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Teaching teenagers with SPD

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is most often spoken about in relation to toddlers and young children, but it’s a condition that affects teenagers as well. However, much of the treatment information and advice available on SPD is targeted at a younger age bracket, and isn’t always helpful when it comes to knowing how to help a teenager cope in an educational setting. 

Teenagers are more conscious of what their peers will think than a small child might be, and won’t necessarily respond in the same way to techniques designed to help them cope in the classroom. Understanding SPD as it affects each teen individually is the key to helping them succeed in secondary education.

Overview of SPD

SPD is not a fixed set of symptoms. It is a broad category used to describe several related disorders that affect a child’s sensory processing in different ways. 

Sensory modulation disorder makes children respond differently to sensory stimuli, as they will normally be over- or under-sensitive to a range of things. If a child struggles with processing sensory information from specific things, such as the speed of an object, they have sensory discrimination disorder. And sensory-based motor disorder is where the child’s processing problems are centred around organisation, motor-skills, and balance.

General advicesecondary school library

Even within those three sub-categories of SPD there are variations and individual symptoms. It should never be assumed that one child’s experience of SPD is the same as another’s. As such, one of the most important things that a teacher of a teenager with SPD can do is talk to their parents or guardians and any therapists that are involved in their treatment to understand the child’s SPD as best they can. 

Time spent understanding the behaviour of a teenager with SPD is never going to be wasted. It does no good to punish a pupil for behaviour that arises as a result of their SPD. Understanding why they behave the way they do, and doing what you can to help them in the future, is much more productive. If teachers work with family and therapists to help the child cope with their SPD, then there is no reason why that child can’t succeed in secondary education.

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at some broad methods of helping a teenager to cope with specific aspects of SPD. I just want to stress that these are guidelines and suggestions, and should never be prioritised above advice from those close to the child.

Coping with touch and motor issues

Teenagers who struggle with over- or under-sensitivity to touch can experience a variety of problems in the classroom, from constantly fidgeting, to being unable to concentrate when sitting down for a long period, to being overly tactile with other pupils. These behaviours can lead to them not taking in anything that you’re saying to them, and to them distracting others around them.

Of the three areas we’re looking at in this article, touch and motor issues probably require the most creativity to work with. There are some simple things that can be done for many teenagers, such as allowing them to have a fidget toy in class (something subtle that won’t prove too distracting for others), but other methods of helping them involve a little more work. 

Incorporating physical activities into lessons – anything from getting them up and moving around to more creative, craft activities – can be really helpful for keeping them engaged. In a secondary school environment these kinds of activities aren’t always easy, but it’s worth considering if any of them might work.

Coping with sound issues

Coping with sound issues should be fairly easy in most secondary school environments, but there are still situations, such as fire drills, that can be stressful for a child with SPD.

In the case of a child being oversensitive to sound, the best thing that you can do is plan strategies that help them to deal with loud noises. As a baseline, make sure they have a good amount of warning before something planned happens that might be stressful. You can also give them ways to remove themselves from stressful situations, such as seating them near a door. These strategies can be planned with family and therapists in advance to make them as effective as possible.

For teenagers who are under-sensitive, try encouraging them to look for visual signals to tell them what’s going on if they’re confused. You can also assign a friend of theirs or a responsible member of the class to stick with them when something’s happening to make sure they know what’s going on and are able to cope with it.

Coping with sight issues

Sight issues are probably the easiest to deal with in a way that isn’t disruptive to other things going on in the classroom. Issues like glare can be dealt with simply by seating the child in a shaded area of the classroom, and it may be the case that they need to wear sunglasses of some kind to make them more comfortable. 

As with auditory issues, giving the child advance warning of anything that might be stressful will always be helpful, and you as a teacher can be sensitive about the kinds of things you do with the class in order to minimise stress. 

With a bit of thought and flexibility on their teacher’s part, teenagers with SPD can have a great experience in school.

This article was brought to you by Patrick Tonks, senior creative director at Great Bean Bags, who create bespoke bean bags for children with SPD for use in both the home and in the classroom.

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