Auditory Sensitivity in the Classroom

Auditory sensitivity in the classroom

In this blog post, we are covering an important aspect of the classroom environment: auditory sensitivity. Students with auditory sensory overload are challenged to learn and participate in classroom activities. Let’s discuss auditory processing with the focus on classroom sounds with sensory tips and strategies, as well as supports to set up a classroom for success. This blog post is a great resource aligned with our post on visual noise in the classroom.

Auditory sensitivity in the classroom

Auditory Sensitivity in the Classroom

Students are VERY busy! Whether they are at home, school, or out in the community, children are affected by their surroundings. Setting up a preschool classroom for success is essential. The environment can make children “hyper”, or calm them down. Sometimes preschool (and older kids) have ears sensitive to noise that impact learning and participation in their education. Noise impacts a child’s ability to calm, that can be modified by adults in any environment. We are going to dive into how to support children who are sensitive to noise throughout this blog!

Setting up a Preschool Classroom for Success

Have you ever noticed when there is a lot going on, children tend to lose focus? A child sensitive to loud noises will be challenged to be successful in the classroom environment because the sensory need takes priority. Adults, when they have multiple senses engaged, can be overwhelmed by chaos as well.

This is especially true when there is overwhelming auditory input.

One way to look at this concept is by experience. Think about an amusement park and all of the sounds happening around you in a noisy crowd. While one of my favorite places to go is an amusement park, it can be very overwhelming! I love the rides and the shows. But, when I go to the food court, I start to get overwhelmed. Children are usually crying because they are hungry, parents are annoyed, people are talking on their phone as they wait in 30 minute lines for a $10 hot dog, and there are attendants screaming “next”, or “move along!” There is so much going on auditorily, that many adults get frustrated, and want to find a quiet corner to eat with their family. 

What is the noise like in your Classroom?

In a typical preschool classroom there might be 24 or more children running around, laughing and screaming, while a CD player is playing rambunctious music, and parents are talking about what their child had for breakfast. The preschool setup can become very noisy.

In an elementary classroom, you may have more towards 28 or more students. Kids having conversations, dropping books, running the electric pencil sharpener, screeching tennis shoes, or scraping chairs. Then there is the announcements over the loud speaker, teacher instructions, hallway noises, and the lawn mower outside the classroom window. It can get noisy, quick!

With different types of sounds echoing throughout the classroom, auditory overstimulation can affect behavior and engagement. For ears sensitive to noise, this can be huge.

According to an exploration of sensory processing and the limbic system, the sensory system receives sensory messages, like sound, and directs them to the part of the brain that needs to process them. This process is also responsible for keeping your body safe. Sometimes it will trigger an automatic safety response called a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

This response is a protective mechanism based on our ancient ancestors who had to be on constant alert for saber tooth tigers rustling bushes. While we no longer need to worry about the threat of danger lingering in our periphery, we have this awareness of auditory input that keeps us safe in other ways. Our brain and body regulate the sensory input that comes in so it’s not too overwhelming for us.

An example; when you jump if you hear an unexpected sound.  The “sensory traffic controller” in the brain tunes in to help locate and identify the sound.  You may be instantly more alert if you hear your head teacher, or manager’s voice. Researchers think this part of the brain processes sounds differently in children or adults who are overwhelmed by sounds, noise, or auditory sensory input.

Auditory overload often occurs when there are too many sounds happening at the same time, or if the noise is at a certain frequency.  In addition, the brain can also become overwhelmed by a constant noise which has occurred over a period of time. This information is important when setting up a preschool classroom.

Tips for setting Up a Preschool Classroom

In order to create a calm preschool classroom environment, the sound needs to be purposeful! Being cognizant of all of the different environmental sounds, is key to creating a soothing classroom.  

