This section about ‘sensitivity within the classroom’ focuses on providing insights into the student’s perception of  over-stimulation from vision, sound, and touch within the primary classroom. In the following paragraphs, the terminology SPS for sensory processing sensitivity and HSC for a highly sensitive child is being used.

One way to better understand a highly sensitive child’s behaviours, needs, and emotions is to imagine yourself in the child’s position (Williams, 2014).

Case Study: Josh returns to school

Josh is in 2nd grade and is a smart and loving boy who likes to explore and learn new things. Josh is excited to be back in school after winter break to explore new themes and topics, especially art. He enjoys being creative and is excited to see all his friends again.

In the morning, Josh wakes up happily but is still a little bit tired because he has difficulty waking up early. He waits outside for the school bus to pick him up. He sees the bright yellow bus from a distance, and as it approaches him, the loud, hissing sounds grow louder until the bus stops in front of him, and Josh jumps in.  Walking up the aisle towards  the  back of the bus, Josh notices the stifling warm and smelly air, which agitates him. The bus is very crowded, and, as usual. Josh goes quickly to an empty seat and sits down.

His eyes wander around; he spots a friend of his who is sitting in the left corner of the first row. As his friend shortly turns around, Josh starts waving, but his friend did not notice. Josh wonders, ‘Why did he not see me? He looked a bit sad. Is he all right? Did something happen to him over the break? Why is he not smiling? He always smiles. He is still my friend, right?’ His eyes wander again and he notices that one child is wearing a bright orange hat; another one is playing with a small light blue rubber ball.

Josh hears a noise and turns around. Someone is blowing a red whistle. The sound is deafening for Josh and makes him uncomfortable. He turns back to face the front. Almost all of the children are engaged in lively conversations with each other as they share stories with their friends about the fun activities they have done during the break. Josh is quietly sitting beside another student but they aren’t having a conversation. Josh is reserved and silent and begins to cover his ears as he stares outside. Trees, cars, and road signs pass by quickly. Josh tries to block out all the noises which rattle around him.

As soon as the bus arrives at the school, Josh hears children calling, shouting, and laughing from a distance. As he steps out of the bus, he is glad to finally breathe in the fresh air from outside. Josh finds himself stuck in a crowd of children; and as soon as he locates his way out, he goes directly to the school building entrance to escape the louder developing noise emission of dozens of children. With too many children and surrounded by strangers, he feels overwhelmed. As he rushes towards the school entrance, he notices birds singing, and cars and buses honking. He is still thinking about his friend from the bus.

Finally, in the hallway in front of his classroom, Josh runs into his friends, who welcome him euphorically. Josh steps back; he does not want to be hugged right now. In the hallway he notices huge displays hanging on the walls with colourful artwork and other different projects the 2nd grade had worked on in the last past weeks. He goes into his classroom and aims straight to his table. Josh’s teacher welcomes him as she always does when each child enters the classroom in the morning, but Josh does not respond or even react at all.  He collapses into his chair, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath.

As soon as he opens his eyes again, his teacher announces that she redecorated the classroom during the holidays with more colourful posters, pictures, and games, for the children to explore. Josh’s eyes quickly wander back and forth and he sees large, colourful, and bright posters with different shapes and stripes taped to the wall,  red, purple and green fabric hanging from the ceiling, a tippy chair placed in one corner of the room, and several piles of books. The grey storage units are now green, orange, yellow, and blue.

Josh stops looking around. His peers are cheering, clapping, and shouting questions to the teacher about what kind of new games they have in the classroom. Josh notices all the different nuances in their tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions. He tries to shield himself by laying his head on his desk and wrapping his elbows around his head because the room is spinning. Josh is completely overwhelmed.


Write or discuss:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Josh’s morning?
  • Which senses seem to affect Josh the most?
  • Have you experienced such an overwhelming situation during your day-to-day life before, and were you be able to feel the over-stimulation Josh experienced?


