When you enter fifth grade teacher Lauren Bailey’s classroom, it is not uncommon to see students sitting on large exercise balls, practicing math on their iPads, all while Mrs. Bailey reads them a novel. This is education in the 21st Century; this holistic approach to education provides a physical outlet for students while activating core muscle groups and stimulating their cognitive skills. The physical stimulation enhances their motor skills, while the use of touch to complete math functions engages the left side of the brain, all while listening to a novel (impacting the right side of the brain). This integration stimulates three of the five senses providing a comprehensive learning environment.
Using a multisensory approach to learning engages students in their lesson more effectively. Brains perceive stimuli through the five senses, with the different senses varying in strengths in each person. Most people, children included, learn best when information and ideas are presented in a multisensory format. The wisdom of Confucius can guide teachers’ planning: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” When several senses are engaged, the student is more likely to retain the information.
Teaching multisensory is broken down into three sensory modalities: visual, auditory, and tactile or kinesthetic (movement/touch). These three methods give multiple pathways for the information to reach the brain. Visual presentations structure and organize the writing and pictures. The auditory techniques include discussions, lectures and reading aloud. Tactile presentation techniques include manipulating the lesson into objects or involving touch for the student to help facilitate learning.
Multisensory teaching is not in itself a new concept; rather, the general concept of teaching varying styles of lecture, hands-on activities, and demonstrations are taught to teachers in college. The newer method of educating the whole child and catering to each child’s uniqueness of learning through sensory application is the current teaching trend. Rather than teaching to the middle-ground of a classroom’s learning ability, the teacher is able to individualize instruction providing different sensory components reaching a wider audience of students. By understanding how a child’s senses are affected through teaching can be an attribute to that child’s individualized instruction. In the same context, the teacher is able to avoid engaging a child’s specific sense if it impairs the child’s learning.
Dr. Jeff Bond, Director of Curriculum for Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation, states, “By being more aware of how the multisensory use of color, line of sight, auditory or tactile methods impact a child, we can more fully maximize the child’s educational outcome. When we are providing an environment rich in sensory teaching, we can meet individual needs.”
This type of teaching has proven to be extremely effective with the sensory deficiency children, particularly ADD or ADHD children. By providing busy kids an outlet to being still (swinging feet, tapping the exercise ball or even activating their core muscles by balancing on the exercise ball), the tactile release can help them focus on the lesson being taught. Mrs. Bailey states, “The balls produce movement for them as a release without being a distraction to the task at hand.”
Sitting on the exercise balls are not for all students however. Mrs. Bailey says some children choose to have a regular chair instead, especially for a test or other times of needed concentration. If the child prefers sitting on the exercise ball, the parent signs a form that if the child pops the ball the parent is financially responsible. When the children get bouncing too much, she gives them a hand gesture that means “the bobbing fish need to settle down.” She can tell who is on task by how much bouncing she sees, as a child cannot bounce and write or read at the same time. On the contrary, it is important that students learn to multi-task in today’s environment; many students are masters of listening to music and working on a task.
According to James Levine, Co-Director of Obesity Solutions at the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, “If you give children the opportunity to move while learning, they will do so. They’ll double the amount of daily movement.” The goal is to give students the opportunity to move if they want, not necessarily tell them to move.
Levine’s research shows that giving children this option leads to a 10%-15% improvement in educational scores, better blood pressure and glucose numbers, subjective improvements in behavior, and reduced medication for children with ADHD. He states, “There will be a whole new science emerge to start to understand precisely how we can use movement during education to improve education.”
Bond states, “Multisensory teaching is not a district initiative, however some teachers have shown interest and sought out funding for sensory materials through the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation, their Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO), or have furnished the materials themselves. These pilot teachers are sharing their success with their peers during our Professional Learning Communities on Delayed Start Wednesdays. I would anticipate seeing more teachers use the multisensory methodology in the future. As our district grows, we will seek hiring teachers who use levels of differentiation that include multisensory instruction. We value teachers who are willing to experiment to improve their effectiveness.”