A Program Overview for Schools Educating Children with Sensory Delays

by Carmen McGuinness

The National Institutes of Health describe sensory integration as “the involuntary process by which the brain assembles a picture of our environment at each moment in time using information from all of our senses.” Jean Ayres, and others who have continued her seminal work, have highlighted the problems that can occur either singularly or in combination when sensory development is not normal.

sensory seeking – craving touch, pressure, motion, lights, sounds, and other sensory input

sensory avoiding – avoidance of touch, pressure, motion, lights, sounds, and other sensory input

dyspraxia and apraxia of speech – problems with motor planning and grading body 
movements resulting in clumsiness and/or delayed and inconsistent language development

attentional challenges – orienting, engaging, and maintaining focus and attention

auditory processing deficit – problems discriminating the start and end of discrete speech and ambient sounds.

visual processing problems – resulting in difficulty making sense of visual stimuli, or transfer between visual fields such as a chalkboard and a piece of paper on a student’s desk.

For most children sensory processing is automatic, managed by parts of the brain that operate below the conscious level. For children with sensory delays or insult to the sensory systems sensory integration is labored, occurring only with conscious effort or not at all. The result can be devastating to social and educational outcomes resulting in problems:

  • developing a sense of self, the environment, and others
  • revving up or down to sit still or activate for learning activities
  • transitioning between activities
  • planning and sequencing the steps in various activities
  • selectively orienting, listening, and seeing
  • maintaining attention and focus
  • recalling and being able to operate on input
  • engaging in creative or imaginative activity
  • putting oneself in the perspective of another

Much work has been accomplished in the field of treating sensory processing dysfunction in the clinic. Unfortunately few classrooms are appropriate to children with sensory challenges. Bringing together the work of Jean Ayres (and others) with the work of Maria Montessori, perhaps the first educator to discuss sensory deprivation and education of the senses, we describe here what an appropriate sensory education should look, feel, smell, and taste like; what goals it might include, and how sensory-savvy teachers might support the work of sensory integrative therapists.

An appropriate sensory education will facilitate development of sensory integration and support or follow up the work of occupation, vision, and other integrative therapies. The goals of a sensory education are straightforward and intended to further strengthen missing or weak processes through ongoing training of the various sensory systems as they pertain to the educational process, and within the educational environment. While special education has historically facilitated children, an appropriate sensory education, by contrast, supports and encourages natural development of the sensory systems as they pertain to learning.


A sensory education should address movement from both the perspective of freedom of movement and of directed movement.

Freedom of Movement – It is developmentally inappropriate to the natural development of the vestibular and ocular-motor systems for young children under seven to sit with heads erect, doing central vision work for extended periods. Children with sensory delays need even more time before seated center vision work becomes the predominant learning format. Mats, beanbags, knee cushions, tunnels, and swings are all perfectly acceptable landscapes for learning when teachers are willing and understand the value in getting young minds at inverted angles from time to time. Floortime is an excellent format for providing close up one-on-one teacher-student time while encouraging movement and stretching out. ocular-motor development as well as peripheral or ambient vision can be supported simply and easily by letting children stand and move to a vertical writing surface rather than fixing the gaze at a teacher directed lesson.

Directed Movement – Developmental Yoga, Brain Gym, Astronaut Training, or a similar educational kinesiology program, directed by teachers trained in these programs provides classroom relevant work with posture, stability, balance, breath, laterality, spatial awareness, motor planning, and ocular-motor, and developmental movement patterns, requisite to successful learning. Until movement is automatic and easy the child’s ‘learning-energy’ will be redirected to compensate for these missing pieces. Making the transition from a sensory-integration room to the classroom is easily facilitated when this educational piece is in place. Many students who need improvement in these functions can also benefit from listening therapy, which is easily facilitated in a classroom setting under the direction of a certified therapeutic listening program provider.