Josh is highly sensitive to sound and vision. His mind is always whirring, and it processes loads of details that his senses pick up on and he tries to process what he is seeing and hearing by thinking deeply about every small and single thing he notices. Wherever Josh goes or whatever he does, his senses automatically gather a tremendous amount of information. Children with sensory processing sensitivity have a highly sensitive nervous system and process information more deeply and thoroughly from the senses. This awareness and intensity are very exhausting for the child (Aron, 2017).

The case scenario is just a snapshot of a highly sensitive child’s individual life, and it does not even include all the many deep thoughts and feelings that children like Josh may have to deal with. According to Zeff and Aron (2004), approximately 15 to 20 percent of the human population has difficulty screening out stimuli and can be easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds, lights, and colours. Similar research of Baryła-Matejczuk, Artymiak, Ferrer-Cascales, and Betancort (2020) underpins the human population’s percentage, which exhibits the highly sensitive trait.

Raising awareness of this subject amongst parents and teachers can help  support the students who want to be understood by their teachers and their parents. When we provide individual support for our highly sensitive students, they can grow and thrive to their full potential. Each highly sensitive child is an individual. Children who are highly sensitive in one sensory area cannot be compared to each other because they may not share the same sensitivities. Research has shown that usually highly sensitive children are sensitive to at least two senses (Aron, 2017).

Supporting Students

Some highly sensitive students are more sensitive than others and express their emotions and needs differently. A child might be sensitive to a specific sense so that the daily school life can be a crucial problem. One kind of a warning sign could be that the child does not want to go to school, or as soon as the child has to enter the school building or a specific class, it gets completely overwhelmed and scared caused by previously experienced situations. According to Hollands (2014) in this case, it is a particular location where the child experienced an overarousal of individual senses. The senses became triggered by specific environmental circumstances, which indicates the constant state of emotional distress.

Williams (2014) states, “a highly sensitive child experiences the world in a different way to a non-highly sensitive child. It’s brighter. It’s bigger. It’s bolder. It’s louder. It’s scarier. Same world, different experiences of living in it.’’ The same applies to the school and its classrooms. Students with sensory processing sensitivity notice even small details of their surroundings, and think about these details, to different degrees and connect strong emotions with it. The previous outline of the case scenario describes a student triggered by the intensity of the noises around him and the different and bright colours he perceived within the classroom environment.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity Simulation Video


Classroom Design

Studies have shown that the physical classroom environment and its colours and patterns can have decisive impact of every student’s well-being as well as their emotions and provoke negative and severe changes in their performance Küller, Mikellides, and Janssens (2009).

To all appearances, the images below exhibit different kinds of standard classroom designs. Very colourful, fun, and child-friendly classroom decorations, which similarly can be found in many local primary schools. Please take a closer look and imagine a highly sensitive child who is sensitive to bright colours sitting in a classroom for several hours with these kinds of decorations.


Write or discuss:

Please describe your feelings and thoughts about the four different images of the very bright and exciting classroom designs from the view of a non- or highly sensitive person.

In contrast to the previous images, please again look at the following classroom designs which include a more natural and cleaner colour design and decoration.

Write or discuss:

Please describe and reflect on your feelings and thoughts about the previous images above. How do you feel by imagine sitting in such a classroom environment as a non- or highly sensitive person and state which classroom design you prefer connected to your emotions?

While sitting in such an overwhelming and very colourful classroom, even a non-highly sensitive child has probably difficulties to entirely focus on learning. All the different and bright colours are so exciting. There are so many things to see and explore, and especially for the highly sensitive student can such a setup cause the feeling of being uncomfortable and becoming overwhelmed, which refers to over-stimulation of their senses. Küller et al. (2009) point out that moderate use of light and pastel coloured design will improve the overall mood and well-being of non- and highly sensitive students. Furthermore, a similar study by Pedro, Baeta, Paio, and Matos (2017) shows that well-designed primary school classrooms, in general, can boost students’ learning progress by as much as 16% within a single year.

