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Adapting the Classroom

Children with sensorimotor disorders show marked fluctuations and inconsistencies in

processing information. The unpredictable behavior that results causes frustration and
bewilderment in the most capable of teachers. Many of these children cannot alter a
difficult situation or change their response to fit the demands of the situation. Therefore,
parents, teachers, and therapists must work together to adapt the children's school
environment and help them respond to difficult situations in more positive ways. The
more successful children feel, the more motivated they will be to attempt more
challenging tasks.

The school environment can be adapted in a number of ways that help all students and
especially those with sensorimotor disorders achieve greater academic success. These
adaptations range from changes in the physical surroundings to changes in daily routines.
While not always necessary, adaptations help students with sensorimotor disorders get
through difficult periods and can minimize and help avoid potential problems.

Melanne Randall MSc OTR

Standing in Lines

• Suggest to the child who is sensitive to touch and protective of his body space that
he line up last, decreasing the possibility of being touched from behind by
• Allow the child who continues to have difficulty lining up after adaptations have
been tried to be the door holder.
• Place visual markers on the floor to help children line up in a straight line. For
example, indicate the line with a piece of masking tape.
• Shorten lines by making two lines side-by-side, with all the boys in one line and
the girls in another, or with all the children wearing blue in one line and all the
children not wearing blue in the other.
• Shorten lines by lining up half of the children on one side of the door and the
other half on the other side. Divide them by gender, the letters of the alphabet that
their first or last names start with (for example, A-M and N-Z), or by table
• If the classroom has two doors, let half of the children line up at each door,
allowing the quieter line to leave first.
• Assume an easy-to-copy posture (such as a finger on the nose, a hand salute, or
the right hand raised in the air) for the children to copy as they quietly line up.
Their reaction will show you if you have their attention.
• Place markers on the floor for spacing between children during floor sitting. Add
numbers or letters to them to increase interest.

Developing a Quiet Corner

• If the room is large enough, furnish a reading corner with a beanbag chair,
pillows, and a sleeping bag. A quiet area can help an overaroused child calm
down, reorganize, and refocus. Neutral warmth, such as that provided by a
sleeping bag or blanket, can have a calming effect on the nervous system.
• Create consistent rules regarding the type of behavior acceptable in the area, role-
playing them if necessary.
• Place a rocking chair in the quiet area. Slow rocking has a calming effect on the
nervous system.
• Provide a large cardboard box or barrel with carpet to make a quiet getaway spot.
• Use a small tent that can be easily put up and taken down for a quiet area. Allow
the child to sit under his desk during silent-reading time.
• If there is no room for a quiet corner, set up a study carrel.
• Allow the child to build an "office" around her desk with an easel, a partition, or a

Melanne Randall MSc OTR

Decreasing Distractions

• Make earphones or lightweight headphones available for the student to wear to

help reduce background noise.
• Allow the student to create partitions on the desktop with folders or cardboard to
block out distractions.
• Take a five-minute whisper break.
• Turn the lights off during a quiet break.
• Use an area rug to reduce noise and provide a place to sit or lie on the floor.
• Form smaller groups if the student experiences difficulty during physical
education class.
• Find a quieter place for the student who is unable to eat lunch with the group.
• Provide a separate room where the student can complete assignments if the child
needs a quiet working environment.
• Teach the student what background noise is, as well as strategies for blocking it
• Keep the chalkboard clean by erasing unnecessary information.
• Designate specific areas or bulletin boards for memos or informational posters,
avoiding the front of the room where students need to focus on the teacher.
• Tape artwork out in the hall rather than in the classroom so that it doesn't distract.
• Avoid hanging artwork from the ceiling over desk areas.
• Use overheads to present information, and uncover one line at a time.

Organizational Assists

• Draw a plan of the school on a magnet board and place it near the door. The
student places a magnet with his name on it in the area or room to which he is
• Use masking tape, hula hoops, or carpet squares on the floor to designate
boundaries for seating, play, or learning areas.
• Use carpet squares, one per child, to help define body space when sitting on the
floor in groups.
• Make sure students hang up coats and hats in the appropriate places, using name
tags or sign symbols if needed.
• Put lunch sacks and containers in a large laundry basket or plastic barrel with
• Place manipulatives or learning materials stored on classroom shelves in opaque
• Shorten assignments or tasks or divide them into smaller, more manageable units.
Fold or cut down written assignments, presenting one section at a time to
• Use predictable, organized sequences for routine tasks and in scheduling the day.
• Post a daily schedule, using pictures if necessary.
Melanne Randall MSc OTR

