Over the past year, I read a few articles that discussed making classrooms less visually stimulating for learners.  They discuss how walls cluttered with posters actually distract learners rather than helping them.  However, I think these studies miss the mark.
Make Your Classroom Sensory Friendly - Posts discusses four things teachers can do to make their classroom decor and layout sensory friendly for students.
Let me explain.  I am very sensory sensitive, and visual stimulation is just one part of this.  A number of things might make someone sensitive to sensory input, including autism, ADHD, allergies, and even introversion.  For me, it is in part fibromyalgia.  I always wondered why no one else could smell something when I could.  My teacher friends were always amazed when they didn’t smell it at first, but a few minutes later they could.

What causes sensory overload?

Sensory overload is when a person simply can’t stand any more sensory input.  I think a good analogy for this is a mall during the summer versus a mall during the Christmas holiday.  I try to avoid shopping after November 1stbecause after about 30 minutes I want to run out of the building!  It isn’t just the never-ending music on a loop, but the lights, the decorations, the huge crush of people, and the heat.  One of them would be okay, but put them all together and it is overwhelming.

Honestly, I think a lot of teachers have a huge amount of sensory things in their classroom and don’t realize it.  If you aren’t sensitive to it, you probably wouldn’t notice.  And, in all honesty, most students probably don’t either.

How can you make your classroom sensory friendly?

1.  Consider your visuals.  

Please understand, I am not saying that your classroom needs to be cold and uninviting.  No one wants to be that classroom that looks like a hospital room.  However, the decor should not overpower everything else in your room.  (I affectionately call this throwing up a rainbow.)  Every square inch of wall space does not need to be covered, truly.  When I first began teaching, I also felt the need to cram as many educational posters on the wall as possible.  However, it is a lot of work for the teacher, and it isn’t really necessary.

2.  Cut back on scents.

Don’t stop with your visuals, consider the odors.  Your kids with really bad allergies will thank you. 

Yes, it is so nice to have a really nice smelling room (especially if you teach 5th and 6thgrades!)  However, when you have a fragrance, plus hand sanitizer, plus perfume that you wear, plus all the girls in your class that need their own hand sanitizer and perfume…..it becomes overwhelming.  (Don’t even get me started on the current favorite spray for boys.  If I could ban that, I would.)

In a classroom, everyone is so packed in that each individual smell mixes with the others.  Every year I kindly ask that students bring hand sanitizer only in the normal version or a citrus version.  That helps to cut down on the smells, and most students really will comply.

3.  Reduce the classroom noise.

Another issue can be noise.  Sadly, this is really hard to fix in most schools.  I haven’t worked in many places where you couldn’t hear noise in the hallway or the teacher in the room next door.  Just be aware of how much sound is coming in your room and try to monitor it.  I know a lot of teachers play music, and that really isn’t an issue unless all the other sounds play over it. 

4.  Declutter the classroom layout.

Finally, think about your classroom layout and space.  Again, some teachers are really limited by the size of their room, but try to space your tables and desks so that everyone can at least get in and out of their desk with ease.  I also try to establish pathways through the room, so students aren’t squeezing through a ridiculously small space.  (You know some students will always squeeze through a microscopic space no matter what you do….) 

What is your best tip for keeping students focused?