Optimal learning in the classroom: Switched on for learning

Posted: 20 May, 2016

By: Annabella Sequeira

Section: Education

Optimal learning in classroom

Children are under immense pressure to perform in all areas of their daily functions, including academics, sport, leisure and on the social front. They are under constant sensory input, primarily through the visual, hearing and touch systems.

No single class has children functioning on the same sensory thresholds – some children will reach their thresholds a lot quicker than others. The ability to adapt one’s central nervous system adequately to multi-sensory input is important for optimal learning and development. Regulation helps a child to take the relevant information from the environment, filter the irrelevant information out and to focus on the task at hand. It also helps a child to adapt to changes in the environment and to adjust his/her alertness levels for learning and action.

Most teachers want the very best learning experience for all the children in their care. Yet, in an average class of 25 pupils (and in some instances up to 50) this is no small feat, considering that each one comes with individual learning styles and needs. How then should a teacher attempt to make learning truly accessible to all and find the balance to accommodate the various sensory systems and thresholds that are present in a classroom?

Making Sense of it All

To ensure optimal learning it is firstly important to understand that both adults and children access their world differently through their various senses (all seven of them). At any given moment, we receive sensory input which impacts on us in many different ways. It is the way we make sense of the world around us and learn from whatever we come into contact with.

Taken an orchestra as example – for some, the beauty lies in the sound of the music, for others it is the sight of the conductor’s skill, yet for others it is the feeling of the tiny hairs on their arms that stand on end when the sound of all of the instruments harmoniously come together. Each person has a natural preference over one or more of their senses when it comes to assessing and learning from their world.

In the classroom, it is no different. Some children learn better when they can see what the teacher is explaining, and others are tuned in to what they hear, whilst others need to do a physical demonstration to carry out what has been explained.

How then, do we teach to such a variety of senses in the classroom to ensure that they can all progress equally and optimally?

Following are 12 practical tips for the classroom that may prove helpful:

  1. When addressing the entire class, try to incorporate all of the senses by presenting the teaching material in a multi-sensory fashion – verbalise the instructions, while also showing it on the board and following it up with a practical demonstration.
  2. Try to find out what works best for each child by presenting instructions to every individual in a visual, auditory and movement-oriented way. In this way they are exposed to all, but their sensory preferences will soon become apparent so that you can adapt your one-on-one teaching style accordingly.
  3. Position children according to their sensory strengths:
    a. the child who responds better to movement stimuli would need more space;
    b. the child who responds better to auditory stimuli would benefit from being closer to the sound source; and
    c. the child who responds better to visual stimuli would benefit from being in an unobstructed visual field to the board.
  4. Give children with high sensory thresholds a movement break – 2-3 minutes of movement can increase a child’s ability to focus and function for about 15 -20 minutes (if possible take the kids on an outdoor task).
  5. Adjust the tone of your voice depending on whether the child is sensitive to noise (speak softer) or louder for the child who needs more auditory input in order to follow through on tasks.
  6. Be aware of the affect of different smells in the class and the impact they may have on a child’s ability to focus (perfumes, flowers, scented candles).
  7. Large dazzling jewelry may be distracting for the visually inclined children in the classroom. The same could apply to clothing – bold patterns and designs could also be a source of distraction.
  8. Decrease clutter in the classroom by making sure that books, toys, stationery and bags are all packed away neatly.
  9. Decrease the noise levels in and around the classroom for the more auditory sensitive child – introduce a quiet area or hideout where children can calm their sensory systems for a short while.
  10. Decrease visual displays such as posters and hanging mobiles.
  11. Use deep breathing techniques with the entire class – it is a great way to regulate the nervous system.
  12. Give children that are prone to distraction something to chew or suck on (e.g. chewing gum, crunchy foods or a lollipop) or make a selection of fidgety toys, like a stress ball or pom-pom available to them.