Understanding the Sensory System

We all have external senses – vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. For a child with minimal trauma, sensory processing can be easy. They are able to act, and react appropriately and can learn through  their senses. Adversely, for a child with significant trauma, their senses are negatively impacted and this creates issues with their ability to process. It looks like inappropriate behavior and challenging learning styles.

Sensory processing was discussed in a recent training with the teachers and staff at a trauma-informed school at one of the Back2Back sites. Physical therapists and staff members, Michelle and Citlali, educated the school staff on the sensory system – what it is, what it does, and how trauma affects it. 

In the first of a four-part series, Michelle and Citlali shared about external senses and had staff participate in activities to understand how senses are processed typically. They then offered examples of how this impacts a child with trauma and their ability to learn. 

“If a child has trouble with visual processing, they may be easily distracted by things around them, unable to focus on the board or the teacher,” shared Michelle. A suggested solution: do exercises and activities to help the child practice focusing visually and maintaining focus by ignoring what is around them. Additionally, they taught the teachers how to make adaptations for the children, for example, giving them space in a corner with visual blockers, so they don’t have to filter out other distractions and can focus on what’s in front of them.

“Another example we gave is when a child has difficulty with various scents – the smell of a teacher’s perfume or candle can distract a child with a smell sensory issue. It can also potentially link to a traumatic memory and be a trigger for poor behavior and distraction,” shared Michelle.

All of this training is designed to better equip educators on how to serve each student right where they are. It is also helping the teachers recognize when a therapy referral might be useful in a child’s educational journey.

The goal is to offer unified, holistic programming in order to effectively serve each child. Making the school environment sensory-friendly is one large step in the right direction.