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Ironically, at the same time that low-stimulus environments are being touted as essential for special needs students, researchers are also advocating stimulus-rich settings or “enriched environments” to spur neurological activity and improve brain function.

So which theory is correct? Should special-needs classrooms be “enriched” or should they be “low stimulus?”   The answer, predictably enough, is both.

Students need a combination of challenge, stimulation, and change to promote neural activity.  Studies show that we may actually grow new synapses and increase the size of our brains when we spend adequate time in an enriched environment—i.e. environments that are complex, frequently changing, challenging, and highly stimulating.

But too much stimulus at the wrong times for stimulus-attracted and stimulus-avoidant students can impede learning and trigger undesirable behaviors.   Since every student is different and since every day is different due to moods, blood sugar, external triggers, etcetera, the ideal learning environment accommodates this individual and variable need for high and low levels of stimulation.

Following are some common sense tips for constructing a learning environment that is stimulus variable and customizable per students’ varied needs.

Teach Self-Advocacy:  Students who understand and communicate their own highly variable stimulus needs have a critical tool for managing their own circumstances—in school, at home, and at work.  Learning what works best for me and developing the confidence and social skills necessary to advocate for my own needs is a basic, but often overlooked, lifelong learning skill set.

Encourage Self-Management: Even in a shared environment such as a classroom or workplace, individuals can usually find ways to customize their own experience.  For ADHD students who need a higher level of overall stimulation in order to sustain attention, quiet foot tapping, unobtrusive music (e.g. on an iPod), occasional walks, or stretching, can provide the kind of “meaningless” peripheral stimulation they need in order to focus on the task at hand.  Other students may find that earplugs or sitting in a quiet corner helps them stay calm and focused.

Maintain a Consistent, High Standard: Rather than lowering learning standards, maintain a high and consistent learning standard for students.  Instead of adjusting the standard itself, allow students to vary their learning approaches and pace.  This way, challenging learning tasks are presented (enriched-environment approach) but in a manageable way (low-stimulus approach).

Create a Time Out Room:  Provide students with a quiet, soothing place to go when they become agitated or overwhelmed.  Set a clear and simple protocol for taking advantage of this option and make the room easily accessible with appropriate, but unobtrusive, supervision.

Foster Self-Awareness and Mindfulness:  Mindfulness is a basic DBT skill that can be fostered in the classroom through real-time teacher-student dialogue, de-briefing episodes of acting-out or shutting-down behavior, and journaling.  Helping students attend to and honor their own rising stress levels can allow them to more effectively manage themselves and their circumstances.

Maintain a Default Low-Stimulus Environment:  In general, maintain a predictable classroom schedule and a quiet, distraction-free classroom environment.  Begin and end class sessions predictably in a low-stimulus fashion.   When enriched activities are introduced, do so judiciously in the middles of the session, returning to routine at the end of class.  This approach can provide a manageable balance of enriched and low stimulus elements.