Creating a Welcoming and Inclusive Classroom Environment

At the beginning of the school year, teachers follow the goal of establishing a classroom environment that will foster students to work cooperatively to learn and to support their development as best as possible. Known is that the classroom environment can either improve or impede a student’s ability to learn and to feel safe and comfortable within a classroom Bucholz and Sheffler (2009). Therefore, mutual learning and emotional development will create a classroom that encourages and fosters emotional well-being. This can be accomplished by including every young learner’s needs to create a pleasant and comfortable classroom atmosphere. First of all, the classroom should be accessible to all students. Especially for highly sensitive students, teachers should set the value to a warm and inviting classroom decoration, which is given by choosing a natural and coalesce colour spectrum.

This means that children with colour hypersensitivity may find shades of brown, beige, grey, white, forest green, and black calming and very appealing. In contrast to those, shades of red and exceptionally bright neon colours like pink, orange, green and yellow cause an over-arousal. The more natural the colours are, the easier it is for HSCs to cope. The brighter and bolder the colours are, the harder it gets. Moreover, the classroom decoration should renounce patterns and stripes, causing over-stimulation Williams (2014). Therefore, the wall displays, posters, and other learning material hanging on the walls should be held in unitary and natural colours to prevent a visual overarousal. Highly sensitive students may also make extremely uncomfortable by bright lights Zeff and Aron (2004). Additional research has shown that classroom lighting is crucial in creating a suitable classroom environment for students in general. An efficient classroom lighting system allows the use of any available natural light and the inclusion of artificial light wherever needed. A study by Heschong Mahone Group (2003) states that incorporating natural light can provide students of non or with high sensitivity and teachers with physical and physiological benefits. According to those findings, a classroom should enable several natural light sources, and lamps should have warm lighting bulbs.

DIY Classroom Light: Unfortunately, many primary schools often have fluorescent lights installed in their classrooms.  The harsh glare and flickering light can cause eyestrain, headaches, and anxiety for the students. For creating a welcoming and relaxing classroom environment, there is an easy and low budget trick on adjusting the lighting as best as possible. The ‘do it yourself idea’ refers to covering the fluorescent lights with foils or fabrics, which can be used as a ‘classroom light filter.’


The Soundscape – When the Classroom is Too Noisy: Students who are hypersensitive to noise in a classroom environment are often seen covering their ears, are becoming agitated or upset, execute avoidance behaviours, or are even having a complete sensory meltdown caused by very distracting and overwhelming sounds. These children have difficulties blocking out noises that non-highly sensitive children might not disturb, or they might not even notice. The ticking of a clock, the scratching from pencils on paper, the hum of electronic devices, or hearing conversations while trying to focus on a specific task can be very distracting. It is important to mention again that every student who is hypersensitive to noise experiences symptoms differently. Single coping strategies that work for one student may not work for another. The following paragraph will outline various suitable methods which and can be adapted within a classroom environment.

As tempting as it is to protect the specific students from all of the situations that may cause them anxiety, it is the job of teachers to introduce them to and provide them the needed tools to learn to cope with the environment around them become independent. The most important part is to detect which sounds may cause the students over-stimulation. The sounds that generate a trigger can be identified throughout a personal conversation with the specific students and track the student’s behaviour in class. This can be executed by using an Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence Chart to determine the root cause of challenging behaviours as soon as the student shows signs of noise anxiety Buckley (2020)

Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence Chart

Once the root cause got determined and to help the student to reduce the noise anxiety within the classroom, it might be beneficial to provide warnings ahead of time as soon as a noise that may cause a trigger appears. In this case, the student can physically and mentally prepare him/ herself and not get surprised by that particular sound. According to the sensitivity and the specific noise, the student might like to cover the ears with the hands or use headphones or sit in a quiet corner. The quiet corner could be a tippy as a refugium, placed in the corner of the classroom. Moreover, the student may prefer to distract him/herself with a comfort toy while the sound appears.

