A Teaching Aside
Early on in the year I got a wild hair idea that I wanted to try to write grants to get money to buy a classroom set of yoga balls. I actually thought of this not because of the needs to students, but rather based on my own experiences in school. I never sat correctly. I was either criss-cross applesauce on a chair, leaned backwards on 2 or 1 legs of the chair, sometimes with my feet up on the desk itself. I was a sloucher. I would hang off the chair by my shoulder blades, sometimes letting myself dangle. In short, I hate chairs. They never really did it for me.
Through the year I have integrated an increasing amount of sensory tools like yoga balls into my class. I now have Theraputty; moon sand, kinetic sand, and rice boxes; spinning chairs; weighted vests; compression vests; and a set of small round magnets that are just plain fun to roll around in the hand. The kids love it. And, bonus, I have seen a vast improvement in their behaviors as I introduced these items (and shared them across the school as possible).
Where it all started…a simple yoga ball
One of the first things I found in the pile of things in my room when I moved in this year was a couple of large exercise-type balls. I inflated them and was excited for the year to begin. One of the things I noticed early on was that my students loved and craved the sensory feedback from the exercise balls. They would do everything in their power to talk me into letting them take a break on the yoga ball and to let me have them take it to their desk for a few minutes of work.
Unfortunately, this went off the rails rather quickly. Since I had 9 students and 2 yoga balls, there were miniature fights that started to escalate. Unfortunately, this got so far out of control I had to remove the yoga balls from the class. I am not sure who was more sad, me or the kids.
Okay, let’s try again
Later on, I realized what the problem was. I did not have a rigid set of easy to understand rules for the yoga balls and the students sensed the chaos surrounding them so they became uneasy. Hence the fighting.
My solution was to make the exercise balls part of a sensory space that had to stay in a specific area behind the SMARTBoard. This space, at first, contained 2 IKEA spinning chairs, a rice table, and 2 yoga balls. I also set apart a couple of drawers the students had access to that contained weighted vests, compression vests, Wikki Stix, and theraputty as sensory manipulatives. This arrangement worked well. At first.
This arrangement failed because the rice table was to big. One of my students felt an overwhelming desire to completely lay inside the rice table and cover himself with rice as if it were raining. The mess was terrible! I felt at this point that the rice table had to go. If a student’s sensory needs were this extreme, it was necessary to find a better way to accommodate them.
Fortunately, the yoga balls and spinning chairs were okay and worked well, so I removed the rice table and replaced it with a large kitchen-sized tupperware with rice in it. This was useful for accommodating the sensory needs without inviting overindulgence.
Eureka! A solution presents itself
A parent provided me the solution. In conversation with parents, I had mentioned my plans to eventually replace the chairs in the classroom with yoga balls so the kids could fidget, and it would help greatly with any ADHD-related behaviors. Well, one of my parents talked to their friend, an exercise instructor. I walked into school one morning and there was a small box with 4 yoga balls in it and a note that it was an anonymous donation!
I immediately got to inflating. I dug around the classroom and found the 2 yoga balls I had used before and set them up in the classroom. I took 2 exercise balls I had at home and brought them to school. Every one of my students now had yoga balls…they just didn’t match.
Obviously, non-matching yoga balls was an issue, albeit a short-lived one. Students obviously perseverated on the grass being greener elsewhere, so they always wanted someone else’s yoga ball. So I immediately sought homogeneity and conformity across what I gave each student.
Upon asking the school’s administration, they provided another 4 yoga balls that were identical to the original 4 that I had received. So now I had a full classroom set. Each chair was replaced by a small, green yoga ball. The computer chairs were replaced with a large blue and a large red yoga ball. The students were ecstatic, and so was I.
Taking it forward
Before the yoga balls replaced chairs, it was nigh unto impossible to keep some of my students in their seats. They would fidget like mad in their chairs for a few minutes, then find excuses to have to get up and wander the room. This was a problem because they would have to get rounded back to their seats to continue schoolwork or to transition between activities.
After the yoga balls were introduced, the vast majority of fidgeting behavior is taken care of on the ball itself. There is still some wandering, but it is now related to not wanting to work, which is easier to deal with than wandering to fulfill sensory needs.
I have 2 students that refuse to use the yoga balls for day to day work, but they asked for access as soon as they had a moment of free time. I thought this was great, they did not feel the need to have the constant sensory fix during work, but when they felt overwhelmed they could use a sensory break as a reward or free time activity.
All in all, I see nothing but benefit to fulfilling this sensory need for my students. They not only love it, but they are in their seats over 25% more of the day and thus are able to complete a greater amount of schoolwork. This is not trivial since I have been demanding 35-50 minutes of nonstop work from my students between free time periods (I started this so end of year testing would be a possibility-I plan to administer testing in 30-45 minute segments of uninterrupted work). If the students are showing an ability to stay in their seats (cough yoga balls cough), then there is a chance that they are thus able to access the academic curriculum to a higher extent simply because they are staying in place!
Other sensory tools
The other sensory toys I have alluded to in the past are as follows:
- A tupperware of rice
- 2 tupperware containers with moon sand
- A tupperware container with kinetic sand
- A tupperware container with 4 x 2 oz. Theraputty balls separated into baggies
- 3 weighted vests, all weighing between 8-12 pounds overall
- 2 compression straps, one for the torso and one for an arm or leg
- A set of magnets to fidget
- On occasion we make Oobleck or Gak to fulfill sensory needs
- A small ball with nubs on it
- Two IKEA spinning chairs that have privacy screens
- On rare occasions I will allow students to make dark, solitary, areas using a wrestling mat or under a computer table
A lot of these items come in and out of favor with the students depending upon their needs. I can get a very keen sense of their sensory needs based upon which options the students choose during free time. This is very helpful for me as a teacher because the students can communicate with me their needs by expressing their preference at free time.
How we made it work in the end…my classroom guidelines
As I stated before, at first my ideas for addressing sensory needs failed epically. I believe wholeheartedly that this is because I did not set clear rules and expectations. The rules directed to students are simply the general classroom procedures. I realized there was no need for me to make a new set of rules. The rules were already there!
Overall, by being very clear with the students that I was trusting them to be responsible with classroom equipment, the students have shown tremendous maturity when it comes to handling access to what they need to fulfill their sensory needs. They love the yoga balls and do not cause trouble with them. They ask for access to everything else. They work very hard to not make a mess when they use sands or rice. They also realize that trying to fight about anything they want does not help them-so they ask each other for the next turn very politely. It is truly a sight to see.