• Prepare the students for transitions. An organized and orderly cleanup after an
activity helps signals its end and the beginning of something new.
• Tape a checklist for materials needed in a class inside the student's desk or inside
the notebook she uses for that subject.
• Create an outline of the contents of the student's desk by writing on contact paper
and stick it to the lid or desk bottom.
• Require the student to complete the first writing task before going on to the next
task, even if you have to shorten the first.
• Teach story mapping to help students put thoughts into writing. Put the main topic
in a circle. Place ideas about the topic in circles that branch out from the topic
circle. Place details about these ideas in smaller circles that branch out from the
idea circles. Organize each of the idea circles and its surrounding detail circles
into a paragraph.
• Encourage students to record themselves telling a story and write down their own

Lesson-Planning Guidelines

Children with sensorimotor problems often have difficulty organizing and sequencing
information. Most children can remember the sequence of a typical day after the first
week or two of school. However, children with sensorimotor disorders frequently forget
what comes next because they do not process environmental cues efficiently.
Additionally, they cannot focus and attend to the tasks at hand, which often contain the
needed cues. These children may focus their attention on the wrong sensory information,
such as hall noise or a spot of glue on the desk. The teacher must regain their attention
and refocus them on the tasks at hand.

Teachers can present information to children with sensorimotor disorders using

alternative methods that maximize these children's ability to process information. Ideas
that can be incorporated into daily lesson plans have been categorized into four areas:
attention-getters, handwriting helps, auditory-processing assists, and visual assists.


• Open the windows or use a fan to increase air circulation and wake up or alert
• Divide work into smaller, more manageable units so that children are always
beginning something new. Novelty sparks attention.
• Use outdoor recess and physical education activities to rev up the nervous system
and stimulate the language centers in the brain. Plan language-oriented activities
following these activities.
• If children are too wound up after recess, create a transition activity for the whole
class to focus their attention.

Melanne Randall MSc OTR

• Shorten assignments that involve repetitive processes (assign five instead of 10 or
20 math problems) or assign other types of problems.
• Use auditory cues (turn lights out, ring a bell, play music) to alert students to
changes in the routine such as the beginning of toy-cleanup time, seat-work time,
and quiet-down time.
• Try hand signals to alert the student to pay attention. For example, form a T with
two fingers to tell him to stay on topic or sign the word stop using sign language
(one hand chopping into the other).
• To get the student's attention, begin talking in a very soft voice, using much
• Allow students to manipulate nondistracting objects like large flour-filled
balloons with their hands, suck on hard candy, or chew gum during long, quiet
listening times.
• Use close proximity and touch to teach the child to identify and focus on whoever
is speaking.
• Use a tape with beeps recorded at timed intervals to encourage children to
complete tasks. If students arc working when they hear the beep, they get a point.
If not, the teacher gets the point. A timer may be used instead of a tape.

Handwriting Helps

• Use cooperative-learning strategies such as composition pairs, book report pairs,

computer groups, and group reporting for students who have difficulty writing.
• Copying work from the board may be difficult, so allow students to copy from
someone else's paper or from the teacher's copy.
• Let students keep extra pieces of paper on their desks in addition to the worksheet
or paper to be handed in so that they have something to doodle on.
• Provide a variety of paper formats, including paper with raised, bold, and color-
coded lines, paper in different widths, and large graph paper for math problems.
Draw guidelines on lined paper to help with spacing or letter-line relationships.
• Let the students write on strips of paper rather than full sheets.
• Encourage students to use writing aids such as pencil grips, clipboards, standing
clipboards for better near-point copying, and wrist or palm weights.
• Provide various-sized pencils, soft and heavy art pencils for better visual and
tactile feedback, markers of different colors for better visual feedback, and
scented markers to increase interest.
• Let the student use a wedge, three-ringed notebook turned sideways, or another
slanted writing surface.
• Provide alternatives to handwriting, such recorders, and multiple-choice
• Teach students how to use a computer keyboard.
• Allow additional time to complete assignments.
• Reduce the amount of or modify written assignments.
• Tape a letter or number guide to the student's desk as a visual cue.

Melanne Randall MSc OTR

• Put a strip of tape on students' desks against which they can place a sheet of paper
to get the correct angle for writing.
• Ask another student who is a good note-taker to use carbon paper to make a copy
of lecture notes for the student who has difficulty with note taking.
• Encourage the student to practice writing with a talking pen. Connect it to a tape
recorder playing a musical tape if additional motivation is required.