Throughout this strategy, the student is still exposed to the noises but using the calming tools (headphones, earplugs, fidget toys, relaxing music, rainmakers, etc.) as a positive stimulus that can help to provide calming input and help take away the focus from stress-inducing noises. The practice takes time, but the student might develop long-term coping strategies to use when a trigger occurs without warning Aron (2017).

Furthermore, having a discussion with that particular child and educating the other students about the specific sensitivity will develop an awareness and prevent particular sounds and behaviour. Teachers can create a safety plan with the student, so other teachers are aware of what to expect and do, and a classmate could be assigned to be a ‘safety buddy’ in case additional support is needed. It is essential to ensure that students feel safe and are educated on what different sounds mean. During the day-to-day school life, there is always the potential for an emergency bell to occur. Even if fire alarms and fire engines cause anxiety, the child must learn how to respond appropriately rather than become paralyzed by fear.

The Indications of Over-stimulation by Sight, Sound, and Touch

The symptoms of sensory processing issues may differ depending on how a child processes sensation. It is crucial to identify the students with sensory processing sensitivity in the classroom within a school’s daily life. The following checklist will help identify a sensitive child who might be sensitive to sound, vision, and touch much easier.

Crucial to mention is that the sensory processing sensitivity checklist is not a diagnostic tool. The checklist will only convey a better understanding of the three different senses and their accompanying responses that may indicate a sensory processing sensitivity. A teacher is not competent enough to provide diagnostics; he or she only can observe and support the students individually according to their needs. For an official diagnostic of sensory processing sensitivity, sensory processing disorder, or sensory processing dysfunction, it is best to consult with a professional who can provide diagnostic clarification with a standardized assessment and evidence-based tools.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity Checklist

Visual hypersensitivity 

  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • May retreat to darker settings to enjoy play
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Can be distracted by subtle visual details (people moving, a clock ticking, specific colours within a room,
  • events occurring outside a window, etc.)

Auditory hypersensitivity 

  • Reacts strongly to unexpected or loud noises
  • May hold hands over ears to protect them from sounds
  • May have difficulties being productive with background noise present
  • May demonstrate difficulties with specific frequencies of sound
  • (a person’s voice, car sirens, certain musical pitches)
  • May avoid situations where there is an influx of loud sounds, such as a movie theatre, large crowd, fireworks, etc

Tactile hypersensitivity 

  • Becomes dysregulated, upset, or anxious with light and unexpected touch
  • Is bothered by certain textures of clothing, or the tag on clothing
  • Experiences difficulties walking barefoot on specific textures, like sand, grass, or carpet
  • Exhibits dysregulation when engaging in “messy play” and may
  • demonstrate a need always to keep hands clean
  • Demonstrates difficulties with wet tactile mediums, such as soap, lotion, shampoo, etc.


Classroom accommodations for Hyper-Sensitivities

To prevent and cope with the sensory overload of vision, sound, and touch, it is essential to recognize the trigger’s cause. Correlated to the trigger, the teacher and the student can intervene individually. By adopting the following practical changes within the classroom, teachers will support the highly sensitive students by feeling comfortable and secure and thereby contribute positively to their well-being. Additionally, by adapting to the changes, they might prevent and facilitate individual help for coping with over-stimulation during the daily life in the classroom.

Sight Sensitivities

  • Replace buzzing, flickering, and bright fluorescent lighting.
  • Eliminate excessively bright colours and disorienting patterns or shapes from classroom walls and bulletin boards.
  • Provide students with eye protection, e.g., lightly tinted sunglasses and visors.
  • Close classroom door to block distracting sights and sounds.

