Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Observing Sensory Processing Disorder in the Montessori Classroom

The education of early childhood should be based entirely upon this principle: Assist the natural development of the child. Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child.

NAMC montessori classroom observing sensory processing disorder boy walking red rod maze
Maria Montessori developed an early childhood education method and curriculum around the understanding that infants and young children first learn experientially, through the senses. But what can Montessori parents and educators do when a child’s sensory experience is different from others? This is the second of a four-part series designed to share some insight into Sensory Processing Disorder.

It is generally held that we have five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. We often take for granted the ability to see clearly, to taste good food, to distinguish between right-side-up and upside down. Imagine living in a world where your senses didn't function together, where the information that was sent from your senses to your brain was ‘misinterpreted’ and you didn't experience the world the way others did.

Imagine being told how good something smelled, only to be repulsed by it. Or gagging on something described as “absolutely delicious”. Or being afraid to have your feet leave the ground because that was the only way your body knew it wouldn't float off into space. Or being afraid to grow because that meant getting new clothes that hurt to wear because everything new was too rough for your skin.

Observing Sensory Processing Disorder in the Montessori Classroom

As strange as it may seem, these are real-life situations that affect children and adults with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Carol Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync Child, defines Sensory Processing Disorder as "inefficient neurological processing of information received through the senses, causing problems with learning, development, and behavior." The simple act of processing sensory information has a major impact on our thoughts, emotions, and actions. The slightest change in how our brain processes information severely impacts our day-to-day living - psychologically, emotionally, academically, and socially. While Sensory Processing Disorder is not categorized as a learning disorder, it can make learning extremely difficult. As Montessorians, then, we must “follow the child” in order to provide the appropriate environment for each child. Here are some key points to consider toward preparing the Montessori environment in order to respond to the child’s needs.

Descriptions of Sensory Processing Functions
Sensory processing dysfunctions are usually categorized by either being hyper or hypo sensitive. That is to say that the senses are either over or under stimulated. An overstimulated child needs less sensory stimulation while the understimulated child requires more.
  • Tactile Sense: input from the skin receptors about touch, pressure, temperature, pain, and movement of the hairs on the skin.
    • Hypersensitivity– doesn't like to have things or people touch them.
    • Hyposensitivity – craves being touch or touching things.
  • Vestibular Sense: input from the inner ear about equilibrium, gravitational changes, movement experiences, and position in space.
    • Hypersensitivity - fear of movement, heights, and rapid movement.
    • Hyposensitivity – needs constant movement, rocks body, loves to jump, hang upside down, swing high and fast.
  • Proprioceptive Sense: input from the muscles and joints about body position, weight, pressure, stretch, movement, and changes in position in space.
    • Hypersensitivity– likes bear hugs; likes to be wrapped tightly in blankets at bedtime; grinds teeth; always chewing on something; stomps around rather walking quietly; always banging into things
    • Hyposensitive – misjudges weights of objects; drops things; breaks things; seems to do everything with too much force.
  • Auditory Sense (not diagnosed hearing problem)
    • Hypersensitivity – distracted by noise not noticed by others (fans, humming of lights, mosquito buzzing); frequently asks people to be quiet or to turn down the music; startled by unexpected sounds.
    • Hyposensitivity – loves loud things, e.g., radio, tv; talks to self while completing tasks; frequently asks “what?” and needs directions repeated; does not respond to name being called.
  • Oral Sense
    NAMC montessori classroom observing sensory processing disorder girl with headphones
    • Hypersensitivity– extreme food preferences in regards to flavors, textures, temperatures; repulsed by toothpaste & tooth brushing.
    • Hyposensitivity – constantly puts things in mouth (after oral sensitive period is over); excessive drooling; food can never have enough flavor.
  • Olfactory Sense
    • Hypersensitivity – bothered by cooking & household smells; reacts to smells others don’t notice; sickened by bathroom smells, especially public restrooms.
    • Hyposensitivity – has difficulty distinguishing between smells; unable to identify objects by smell; does not notice offensive or noxious odors.
  • Visual Sense (not diagnosed vision problem)
    • Hypersensitivity – covers eyes/cries/gets headache from bright lights; easily distracted by visual stimuli; enjoys playing in the dark; avoids eye contact.
    • Hyposensitivity – difficulty controlling eye movement/tracking; focuses on details and unable to see the whole picture; loses place when copying work; sees double; cannot discriminate between patterns and similar pictures, words, letters, and numbers.
Understanding SPD is the key to helping children with sensory processing difficulties. Some may look at the above list and wonder how does this differ from ADHD. In fact, a lot of the behaviors are similar. As any Montessorian will tell you, it is important to look at the “whole” child. SPD is a recognized neurological problem which medication will not fix. In order to fully address these sensory processing difficulties, Kranowitz advises a therapeutic sensory program which addresses the whole child rather than simply medicating a behavior. Our next blog will address how the Montessori environment is designed to address the sensory needs of all children.

Related NAMC blogs:
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Wednesday, May 5, 2010.


  1. Fantastic series of articles - as a parent of a child with SPD this is very helpful and I hope to be able to share with my child's teachers to assist her in her Montessori school.

  2. I am encouraged seeing this topic discussed. I am a Montessori teacher and grandma of a 4yr old diagnosed a year ago with SPD, and dyspraxia. We always new M had SPD, his mom, my daughter did also. His mom is a teacher in our school also. But we were not prepared with the behaviors and sadness this brought to our little guys everyday life. At first I thought we could deal with him in class by using the sensorial materials and adding some of our own sensorial experiences. He has been in therapy with a very experienced Occupational therapist for a year now. Thank goodness we found her! There is so much more that these children need and the therapy is nothing like I thought or could have in class. I would encourage any parent of a child with SPD to get their child evaluated and into therapy with an occupational therapist who is experienced with SPD as soon as possible. The older they get the harder it is and the worse life is for the child. I do think Montessori education is for all children and especially effective for these children however much more is needed for the child who truly has SPD. Blessings to you all


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