Richard Hirstwood looks at aspects of multisensory learning in relation to school environments and how to improve the learning journey.
Multisensory learning is used to describe any learning involving two or more senses in the same activity. It is not a new concept. The value of learning through a combination of senses was recognised early in the twentieth century by Montessori, whose approach continues to influence multisensory learning in a carefully created learning environment.
Sensory overstimulation and under-stimulation
A sensory loss or impairment can mean that the learner does not interpret the sensory information they receive correctly and processing simple sensory input can be challenging. Any of their senses may be over or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. This also applies to learners on the autistic spectrum, when too much sensory information may cause anxiety or stress. So, a learner’s ability to take in and use information through the senses and respond appropriately is known as sensory integration. Some learners have heightened sensory awareness, resulting in the continual bombardment of their sensory system by sensory experiences, which are too overwhelming and result in their withdrawal from that environment. Conversely, some learners’ awareness of sensory experiences is too low, resulting in limited engagement with their environment.
Multisensory Learning and Communication Skills
Learners learn when they are interested in an activity or object; they become motivated and further engaged when the learning is fun. For successful multisensory learning, we must understand more about the learner’s expressive and receptive language skills.
For clarity, expressive language is the ability to convey meaning and messages to others using words or gestures. Receptive communication concerns the ability to understand information and meaning—from words, actions, visual clues, and environmental sounds. Note that expressive and receptive communication may be at different levels of ability. So, a learner may understand symbols and use these to convey thoughts, but their expressive communication may be limited to non-specific vocalisations.
Multisensory learning encourages a learner’s interaction in an activity—a reason for engagement and communication, while supporting their ability to understand the experience and to embed learning. A learner may need more time to process and understand a learning experience, requiring frequent repetition to secure this knowledge.
The flexible classroom
Evidence from research shows that physical classroom environments make an impact on learning. However, we should also recognise that the type of environment that best meets the needs of a learner with autism may well differ from that which suits a learner with profound and complex learning needs. Creating the right physical classroom environment is more complicated when children and young people have coexisting and overlapping conditions or when they are taught in mixed groups where learners have different needs.
Classroom learning environments designed to accommodate sensory impairments require the physical environment to be adjusted to support effective learning. The provision of lighting and visual clues is vital for all learners. Consider the use of high colour contrast; for example, a dark tray placed on the work surface to assist the visually impaired learner in engaging with the object. For those with a visual impairment, it is critical that lighting levels meet their visual needs. For learners with a hearing impairment, clear visibility is essential to enable lip reading and signing and for wayfinding. Making sounds more explicit by cutting down echoes with partitions or carpeted surfaces will help learners develop hearing and listening skills.
The physical classroom environment should provide as many multisensory learning cues as possible to accommodate and stimulate the seven sensory systems. Such provision will depend on the level of sensory loss learners have in a particular class, or if a multisensory impairment is one of several coexisting conditions they are experiencing.
The physical classroom environment can make many demands on all learners with autism, especially those with a specific difficulty with sensory regulation. These environments should take into account sensitivities to noise, light, temperature and strong colour, with low levels of distraction and sensory stimulus and a safe, calming space.
For learners with CLDD, a multisensory classroom should be considered. This should be in addition to many schools’ dedicated rooms to provide multisensory learning experiences.
Corridors can be more than just spaces in which learners move around the school. Think of them as a ‘sensory journey’ for learners, punctuating their school day regularly. But do long corridors and endless doors mean the journey is stressful and disorientating? What sensory clues indicate where the learner is on this journey? Does visual and auditory clutter in the corridor increase levels of distraction? Should our corridors be distinct learning environments specifically designed to meet the needs of our cohort of learners?
Walk down a corridor in your school with your eyes closed and feel, not just with your hands, but with all your senses. You have a sensory memory for vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and vestibular and proprioceptive experiences. Does the corridor you are in provide sensory clues related to these sensory experiences? Remember, too, that if you are a learner in a wheelchair, this sensory journey along the corridor will be entirely different again.
A multisensory learning approach, in a supportive learning environment, will help us to make the learning journey effective and enjoyable for all our learners.
Richard Hirstwood is the founder and principal tutor of Hirstwood Training. He is passionate about enabling educators/practitioners to maximise the impact of delivering sensory learning opportunities, in a sensory room or other learning environments, with the resources available to them.