When children are small, they instinctively learn about our world through their senses. Stimulating the senses sends signals to the brain and strengthens the neural pathways for learning. The more of his senses a child uses and the better he becomes at using them, the more he can learn. And yet, once a child enters school, she is often expected to rely most heavily on hearing and seeing as a means to acquire new information. There is significant value in engaging students through all of their senses, yet this is an area often ignored once children leave preschool.
In Special Education is Good Education I suggest that all students benefit from a multi-sensory approach to learning; an approach to education that engages all of the senses. Some of us learn best by listening; some need to write something down to commit it to memory and others won't remember well unless they repeat it back out loud. Still others will benefit from connecting their learning to a smell or a taste. Utilizing multiple modalities can increase the likelihood that learning will be meaningful, relevant and lasting.
It should not come as a surprise that our best lessons involve more than just reading or listening; they incorporate hands-on projects such as cooking, artwork, skits, videos, and of course, music.
There are many sources to bring these elements into a Jewish classroom. Behrman House and Torah Aura offer complete lessons incorporating multi-sensory approaches. G-dcast and YouTube are sources for relevant videos (although you have to sift through much more on YouTube) and can serve as examples for students to create their own. At ReformJudaism.org you can search Jewish recipes, holiday crafts and more. And of course, accessing Jewish music isn’t hard from sources such as URJ Books and Music, Lowell Milken’s Music Archive, and Jewish Rock Radio.
But what happens when you plan the “perfect” multi-sensory lesson and the multiple stimuli are too much for a student? How do we find the right balance between engaging all of the senses and sensory overload?
The truth is that we have to know our students and recognize when they are approaching their limits. We have to be aware and sensitive, acknowledging that sensory issues are real. Too often we shrug off sensory issues as “not real” or as behavior issues that a child can control. An excellent article about the upcoming holiday of Purim called When Hearing Haman Hurts explains this concept further. Purim is a holiday of joy and merriment; costumes and noisemakers. It can be the ideal holiday for wide array of developmental levels, but it can also be extremely challenging for a child with sensory issues. “It is estimated that 5-10 percent of the population suffers from sensory imbalance. This means that sensory input may be felt in the extreme. So loud noises and scratchy costumes are perceived to be, or simply are, unbearable.” The article goes to offer concrete suggestions for both managing and enjoying the holiday.
In the end, we need to find balance in our teaching just as we hope that our students and families will find balance in their lives. We will be our most successful, our most inclusive, when we teach in ways that engage the senses while remaining sensitive to the wide range of challenges our children may face.