I think they have sensory needs what can I do?

I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects. In this series of 10 articles, I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you.

The first three articles of this series focused on why sensory engagement is so powerful for supporting learning, engagement and mental health, the next three looked at the sensory landscapes that surround us in our settings, now it is time to think about particular children. When you work in early years settings quite often you are the first people to notice that a child has a need that is slightly other than what is considered the norm. A child at home is just them, they are known for being themselves and accepted and loved as who they are and how they are. I have often heard parents use their child’s name in their explanation of a quirk in their behaviour that they had noticed but not questioned: “We always just thought that was Jake being Jake” or “We just took that as Amira being Amira”. There is something beautiful about these explanations. They say we saw the person and we accepted the person as they are. In this article, we are thinking about that child in your setting who appears to have quite different sensory needs from the other children and what you might seek to do about it. 

First off be curious. It is likely something unusual that they are doing that has made you think about possible sensory needs. Are they moving a lot? Do they seem to need to bite down hard on things? Are they repeatedly moving things in front of their eyes? Do they vocalise oddly? Sometimes people’s first move is to try and stop whatever the odd behaviour is. Just telling them not to do it is essentially asking someone not to sense the world as they do. Imagine telling a blind child to stop bumping into objects they cannot see! It is ridiculous, but when what you are witnessing is a result of sensory differences just demanding that it stop is akin to making this demand.  

Be curious and think sensory, what is it that they get out of that activity at a sensory level? Maybe explore a little with them: if they are making loud noises, do they like activities that involve making loud noises in other ways, if they are moving things about in front of their face do they enjoy for example brightly coloured spinners? Think about their behaviour and try to articulate it in a sensory way. View it as reasonable. 

It is worth chatting with their family about it, not raising it as an issue or a cause for concern. Just noticing it together. “He enjoys things that spin” “She loves to make loud noises when we are all having our snack”. Do this so that parents know that you have seen these behaviours too and do it so the communication channel is open. Parents can be worried by their children behaving in ways that are viewed as unusual, there is always someone within a family willing to put their foot in it and address the anomaly in a less than tactful way “Why does he always do that? Why don’t you tell him to shut up?”   

Carry on being curious, after you’ve thought about what they are getting out of the experience (is it visual stimulation, auditory stimulation, is it the blocking out of other stimulation), think about the where and the when of what they are doing. Is it something they do all the time? Or are there specific times of the day when they seem to do it more? What is different about those times of day, is it when they are hungry, is it when everyone is together, is it when another child does a particular thing? Where do they do it? Are they only doing it when they’re inside and stop when they’re outside, do they take themselves to a particular place in the room to do it?  

These curiosities can lead you to new understandings: Amira seems more agitated when waiting for food, when other children make noise, or when the chairs are pulled in and out she begins to shout random words. Jake loves to twiddle things in front of his eyes and seems to get lost doing that, he does it inside and outside but will stop if there is another activity he is interested in like story time or snack time.  

Carry on chatting to their families about your curiosities, “Jake was enjoying twiddling the sparkly string we got him today but he stopped when we were telling our story about the frog.” (Make sure not to celebrate the stopping, your aim is not to block the child from addressing their sensory needs or to indicate that their withholding from activities that serve to comfort or orientate them in the world is good, it is just interesting to notice when that comfort is needed and when it is not). “I think Amira gets agitated when everyone brings their chairs over for a snack, she shouts quite a bit. I’ve asked the other staff if tomorrow the adults can lift the chairs for the children so they’re not dragging over the floor, we are going to see how she is with that.” 

If the families seem at ease with the conversation extend your curiosity into the time the child spends outside your setting. “Does she shout much at home?” “Has Jake got things he likes to spin at home?” 

You are not there to diagnose these children, but if your recognition of their sensory needs makes you think that they might be neurodivergent it is worth mentioning this to their families. Not as a cause for concern, just as a provider of information: “Lots of children who are autistic like to twiddle things” “Sometimes children with neurodivergent conditions process sensory information in different ways to neurotypical children and this can mean they do things that seem different.” You are not telling them they need to get their children diagnosed, it is not your role to decide that, you are sharing the information you have. If you do this in a none judgemental and open way you will be a wonderfully steadying presence for that family.  

Parenting in the early years is a bewildering and sleep-deprived adventure, when your child is other than how you expected them to be it can be all the more disorientating. Being supported by staff who recognise your child’s differences but aren’t flustered by them can be deeply reassuring. Better still if those staff have ideas about how to begin to support your child even before things like formal diagnosis or assessments and the like….which leads me to my next article. In my next article we will look at ways you can support a child you think might have particular sensory needs. Until then do feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfurl, all the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk 

Did you find this blog on sensory needs useful? Take a look at some of our other sensory blogs here:

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