Auditory-Processing Assists

• Increase the waiting time after teacher statements and questions and before
students' responses.
• Teach children to ask for help when they arc having difficulty solving problems or
completing work.
• Echo key words that have been taught to a child to help the child tune in and stay
tuned in. (For example, say something like "focus, focus, focus," or "hocus pocus,
focus, focus.")
• Use simple, one- to two-step directions, and ask students to repeat them to you so
that you are certain they processed what you said correctly.
• Establish eye contact or get the students to look in your direction, then speak
slowly with simple, direct sentences.
• Use simple gestures or cues to reinforce verbal messages.
• Write down key points or use picture cues to reinforce verbal directions.

Visual Assists

• Use photographs, rebus pictures, or other communication pictures to visually

sequence class periods each day. Number the class periods and place the pictures
next to the numbers. Leave the numbers on the board and change the pictures to
include special periods such as physical education, music, and art. If a worksheet
is to be completed during a specific period, tape the worksheet next to the picture
cue for that period.
• Tape a schedule on the student's desk indicating where to go and what
• materials arc needed. Use picture cues or clock drawings if necessary.
• Provide alternative reading material such as signs, catalogs, manuals, menus, and
TV guides to use for word or letter searches.
• Allow the student to purchase a text and underline or highlight words
• for visual recall and note taking.
• Encourage the student to follow the words he is reading with his finger, or let him
place an index card or bookmark under the line.
• Copy and enlarge materials if needed.
• Reduce the visual complexity of written material. Use a file folder with a slit cut
in it to look at only one line of print at a time.
• Label classroom items with pictures or their names.

Melanne Randall MSc OTR

• Provide multisensory computer-assisted reading activities.
• Cut sentences and spelling word lists into single-word strips of paper to visually
isolate each word as it is worked with.
• Use manipulative charts in which the child places her name card in a slot or
envelope to show that she is going to the bathroom or responsible for a particular
classroom job, or to indicate attendance.
• Use a folder and notebook of the same color for specific subjects or classes.
• Demonstrate an activity several times in addition to explaining it to the student.
• Keep visual examples posted where the child can refer to them.

Calming and Alerting Techniques

Most of the methods and strategies suggested below relate to focusing attention. We are
best able to focus our attention when our nervous system state is in tune with the
demands of the environment. For example, when we hear a car horn, we are alerted and
can respond to any possible threat. Similarly, activities like reading a book or preparing
for bed calm us. A nervous system that isn't functioning properly may alert and arouse to
the wrong cues or may fail to alert at all.

The nervous system must be in the proper state to enable us to learn or to control our
behavior. When children are not responsive, determine if they need intervention through
calming or alerting activities to regain the proper state. Monitor the children to identify
what interventions work best. It is important to discuss these situations with the child's
therapist to help develop the most appropriate intervention strategy as children can
respond in different ways. After a strategy has been attempted, share the results with the
therapist in case additional adaptations are necessary. A list of ideas follows.

Alerting Activities
(For the child who is lethargic and shows a decreased activity level)

• Allow a midmorning healthful snack (fruit, cheese and crackers, or nuts).

• Use bright lighting, and increase air circulation with fans or by opening windows.
• Move and speak quickly and briskly.
• Play loud, fast-paced music.
• Encourage the child to run in place, do jumping jacks in a designated
• spot, or jump on a mini-trampoline.
• Encourage the child to swing as fast as he can during recess.
• Allow the child to splash cool water on her face and neck.
• Encourage the child to bring a water bottle filled with ice water and sip
• from it.
• Ask the child to run an errand in the building.
• Let the child sit on a ball "chair."

Melanne Randall MSc OTR

Calming Activities
(For the child who is hyperaroused or shows an increased activity level)

• Use low-level lighting.

• Encourage the child to listen to quiet music with headphones.
• Use a soft voice and slow down your movements and speech.
• Provide a hidden corner made with pillows or large carpeted box as a
• quiet getaway.
• Encourage the child to sit or lie on a vibrating pillow.
• Place a heavy hand on the child's shoulder or use a big bear hug to settle him
• Allow the child to slowly rock or swing in a rocking chair, suspended hammock
chair, or hanging net.
• Allow the child to chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free hard candies.
• Let the child wrap up in a blanket or a sleeping bag and lie down.
• Encourage the child to make a tent over himself with a blanket and do his work.
• Make a "calming sandwich" by having the child lie between two beanbag chairs
or large pillows.
• All of these activities require guidelines and rules for use in the classroom. Make
your expectations clear with children before trying them out. As a precaution,
discuss using specific activities with the child's therapist.

Melanne Randall MSc OTR