How to create a Sensory Circuit in your classroom

Is it really possible to make an impact on sensory motor development and sensory processing within the school environment? A question, as an Occupational Therapist, I am frequently asked by teachers. The answer is a complicated one. Considering the needs of an individual child, the structure and set-up of the classroom, and the amount of time and support that the teacher has available all come into play. Invariably however, my answer will confirm the need to develop sensory circuits in your own classroom.
Sensory motor development refers to the gradual process in which a child learns to use and coordinate the muscles of the body together – legs, arms, trunk, hands, fingers…all our muscles we use to move around and engage with our environments. Sensory processing happens in the brain and is imperative for sensory motor development as it is through this organising of sensations from our environments and our own bodies that we can start to develop this coordination. Effective sensory processing relies on smooth and efficient neural pathways.
In order for new neural pathways to be established and for any neurological change to take place – which is what is needed to effect change in sensory processing and integration – regular input with repeated stimulation is needed. This requires time and manpower that most schools, with the most well-intentioned teachers, simply don’t have. Having an effectively running sensory circuit programme in your school, can enable you to meet the individual needs of children, in a group context that is fun and motivational, and which has realistic time and facilitation demands for staff.
I’ve put together a few tips for starting a sensory circuit programme at your school:
Choose a leader for the programme
This person will do the planning, training of other staff members, and initial identification of children attending the circuits. Make sure that there is sufficient time protected for this person to work on the circuits. This is especially true in the beginning when the circuits are being setup. Allocating adequate time to this role at this stage will save time and manpower further down the line.
Train staff involved 
Staff that have a proper understanding of sensory integration, of sensory circuits, and of how they can benefit children are far more likely to be invested in the programme. At this point it may be worth getting an occupational therapist to come to your school to do training with your staff on sensory processing. Understanding what we mean by sensory integration, how effective sensory processing impacts on academic performance, and how sensory processing can affect behaviour, allows teachers to see how the sensory circuit could benefit their students and their classrooms. Ongoing training for identifying children, doing relevant paper work and reviewing the programme will be needed. The number of staff members you have involved will be dependent on the number of children who will be using the programme.
Identifying children that could benefit
Having a good foundation understanding of sensory processing and children’s sensory needs will help you to identify which children will most benefit from joining your sensory circuit programme. Creating a sensory checklist for teachers to complete will help you to group children with similar needs and create circuits that will address the specific targets for each group. You can include alerting, organising, and calming activities into your circuit and so can choose children with difficulties in any of these areas.
Choose your environment 
The ideal place for a circuit is a hall or a gym. This will give sufficient contained space for equipment to be laid out and for the maximum number of children possible to take part in the circuit. Having said that, if you are starting off with a smaller group, a smaller environment could suffice.
Review your equipment 
What items do you have available in your physical education and sports stores and what items may be useful to purchase? Start with a few basics and add more to your sensory circuit kit as you become more familiar with the children, their needs, and what works well in your space. Hop, skip, jump, swing, balance, dance, wiggle, shake – what do you need to get the children moving?
A few basics that are recommended as a starting point are:

  • A mini trampoline or large trampoline will do – this is great to use as an alerting activity and can be done from beginner level with straightforward jumping, to more complex jumping like star and scissor jumps. Later a more proficient child can develop sequencing by reciting times tables, catching a ball, or throwing bean bags at a target while jumping.
  • Skipping ropes – also useful for alerting, skipping can work on co-ordination, sequencing, speed and crossing the midline. Grading the activity as children’s skills develop is easy as you incorporate more complicated skipping steps.
  • Balance benches – including an aspect of balance in your circuit will make it more organising for children. Solid school balance beams (often used in gym class) are perfect for this. Other balance equipment, which may be easier to set up and store and which can achieve the same aims are walking boardsbalance skateboards and balance boards.
  • Exercise mats – these can be used in all floor activities and help give structure and visual prompting in your circuit.
  • Tunnels – These are great because they get children into a crawling position; providing calming sensory input. The change in position of the body and head provides a different sensory-motor experience while the weight bearing through the upper limbs is a wonderful way of developing upper limb strength and shoulder girdle stability imperative for fine motor skills.
  • A variety of bean bagsballscones and hoops to turn activities into games which develop hand-eye coordination, midline crossing, and motor planning but also give children meaning which provides the internal motivation to take part.

Once you have a well-established basic sensory circuit kit that you are comfortable using you can start looking at buying some other desirable items like the following:

Fitting your circuit into the daily timetable
Ideally the circuit should be done first thing in the morning before the school day starts. There are significant benefits from running it a second time later in the day. Unfortunately this often does not fit in with school timetables. Using registration periods, physical education slots and assembly times often become the most practical options. The more frequently the circuit is run during the week the more opportunity there is for neurological change to happen and outcomes to be generalized into the classroom.
Record keeping, monitoring and evaluation
As with any intervention, it is important that regular evaluation is done to assess if the sessions are worthwhile and are effecting the change expected. Creating simple, straightforward paperwork, to be filled in, about the children’s performance both on the circuit and in the classroom is imperative. Having specific targets set out for individual children and then measuring their progress in these areas will help you to keep your circuits focused and constructive.
In her book Sensory Circuits, A Sensory Motor Skills Programme for Children (ISBN-13:9781855034716), Jane Horwood gives fantastic examples of paperwork and checklists that can be used to support your circuits programme. She outlines possible activities you can use and gives you more in-depth background on the development of sensory circuits. This book is well worth a read if you are planning on setting up a sensory circuits programme in your school.
Educanda is South Africa’s leading supplier of child development tools, school learning equipment and accredited teacher training from as early as birth all the way to high school.
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