Opportunities for Ambient and Focused Attention

A good sensory education will include multiple daily opportunities for children to flow between ambient and focused attention, gaining experience at monitoring the sights and sounds of a safe and productive classroom using alternating, and divided attention and tuning-in with focused, sustained, and selective attention when details are presented. Cognitive support can be provided with programs like Pay Attention or other cognitive teacher-delivered programs, which give children a conscious experience of the flow between these attentional processes.

Opportunities for Multiple Kinds of Engagement with Teachers, Therapists, and Peers

Many children with sensory challenges have trouble engaging with teachers and peers. A small, controlled, and cooperative social structure with a mix of one-on-one instruction, as well as small group and teacher directed lessons is tremendously powerful for encouraging students to engage with teachers and peers. Children who feel threatened or overwhelmed in larger large classes have an opportunity to learn to map space using the visual and auditory systems appropriately when the learning space is just a little smaller and the number of other children is more manageable. Children should be given ample opportunities to practice new skills alone and in teams, both in a formal and and game-like format.

Imaginative and Dramatic Play

Children with sensory delays spend so much of their time and energy compensating for sensory systems that should be automatic, that they have very little energy remaining for imagination and creativity. When all of the above criteria are in place energy is released for imagination. Properly designed lessons will evoke imagination and should be included as an extension of most classwork.

Integrated Curriculum

An integrated curriculum offers a perfect landscape for development of conceptual thought, practice in related skills, logical construction of informatikon, and deduction of relevance. The combination of these elements gives sensory delayed children a structure upon which to hand incoming stimuli and benefit from interrelated information presented at a big-picture or global level, followed by discrete detail, and skill practice. In a very real sense this is the mental application of ambient and focal switching mentioned earlier in this article; and it gives us a stage upon which to set development of imagination. Tying together lessons in literacy, math, and science, under the umbrella of cultural exploration of a culture, for instance, gives children with sensory challenges several ways to access information and allows them to build a network of relevance around details. Following is a graph of what this might look like. With all of the above in mind, we offer functional examples below.

The following activity gives children both a big picture of how numbers work and practice using them, within the context of cultural relevance using the novelty of Australian music, stories, art, and food to draw attention and ignite imagination.

Three dimensional hands-on and direct instruction in the hierarchy of numbers using the Montessori Golden bead or similar manipulatives for a view of the big picture

  • counting seashells for skill practice
  • make an Australian pupunya drawing with the seashells for deduction of relevance

Keeping to this theme children can build hand strength and fine motor control in this set of activities.

  • molding with clay for skill practice
  • use the clay to make a relief map of the continent of Australia for more information in on the big picture
  • reward hard work described above with a taste of a native Australian food such as carambola star fruit for skill practice tasting novel foods
  • open a star fruit (modeling curiosity, igniting imagination, skill practice touching slimy foods)
  • use a triangular stencil at apposing angles to provide new information about how a whole can be formed from a part for spatial mapping and imagination

Giving children a big picture, a small detail, and skill practice in every situation not only builds links in the relevance and application of information, but also in connects their day and week under a common theme offering powerful experiences with the concepts of time and space.

Carmen McGuinness is the co-founder of Read America, a Central Florida based program since 1993, and Praxis Education Center in Longwood-Lake Mary. In Carmen’s 25 years of work with children she owned and opperated a Montessori school for children age-three through grade eight, conducted two large scale educational research projects, and authored three books on the topic of literacy, language development, and verbal intelligence. Her training includes Montessori, Brain Gym, Astronaut Training, Centered Child developmental yoga, and Vital Links Listening Therapy. Carmen is the developer of the internationally aclaimed reading method Phono-Graphix, and the author of ‘Reading Reflex’, ‘How to Increase Your Child’s Verbal Intelligence’, and ‘Imagine Baby Reading’. In January 2008 Read America and Praxis Education Center will be expanding its current learning therapies practice to include Chrysalis School at Read America, for children experiencing sensory and language delays. The school is registered with the state of Florida and licenesed with the American Montessori Society.