Here Are aspects of your preschool classroom setup to keep in mind when addressing noise

  • Music – Depending on the time of day, music is a wonderful addition to any classroom. This can be through singing or the electronic media. Use calming/soft music to calm down a classroom during free play and nap time. This can include nature sounds, white noise, soft melodies and children’s music. 
  • Echoing noise – Every classroom is created differently, keep track of where there may some extra echoes. Hearing noise from multiple places at once can be very overwhelming, especially when echoes are coming from multiple children. This can be important when it comes to hallway noises, outside noises (lawnmowers), or echo within the classroom. Some ideas to support echo sensitivity include adding padding to the bottoms of shoes or desks. Felt sheets or foam sheets are inexpensive options for this. Other things to consider is going into the cafeteria, gymnasium, or area with higher ceilings and larger groups of children such as special events.
  • Sensory Headphones- One tool to support students with sensitive ears is a pair of sensory headphones. There are many on the market that can reduce the auditory stress of a child in the day to day noise of a classroom. Other options include sensory noise-reducing earplugs and noise cancelling headphones. To increase sounds try a DIY whisper phone.
  • Consider Other Students – Children are noisy, especially during free play! When indoors, encourage children to use an inside voice, while they are playing and talking. When children are focused and engaged, they tend do this naturally. Creating learning centers that support engagement is the best way to keep noise down, and children learning. Some children who have difficulty regulating their verbal output may need extra help in this area. Check out all of the learning stations (block, art, science, manipulative, sensory, dramatic play) ideas on how to set up your classroom by the age of the children you teach in this Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale.
  • Consider Other Adults – Keeping tabs the adults in the room is key when thinking about the noise in a classroom. Caregivers tend to talk loudly when around a lot of children, either to get their attention, or intervene when they see a problem about to occur. If caregivers practice talking to children, while getting down to their level, and making eye contact, the level of our voices naturally decrease. You can also try a “do not disturb” sign in the door during important lessons or instructional periods. Consider these auditory attention activities.
  • Consider Classroom Pets – Classroom pets are wonderful additions when setting up a preschool classroom. Although they are fun, they can also be noisy! The most popular classroom additions are fish tanks and guinea pigs. The sounds of the bubbles can be soothing for some, but loud to others. Guinea pigs are quiet until they start shuffling around and squeaking. When thinking about where to place a fish tank or cage, keep in mind where the children will nap, and where the quiet spaces are. 
  • Small group activities – When children are actively engaged in activities as a group, their voices tend to become loud. This is a great time to teach children how to turn taking skills, by waiting for others to ask questions. Allowing children to communicate with each other, have discussions, and engage in play, is more productive when they are using their inside voices. 
  • Consider the classroom sound system- There are many options when it comes to auditory needs in the classroom. We talked about the low tech strategies above, but along those same lines is a “high tech” classroom auditory system. This can include things like wireless voice amplifier for teachers, a classroom sound system with wireless microphone, a classroom speaker system, a voice amplifier for classroom, and other technical pieces of equipment.

Auditory input can affect behavior

Young children can feel overwhelmed by many environmental components. This can affect their behavior at home, and in the classroom. The sensory system, and the way the brain processes information, varies for each person. The ability to respond to the environment, greatly depends on how sensitive you are to sensory stimuli. 

The OT Toolbox has a great sensory processing checklist to better understand the sensory systems. You can learn more about this sensory processing checklist here.

What happens when a child is so overstimulated by their environment, they are nor able to calm down, without being redirected?

One strategy is having a safe space such as a calm down corner. Consider setting up a preschool classroom with a calming area.

Including a space in your classroom or home that allows children to take a break form their environment, along with using calming techniques (such as deep breaths, squeezing a ball, sipping water), are wonderful ways to help a child center themselves, so they can reintegrate into the classroom in a more calm state of mind. 

Enourage the use of visual, tactile and auditory calm down cues when setting up a preschool classroom, that two year olds understand. 

*If you notice a child having a hard time calming down, even with the removal of noise, they may have more sensitivities to stimuli than others. This is a sign that an Occupational Therapy evaluation might be appropriate, to determine if they need more supports with their sensory system. The occupational therapist will review the sensory systems, triggers, and behavioral outcomes.

A therapist may then suggest a sensory diet as part of the plan. For more information about a sensory diet, check out this search on the OT Toolbox. In addition, this amazing printable includes 130 different ideas on introducing a sensory diet for your child.  

