an easy way to get children’s nervous systems ready to learn.

Some children need movement while they are seated at the desk for optimal learning and concentration. And movement has been shown to improve find motor skills as well when children sit on a ball. Ball chairs are great tools for children to sit on at a desk, or lean on at floor time to start alert and attentive. Ball chairs come in all sizes from 35cm for preschoolers to 75 cm for tall adults. They have little ‘feet’ at the bottom so they don’t roll away and can be placed on the desk for cleaners. Very smart, and they make kids even smarter!

Figure 5 Ball chairs- Backed by Research to improve attention and fine motor skills!

‘Think-n-roll’ and ‘deskercisers’ are also great tools for wiggly legs and feet. Children can get movement while they are wiggly and jiggly and concentrate easier!

Figure 7 Think-n-roll – Great for improving thinking! Figure 6 Deskercisers - help children get the wiggles out of their legs!

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


How many children have you seen • • •

Chewing their collar? Chewing their pencil? Biting their drink bottles?

The mouth is a great sensory tool that is used to both calm and centre us if we are nervous and is also great for keeping us alert if we are tired. Figure 8 Pencil toppers help concentration

Many children use the mouth as a strategy to calm or keep themselves alert. There are many tools that can be used for a child to get mouth input if they are craving this or using it as a tool. Some strategies include: • • • • •

Using a pencil topper Wearing a chewable necklace or bracelet Allowing children to have their drink bottle on their desk Knowing the best type of drink bottle for alertness (yes, there is a difference between drink bottles and types!) Being aware that mouth input is helpful, that some children NEED it, and that for some children, they will need the intensity of chewing gum. Figure 9 Chew Stixx Pencil Toppers

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


“We must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive” – J.J. Gibson Children need to move to learn. We know this through research. However, most playgrounds in our school comprise of fixed climbing equipment. Some have flying foxes or zip flyers, but in our experience, these are often taken off due to student injury. Even with fixed equipment or climb equipment installed in school playgrounds, children often are not allowed to use it for supervision and safety reasons before school, when they really need it. Having a solid understanding of children’s sensory needs and how this impacts and improves learning will raise this as a priority to address including more ‘movement based’ playground equipment in schools. WE OWE IT TO OUR STUDENTS TO PROVIDE MOVEMENT SOLUTIONS IN SCHOOL PLAYGROUNDS. IT WILL IMPROVE THEIR LEARNING. IT WILL IMPROVE THEIR BEHAVIOUR AND LOWER RATES OF MIS-BEHAVIOUR.

As you complete this section of the checklist, think creatively how you can promote and improve access to movement in your playgrounds. For assistance and consultancy in creating best practice playgrounds, email us at [email protected]

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

Not sure where to start fine-tuning your classroom? Struggling to keep your children engaged? Join our FREE 20 day Classroom Sensory Detox Fine tune your classroom to an optimal learning environment!

Join now and create best practice classrooms for students. See details on the teachers page at

WANT MORE? For detailed training on sensory processing and how it impacts on children’s learning and behaviour, book Deb Hopper for a full day sensory processing workshop. Email [email protected] Deb can travel to you to present.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


Deb Hopper & Nadia Loguch (2015)


Yes No


Does the classroom have lots of windows that allow natural light in to the room?

Does the classroom have windows that face out to a busy area/road/playground/hallway etc. where there may be lots of movement?

Does the classroom have light/mood filters over fluorescent lighting?

Are there more than two tones/paint colours on the wall?

Are the walls of the classroom/desks/chairs/floors very brightly coloured?

Is there more than 1 wall covered in classwork/projects/pictures etc.?

Is there more than 1 row of hanging classwork/projects/pictures etc. attached to the ceiling?

Do the desks face toward the board/primary teaching area?

Do the desks face toward each other so that students work collaboratively?

If yes to the above, are there more than 4 students in these groups?

Would you describe the classroom as generally busy or cluttered in appearance?

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


Yes No


Is the classroom very large and/or potentially echo prone?

Is the classroom very small or narrow/angular in shape?

Does a speaker have to speak loudly in order to be heard correctly from one end of the room to the other?

Does the teacher speak mainly in front of the classroom?

Does the teacher mainly speak in the middle of the classroom?

Are there any students in the class who may speak loudly on a regular basis?

Are there several times during the day where children break off into groups or pairs to complete group work or to discuss?

Does the whole class generally have difficulty transitioning from lunch/break times, group work etc. into quiet or desk work?

Does the teacher tend to speak in a very loud or very soft voice?

Does the teacher tend to speak in a very high or low pitched voice?

Does the teacher have a distinct foreign accent?

Are there any other factors outside the class which may provide background noise? E.g. refrigeration units, air conditioning, open or conjoined classrooms, roads, canteen, offices, main hallways etc.

Other Comments

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]


Yes No


During art and craft activities, are there opportunities for children to regularly and discretely avoid messy surfaces/textures/substances? E.g., would it be easy to miss observations around sensory preferences?

Are messy surfaces/textures/substances regularly provided during free play opportunities?

Are fidget toys trialed and available for students, or any other products/solutions such as desk-er-cisers, blu-tack? Other Comments

Seating Options Are alternative seating options provided for students if required? E.g. move and sit cushions, ball chairs, hokki stools

Can all children’s feet touch the floor when seated?

Other Comments

Movement / Muscle Breaks Are students often encouraged to play using physical contact? E.g. chasing games, pair exercises, climbing?

Does the available outdoor fixed equipment utilize multiple planes of movement (front and back, side to side, spinning, upside down)?

Is the playground/ fixed equipment available to students before school? Are movement breaks incorporated into classroom scheduling? If so, please indicate frequency and duration:______________________

Other Comments

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]

Tools for the Mouth

Yes No


Is this a crunch and sip school?

Are drink bottles allowed to be on desk for regular sipping and mouth input?

Is chewing gum allowed for those children who need this? Are mouth activities included in the school program eg blowing and sucking through a straw to pick up cotton wool balls for maths activities. Other Comments

Playground and Outside Equipment What challenges does the outside playground equipment give children’s sensory systems? Does it provide the following sensory input? o

Movement – up and down eg trampoline,


Movement – forward and back eg swings, flying fox, zip slider, slippery dip/ slide


Movement – spinning


Muscle – eg climbing, monkey bars


Deep touch pressure eg crash mats / impact mats

Other Comments

We would love your feedback to continue to improve the School Environment Sensory Checklist (SESC).

Please email [email protected] to provide feedback and ideas for more items.

Copyright 2015 Deb Hopper / Life Skills 4 Kids. [email protected]