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Learning Differences: Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Sensory Processing Sensitivity

This guide focuses on Sensory Processing Sensitivity and studying. It includes:

What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity?

Sensitivity is a basic human trait. It describes the ability to perceive, process and react to information in the environment. 

Sensitivity consists of two basic components: 

  • the perception of sensory input from the environment such as sound, light, smell, taste, touch and other people. 
  • the cognitive processing of the perceived information about the environment, such as thinking deeply about and reflecting upon experiences. 

Image credit: Untitled [Illustration]. Heal Your Nervous System.

Sensitivity is on a scale and flowers can help us to understand how it works. 

  • Dandelions can thrive in most environments
  • Tulips need a little more care
  • Orchids need optimal conditions to thrive, but when they do, the results are spectacular. 

Although everyone is sensitive to some extent, some people are more sensitive than others. Simply put, highly sensitive people are those who are more strongly influenced by what they experience. This is what we refer to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, also known as Environmental Sensitivity.

My strengths

Image credit: Tiffany Stenger and Kaaryn Cater (2021).

Learning Strategies for Students

Here are tips to make it easier for your brain to process visual information.

Talk about your learning preference 
  • Talk to your tutor about our learning strengths, weaknesses and preferences. 
  • Talk about what situations you find both stressful and calming. 
  • Create some personal signals that you can use with your tutors to communicate your needs. For example, when you want help, more time, or time out. 
Check out your learning environment
  • Ask to take a walk through your learning environment before your course starts
  • Find a space in the classroom and in your study areas where distractions are minimal, and you feel comfortable. this may mean:
    • sitting at the front of the classroom so you can only see your tutor or turning your back to windows so you can't see people passing by
    • sitting by a window so you can have a constant flow of fresh air
    • listening to white noise or music that helps you focus
Tint Your Screens
  • Dim the brightness of your screens
  • Change the background colour of your laptop and phone screens.
Prepare for your study
  • Plan for your whole semester.
    • When are your classes?
    • When are your deadlines?
    • When will you study, work, and play?
  • Read written instructions, lecture notes, and assigned texts before class begins.
  • Ask your tutors for the schedule or plan for each session. 

Create to-do lists / menus

To-do lists or menus are great because they can help you see what needs to be done, and can help you stay on track. 

  • Create lists or menus for different assignments or course modules. Tick them off as you complete them. 
  • Break assignments into smaller tasks. Turn longer instructions into bullet points. 
  • Use the Assignment Scheduler to organise your assignment into smaller steps with a time line
Be creative

Take advantage of your creative strengths.

  • Support your memory by using these techniques or these techniques.
  • Try using mnemonics, creating rhymes or songs, drawing picture and diagrams, and using colour instead of just writing words. 

Manage stress and anxiety

Check out this video for tools on managing stress and anxiety through neuroscience 


Take a moment: Choose one or two learning strategies to try this week. 

Teaching Strategies for Tutors

The best things you can do to support your students with Sensory Processing Sensitivity are:

  • Get you know your students and their learning preferences. 
  • Learn more about Sensory Processing Sensitivity

These strategies may be useful when teaching students with Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Create supportive learning environments
  • Have a conversation about SPS with your class.
  • Think about the sensory input that students may be perceiving.
    • Limit noise where possible, and allow students to wear headphones in class
    • Create a fragrance-free policy within your classroom
    • Use natural lighting where possible, or dim lights to reduce brightness and glare
    • Limit visually distracting posters on walls.
  • Ensure there is a low-sensory space where students can work with limited distractions, and where they can go to re-energise themselves if they are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Incorporate regular breaks with time to move around and encourage students to walk outside on their breaks.
  • Have sensitivity ambassadors, just like class reps.
Provide flexible teaching and learning options
  • Only require students to present information in front of the class if it relates directly to a learning outcome
  • Have one on one conversations with students, not just whole class discussions.
  • Allow extra time for students to process information and complete tasks
  • Offer online learning options if possible
  • Set students up with exam support. This could be as simple as you students sitting exams in their own space.
Develop predictable routines
  • Provide a clear structure of each lesson at the beginning of each class.
  • Be consistent with routines where possible.
  • Let students know what time they will be able to take breaks. 
Give clear instructions and information 
  • Give clear, detailed instructions in unambiguous language in multiple formats (verbal, visual, written). 
  • Break down tasks and instruction into smaller, more manageable parts with fewer words on each page.
  • Use numbered bullet points that can be ticked off once complete.
  • Provide user-friendly class timetables and planners.
  • Use Moodle to share lecture slides and course resources prior to class.
Present content in different and engaging ways
  • Enhance your verbal communication with visual cues, such as using charts, pictures, videos in your teaching.
  • Facilitate active and engaging activities.
  • Support memory by using mnemonics, repetition, visual maps, colour, reviewing prior learning, etc.

Does this sound like you?

Want to check if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person

Click the arrow on the right to answer some questions 

If you answer yes to three or more of these questions, then you might be experiencing the effects of Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

This self-assessment can give you an idea of whether you might have Sensory Processing Sensitivity. It shouldn't be used to diagnose yourself. Talk to your Accessibility Coordinator for more information.



  • Do you seem to be aware of subtleties in your environment?
  • Are you easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by?
  • Do you have a rich, complex inner life?
  • Do you get rattles when you have a lot to do in as short amount of time?



  • Are you deeply moved by the arts or music?
  • Are you annoyed when people try to get you to do too many things at once?
  • Do you make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once?
  • Do changes in your life shake you up?


  • Do you notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art?
  • Are you bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes?
  • When you must compete or be observed while performing a task, do you become so nervous or shaky that you do much worse than you would otherwise?


The gentle power of highly sensitive people

The Gentle Power of Highly Sensitive People by Elena Herdieckerhoff

References and Useful Links

If you want to talk about any information on these pages, please contact Wayne Samways, the Accessibility Coordinator. or 027 218 9180


Thank you to the team at Te Pūkenga Weltec Whitireia who gave us permission to adapt and use their guide on Learning Differences