Auditory classroom management is just one aspect of setting up a preschool classroom

Other aspects to consider are:

  • visual input – is your class cluttered, messy, or busy
  • tactile – is there a lot of touching going on, are children in close proximity
  • olfactory – what are all the good/bad smells in the class
  • vestibular – are there times for movement breaks and outlets for energy

Preschool classrooms are a lot of fun, and children are born to be noisy, but if caregivers take the time to create a classroom that has more soothing sounds indoors, children learn to socialize in a calm way. This allows for classroom management to be easier and more productive, supporting every child’s needs. When planning your classroom, home environment, or an outing with your child, notice the auditory stimuli, and how it is affecting your child.

Free Handout: Classroom Auditory Sensitivity Strategies

We’re coming up on the end of our Summer Handout Series here on the OT Toolbox. Want to print of a list of strategies to support auditory sensitivities in the classroom? Use this printable handout as an educational tool to support auditory needs.

This handout is also available inside our Member’s Club. Just go to the handouts section to grab it without entering your email address.

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Free Handout: Auditory Sensitivity Strategies

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    Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.

    The Auditory Processing Kit is one tool to support auditory needs. Use this auditory processing kit to support learners with hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive auditory systems. Use the hands-on activities to support learning and active listening through play and handwriting tasks. Use the handouts and posters to teach about the auditory system and auditory sensitivities, with strategies to support individualized needs.

    The Auditory Processing Kit supports listening and comprehension activities into multisensory learning styles.

    Visual Noise and Learning

    Visual noise in the classroom

    In this post you will be discovering how to create a calm classroom, specifically tips to avoid the visual noise that distracts learning in the school environment. Classroom décor and organization can directly effect the engagement level of children in any classroom or learning space. When the environment is too visually stimulating, a student’s ability to focus becomes difficult. Keeping children’s attention can become frustrating. When a classroom environment that is soothing and organized is created, children are better able to stay engaged. In this blog, you will learn about the three different ways to make your classroom visually calm. 

    Visual noise in the classroom

    What is Visual Noise?

    When working with children, teachers think about all of the colors of the rainbow, and want to make classrooms bright and cheery. So many classroom theme sets have fun colors, bright designs, and patterns, contrasting bulletin board boarders, etc. Many believe that having a colorful classroom will keep children interested and engaged. 

    Visual Noise is just that: a visually distracting, or “noisy” visual scene in the classroom. A lot of teachers set up bulletin boards throughout the room with cut-outs in various themes: animal/monster/any theme , alphabet stickers, and painted murals on the walls. Maybe your classroom has a circle time rug that includes the ten different color squares. Perhaps you want to make sure all the children have something they like to do, so you have 20 fine motor choices in the manipulative area. 

    There is just one problem with using these types of visuals in the classroom, they are distracting! 

    • The bulletin boards all around the room are adorable, and fun to look at. So during circle time, you might find a child gazing at the wall, figuring out what new item is there. 
    • When there are rugs filled with colors, you may notice children looking down at the rug, maybe at the bright colors, while singing the color song in their head.
    • If teachers provide too many choices in one area of the classroom, children work with one toy for three minutes, then they are onto the next, without honing in, or practicing the skills that were intended.
    • For young children, and lots of adults, less is more! 

    visual processing

    Humans use vision from birth, to engage with the world around them. The way your brain process what you see, impacts how you interpret your interactions with the environment, and the people around you. To learn more about vision, this amazing PDF discusses visual hypersensitivity and under-sensitivity (or sensory seeking). 

    There are some visual processing red flags that may indicate difficulties with visual processing or ocular motor control:

    • Increased sensitivity to light
    • Easily distracted by visual stimuli, or difficulty sustaining visual attention to an activity
    • Frequently squints, rubs eyes, or gets a headache after visually demanding tasks such as reading, using a phone/tablet/computer, or watching television
    • Loses place in reading or writing
    • Trouble finding things they are looking for, even when they seem to be “right in front of them”
    • Distractions with reading
    • Difficulty tracking visual information
    • Difficulty initiating or holding eye contact
    • Difficulty focusing on one piece of visual information
    • Increased fear of, or desire for, being in the dark
    • Difficulty discriminating between similar shapes, letters, or pictures
    • Letter reversals or number reversals
    • Difficulties with handwriting such as letter reversals, sizing, spacing, or alignment of letters
    • Frequently loses their place while reading or copying
    • Often bumps into things
    • May be slow or hesitant with stairs
    • Difficulty with visually stimulating activities, i.e., puzzles, locating objects in pictures, completing mazes, word searches or dot-to-dots
    • Trouble knowing left from right or writing with both hands

    How to reduce visual noise when planning your classroom

    When planning out your classroom, visual stimulation is important, however there are many ways to make sure there is reduced visual noise, so the environment is not overwhelming.

