Special Education

Tapping Into the 5 Senses to Support Students With Disabilities

Activities that draw upon the five senses—such as spending time outdoors—can be centering for students in special education.

November 13, 2023
Arturo Vazquez / Alamy

Our ability to smell, taste, hear, touch, and see plays an essential part in our everyday lives. These senses help us interpret thoughts and feelings about our surrounding environment and contribute to well-being. In the classroom, when students understand how to address each sense, they are more aware of what’s happening around them and within their body and mind.

Teachers who recognize the benefits of incorporating the five senses into the classroom can provide students with more than just awareness of their surroundings—they can also help support students’ mental health. As a teacher in a special education high school classroom, I have found that incorporating the five senses helps my students relieve anxiety and enhances their ability to focus and maintain attention.

8 Strategies to Incorporate the Senses Into Your Classroom

1. Bring it all together. The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 coping technique is designed to decrease anxiety and support overwhelming thoughts and actions. It can be used before, in the middle of, or at the end of class. Ask students to do the following:

  • Acknowledge five things you see around you.
  • Acknowledge four things you can touch around you.
  • Acknowledge three things you can hear.
  • Acknowledge two things you can smell.
  • Acknowledge one thing you can taste.

2. Create a sensory workspace. This offers a self-soothing space for students to be effective and focused. The strategy begins by giving students the option of having a sensory item of their choice at their desks. Their selection can be based on the activity or assignment. For example, if students are reading silently, they could take out a stuffed animal to squeeze; or if they are taking a quiz, it might be helpful to have a bottle of water on their desk to stay hydrated.

3. Provide sensory questions of the day. Create an opportunity for students to answer a question of the day about a specific sense. This strategy allows students to share their senses, which brings them comfort, joy, and connection to calm:

  • What is your favorite smell, and how does it make you feel?
  • What is the best-tasting beverage? When you drink it, what does it do to your attitude?
  • If you could touch anything that brings you happiness, what would it be? Why?
  • The best sound in the world is _____ because it allows me to _____.
  • What view brings you happiness?

4. Have students complete a weekly or daily senses journal. Through this strategy, students keep track of their senses, their experiences, and how the senses make them feel. The sense can be something from the weekend or throughout their day that they notice.

For example, a student once wrote about a restaurant he had gone to over the weekend. In his journal, he described the smell of the restaurant, the taste of the burger he ate, and the great music being played at dinner. This memory elicited positive feelings and offered a relaxing thought for this student. I could tell that this reflection put him in a positive mood. Keeping a journal allows students to check in with a motivating thought to focus or relieve anxiety when needed.

5. Smile. The mindful smile strategy can be mood-changing! Smiling can increase your mood along with others around you. The sight of a smile directed to each student as they walk through the door, when asking a question, and even when making corrective remarks to your students can put them in a less anxious state of mind. Research has shown that smiling can relieve stress and anxiety and make for a healthier lifestyle.

6. Incorporate music. Numerous studies have shown that listening to music is associated with lower levels of stress and boredom and improved concentration, which is why many people stream music while exercising, working, and studying. The types of music that motivate people are largely individual. Ambient sounds, instrumentals, and lo-fi music can all find a place in the best playlists for focus and memory.

Have students create a playlist on a note card with six songs that elicit a feeling of motivation, focus, and relaxation. Students can choose two songs for each category. Throughout the year, play the songs at particular points in the class.

7. Step outdoors. The time-to-get-away strategy involves someone stepping outside for some fresh air. When students feel anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed, provide them an opportunity to step outside for a moment. Moreover, offer that students can take a calming prop such as a pen, mug, stuffed animal, or stress ball with them. The item should be designed to help boost calm, focus, or de-escalation.

Sometimes if an outside door is not close by, students can open a window or take a walk in the hallway. If you have a small classroom and find that all students can benefit from this strategy—such as before a test, presentation, or group activity—take everyone for a short getaway.

8. Have your students take a mental sensory vacation. In this strategy, students design their mental vacation where anxiety, stress, and worries can be put to the side. Instead, they create a place in their minds where calm, relaxation, and self-control take over. When you find that students are overstimulated or in need of guidance to reset and focus, send them to their sensory vacation spot. This strategy is best when guided by the teacher in this way:

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a relaxing place. It could be anyplace. However, it should be a place that brings you no stress, no anxiety, and no negativity. Take 10 seconds to think about where you are. Take 10 seconds to think about what you see. Take 10 seconds to think about what you hear. Take 10 seconds to think about what you smell. Take 10 seconds to think about what you taste. Take 10 seconds to think about what you feel. Keep your eyes closed, and take 30 seconds to think about everything you see. Now, open your eyes. How do you feel?

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  • Special Education
  • Mental Health
  • 9-12 High School

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