The ability to develop and teach multisensory learning programmes is an essential part of the toolkit of any special needs teacher.
It is fairly well understood that we learn in three different ways: Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic. In order, the words basically mean by seeing, hearing or doing. Each of us will have a preferred or dominant learning style but overall our best learning occurs when all three styles are incorporated into the learning environment.
Underpinning all learning are the senses: vision; hearing; touch; taste and smell, and herein lies the importance of Multisensory Learning. Since Ancient Greek times educators have understood that the greater the use of a number of senses in the learning process the greater the connections a person will make and therefore, the more embedded and effective the learning will be.
For a student who has sensory impairments and/or learning difficulties or disabilities the manner in which they learn and the pathways they need to take are very different to those of your average student. For example a person who has a vision or hearing impairment will as a matter of course have to have their learning opportunities presented and structured in a very different way to those of their peers who are sighted and/or hearing. This does not necessarily preclude people who have visual or hearing impairments from having a preferred learning style which is visual or auditory, merely that adaptations within the teaching/learning will have to be made to accommodate this.
This example is fairly obvious but when one thinks about impairments in smell, touch or taste, then the pathways and strategies one must use may become less obvious. Some students are also faced with such things as Sensory Processing Disorder or Multisensory Impairments; these impact on how they learn and interpret information. A simple example of how these can impact is to think about the grating sound of chalk on a board or the tearing of cotton wool. These send shivers up some people’s spines and can be genuinely unpleasant. For someone who has a sensory impairment, processing deficit or an extreme disorder, such experiences (ie messages we receive via our senses) can be truly painful, distressing and/or confusing. Within the context of Multisensory Learning, the educator will provide a learning environment which both engages the learner and makes up for, or compensates for differences they might have in their sensory processing or receptiveness.
For many children who have disabilities or difficulties their development is not that of the average child and so again, within Multisensory Learning programmes many areas of early development will be re-visited and specific programmes devised by therapists, in conjunction with parents, family/whanau and staff here at school; to compensate for a child’s under or over development within certain sensory areas. It is here that a knowledge and understanding of two other senses comes in - those of Vestibular and Proprioceptive Senses.
These latter two senses are increasing familiar terms to our parents and caregivers and refer to a child’s sense of movement and position (vestibular) and their ability to organise, plan and perform physical responses (Proprioception). In an average child we would expect for example to see these developing at around 7- 8 months as the child starts to mimic movements, gain a sense of their body position and purposefully move.
So, within the realm of Multisensory Learning we see the 7 Senses fully incorporated into both formal and informal teaching and learning programmes. In doing so we maximise the child’s engagement, ability to make sense of the world around them and pursue a pathway of achievement and learning best suited to their individual needs.
A simple internet search will access you to further information and a whole list of terminology which may be new and unfamiliar, ie educational jargon! Key terminology which you may come across is as follows:
Visual – sight or seeing
Auditory – hearing
Kinaesthetic – movement, i.e. through doing
Tactile – touch or feel
Olfactory - smell
Gustatory – taste
Vestibular – sense of movement and body position, balance
Proprioceptive – sense of body position, purposeful physical actions
MSI / Multi-sensory Impairments – sight and/or hearing impairments
Sensory Diet – a therapeutic plan which is designed to structure sensory activities (snacks) which support a child to stay focussed, organised and balanced throughout their day.