    Think about how you feel when you go to the spa. Those deep earthy wall colors calm your bodies and nerves instantly! The Montessori and Reggio Emilia educational philosophies advise visual components as a way to keep their classroom calm and focused.

    The Reggio Emilia philosophy recognizes the environment as the child’s third teacher. What is in a child’s environment, how it’s organized, and what it looks like, directly impacts what a child will learn that day. 

    two ways to make sure your environment is visually calming 

    Colors – When picking out colors for your classroom, whether it be for the furniture, rugs, or wall decor, the best way to support a calm visual classroom, is to choose more natural colors. These include blues, greens and browns.

    • Choose toy baskets, or white bins, as opposed to brightly colored ones.
    • Consider turning toy shelves around or covering with neutral fabric to further reduce visual noise.
    • Choose predictable carpet rugs (Amazon affiliate link) like this one, instead of random colorful squares. Carpet samples of neutral colors are an excellent idea to create boundaries while limiting visual distraction.
    • When decorating your walls, allow for empty blank space, and use more of children’s artwork. Consider the use of cloth and fabric.

    Classroom Organization – When choosing how many activities and materials to place in each are of your classroom, keep in mind that less is more! When children have too many options to choose from, this can create a short attention span, and overwhelm from choice overload.

    Organization in the classroom can mean stacks of papers, tons of sticky notes, messy desks, and disorganized files, too.

    In a typical preschool classroom, there are 8 areas of learning: art, fine motor, science, reading, dramatic play, block, large motor and snack! When you use furniture to visually create specific spaces for each center, the classroom is organized, and children know what is expected of them in each area.

    Older classrooms may not have the toys, block areas, and motor components, but there are designated areas: group areas, centers, desks, cubbies, or lockers, teacher areas, information centers, etc. All of these areas can be considered when it comes to visual input.

    This blog from Lovely Connection, on preschool classroom set up, includes important aspects to think about as you plan your classroom layout. She includes information about including noise, popularity, supervision, boundaries, space, and the race track (when kids run around the room in a circular pattern!)

    What happens when children are still overwhelmed, even when the environments are visually calming?

    When a child feels overwhelmed for any reason, having a calm down corner, that is easily accessible and they can stay in as long as they need, is a must have.  My Soothing Sammy Emotions Program.” is an effective calm down area because students are excited to spend time with the adorable golden retriever Sammy. Not only does “The Sammy Program” teach children how to calm down, it guides them through communication and problem solving situations in a visual way that isn’t overwhelming.

    Check out this great blog about visual processing and visual efficiency from the OT Toolbox archives. When a child has visual processing difficulties, they have a harder time taking in visual information, and processing it in order to make sense of it.

    This visual processing bundle, also available in the Toolbox, can support children who are demonstrating visual processing challenges. 

    The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook (also available on Amazon) written by Colleen Beck of the OT Toolbox, is a great resource to start understanding sensory processing disorders.

    A final note about visual noise

    Visual noise doesn’t only occur indoors, it can happen outdoors, especially if there is a lot of activity and sunlight. Being mindful of the visual stimuli outdoors, is just as important as setting up an indoor classroom.

    If you have a child who is having a hard time visually processing their environment outside, these visual sensory activities can be completed outdoors to support their sensory system.

    While considering visual sensory overload in the classroom, also be sure to check out our resource on auditory sensitivities in the classroom. Both are very useful in setting up an inclusive classroom environment for success.

    Classroom themes are adorable and cute! When planning your classroom, keep in mind how “busy” and overstimulating different colors and amount of objects can be. This will help keep your students calm and engaged. Although everyone processes their environment differently, anyone can all benefit from a more calming environment, especially when learning new skills! 

    Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.