Sound Sensitivities

  • Ensure students aren’t seated next to distracting sources of noise.
  • Provide hearing protection, e.g., headphones or foam earplugs
  • Close classroom door to block distracting sights and sounds

Touch or Tactile Sensitivities

  • Seat students at comfortable desks and chairs; they should be able to put their feet flat on the floor and rest their elbows on the desk
  • Provide inflated seat cushions or pillows for the possibility for movement while sitting
  • Encourage parents to dress their children in stress-free clothing: softer, simpler, and seamless
  • Always inform and request permission before physical contact

Strategies for all sensitivies

  • Allow students to skip school assemblies or sit near the door so that they can take breaks in the hallway with a teacher when they start to feel overwhelmed
  • Post clear visual schedules to help students prepare for transitions
  • Consider keeping a sensory kit in the class that includes items to help students stay calm, e.g., comforting tactile objects like stress balls, fidget spinner, etc.
  • Include (secret) signs and signals to help students communicate with you and/or a buddy that can be used in different situations, e.g., needing a break. Student can decide individually, which will prevent meltdowns and teach useful self-advocacy skills
  • Establish consistent routines to help students feel comfortable and less overwhelmed
  • Integrate a cosy calm/ reading corner in the classroom, so students can withdraw to a quiet and relaxing place
  • Provide additional items, e.g., coloured overlays, pencil grip holders, calm music, diaries, to help students regulate behaviour while working on tasks.

Personal Note: The Brave Children Diary was created by a mother of a highly sensitive child and is an excellent creation of a journal meant to help anxious children identify their fears during their day-to-day life and take control of them.

Since that particular journal is not accessible for free, I got inspired to create a similar one. The diary ‘be brave, be strong, be fearless’ includes a structure like a regular diary for children. Each page provides a line section to write down the date, a situation that happened during the day, and an emoji feeling chart, which can be coloured in by the child. Additionally, blank spaces where they can draw their feelings and draw or write about how they handled the specific situation. The diary aims to track the process of the children’s individual development over time and identify where their anxiety has decreased and where their self-confidence and well-being have increased.

Be brave, be strong, be fearless Diaries



Rosa                        Blue                    Neutral

Key Takeaways

To prevent and cope with a sensory overload, the student and the teacher have to identify the individual trigger that evoked sensory over-stimulation. According to the findings, the student and the teacher can intervene with different actions to prevent the arousal in the first place or to individually cope with a sensory overload. Crucial to mention is that every highly sensitive child is an individual. Therefore, they might be sensitive to different senses, and additional prevention and coping measures operate. Communication between the teacher and the student and observation of different situations is the key. When the teacher becomes an inside into the student’s perspectives, previous experiences, feelings, and emotions, the teacher will fully understand and support the student as best as possible.

All in all, children who experience a sensory overload can feel very overwhelmed. By identifying suitable and individual coping mechanisms, the students will be able to put themselves back in control of their senses and emotions Aron (2002). Moreover, the highly sensitive child perceives and thinks a lot and feels deeply has plenty of creative ideas. Those students’ nature opens them up to inspiration and includes a distinctive talent of creativity Winston, Kenyon, Stewardson, and Lepine (1995). According to these findings, it is beneficial for HSCs to experience different artwork, which will inspire and encourage students to may identify themselves with certain artists. Moreover, providing the opportunity and individual support of creativity to process their personal needs and issues. Throughout the initiative of being creative, the students can express themselves, their emotions, feelings, and thoughts through art Loesl (2012).



  • How does a possible behaviour might look like if a child is overwhelmed?
  • Think about a situation of your personal daily life or even a specific environment you have been in where you felt an over-arousal of your senses (vision, sound, or touch).
  • While re-decorating the classroom, which essentially measures need to be considered to create an inclusive classroom environment for highly sensitive children?
  • Which prevention and coping ideas might help the students who experience a sensory overload of the senses vision, sound, or touch?


  1. [Adapted from Rodil, J. (2020).]


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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