What does sensory mean?

Sensory describes the way the body responds to environmental stimuli or information, like sounds, textures, lights, smells, pain, and temperature. Kids who are blind or have low vision, and kids who are Deaf or hard of hearing, have reduced sensory awareness.

Sensory concerns also include extreme reactions or behaviour in response to sensory information. Some kids can find certain sensory information uncomfortable or distressing. For example, some kids may be bothered by loud noises (e.g., covering their ears or become upset in large crowds), while others may be oversensitive to certain textures (e.g., being bothered by some fabrics, tags on clothing, or types of food). Some kids can also show an interest in sensory stimuli, like sniffing toys or objects, or being fascinated by lights or movement. Some kids can show under-responsiveness to some types of sensory information, like pain or temperature, which can increase their risk of getting hurt.

Who has sensory challenges?

All kids can show sensitivity to some types of sensory stimuli, but they often grow out of them or are able to manage it without becoming too distressed.

Kids with developmental delays or difficulties, such as autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to have sensory challenges. They may find some sensory stimuli very uncomfortable and distressing, while they find other sensory stimuli comforting. All kids will differ in the type and severity of sensory concerns they have. For example, some kids with autism spectrum disorder will show many sensory concerns, while others may have none or very few. Every child is different.

What might be some challenges in the dance class?

  • There are often regulations about dance uniforms including hair and makeup requirements which may be difficult for some kids with sensory challenges.
  • Dance venues may be loud and sometimes chaotic places which an produce anxiety for some kids with sensory challenges.
  • Kids who are oversensitive to noise may cover their ears or cry when they hear loud noises (e.g., loud music, drum beats, lots of people talking, or an alarm).
  • Kids who find comfort in particular smells or textures may do things like sniff objects (e.g., props such as balls or scarves and dance costumes), or they may like to touch particular items or surfaces.
  • Some kids may not feel the cold and will want to wear only shorts in winter, while others may not feel the heat and will wear warm clothes in hot weather.
  • Kids who have altered sense of pain may not realise they have been hurt or there may be a delay in them feeling pain, while some kids may be very sensitive to pain and show distress with something that appears to be only a minor incident.

Quick tips

  • Allow alternate ways to dance: If you know that a child finds a particular movement activity challenging due to sensory sensitivities, prepare them in advance and offer an alternative activity.
  • Kids can wear their own dance outfit or hairstyle: Allow kids to wear an outfit they feel comfortable in when they come to dance class. Allow kids to wear their hair in way that is comfortable for them. The key thing is that they can participate, not their appearance!
  • Be aware of students’ sensory needs: Find out what colours, textures, sounds, or movements the student prefers or dislikes. Use props to incorporate tactile and visual stimuli in the dance activities. Props can include silky or floaty scarves, ribbon wands, textured fabric such as velvet or faux fur, stretchy bands and balloons. Children might bring in other objects which can be explored as dance props.
  • Provide a quiet area: Change rooms, waiting rooms and the dance studio can get very noisy. If you are able to, provide alternative rooms which are quiet for kids to get changed in or wait.
  • Don’t have the music on too loud: Some kids will find loud noises distressing. Don’t turn the music up too loud. Explore moving without music, keeping time through visual cues.
  • Have a safe back-up activity: Have a safe activity that the child can do if things become too demanding. This could be a simple movement exercise or game that the child enjoys. The activity could be used when the child needs a break or time to calm down.
  • Allow time to calm down: Some kids might need to take time out from the group and have more breaks to calm themselves when they get overwhelmed. Let them to do this whenever they need to.
  • Let parents or siblings help: Parents know their child best. Getting them or the child’s siblings to help might encourage the child to get more involved and feel safer to in the dance class.
  • Parents can help calm kids: Sometimes kids might become angry and upset and the reason for this might not be clear. Giving them a break and getting their parents to help might assist them to calm down. Make sure a clear code of behaviour is known up front and provided visually.
  • Use dance stories: A dance story might be needed to teach a kid a new dance step or a new dance experience.
  • Have a consistent routine: Provide predictability by having a consistent routine at each class.
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