Sensory Rooms

by | Oct 22, 2019

What Is A Sensory Room?

A lot of school campuses are adopting the concept of a sensory room to be made available to students needing a quiet place to calm themselves for further learning. 

Usually two types of student bodies are recognized as those that would benefit from a sensory room experience.  In our County, we have experienced repeated and intense forest fires that have uprooted entire school districts for half their school year of 2018/2019. 

All schools rapidly responded in assisting those students and families that needed support in guiding their children back to school.  Trained staff were brought onboard and classroom environments were developed with a focus on calming. Teaching social skills became important, once again.  Generally, these students seemed to be temporarily experiencing mild social anxiety and they benefit from the sensory calm-down room. 

Unique learners, those students that learn in their own and unique fashion, frequently require breaks from the imposed structure of a regular classroom environment.  Unique learners were also found to benefit from activities in the sensory calm-down room.

What Is The Sensory System?

When we think about our sensory system, we are talking about the information the environment provides us with, going inward toward the brain.  The environment provides us with a degree of light, temperature, pressure, and smell, to name just a few of the sensory processing centers activated in the brain at all times.  Not everyone can process all of this information in the same manner. 

In this way of looking at the problem from a sensory-motor perspective, it becomes easy to understand. A child can look hyper‑activated by all the sensory arousal information or slowed down and much more hypo-responsive to “looking, listening, and learning”. 

In the sensory calm-down room, students learn their ideal learning, ready modes. It is helpful to meet the student at the level they are at and move them toward the opposite pole.  When a student learns how to move into and out of these various mood/energy level states, they can become more independent in shifting their mindset for a “learning” environment, versus a “jumping and cheering” environment beside a friend’s basketball court. They need both “get excited” and “calm down” techniques to successfully and appropriately move from one phase to another.   

Many schools have found that they can utilize a repurposed classroom environment roughly 15×15 feet. Imagine a 15×15 foot carpeted and empty classroom with 3 stations to the left and 3 stations to the right, both meeting in the far corner of the room.  Have students that are “hyper‑ish” start in one direction from the door. For example, they enter the door and begin activities from the left side. Have students that are more “shutdown” and lacking interest/response in the learning environment enter and begin working to the right-hand side.

Students traveling to the left, begin with large and active movements, such as jumping on a small trampoline, activating their muscles with resistive band exercises and light weights, attempting to perform push-ups with hands on a therapy ball and a variety of balance and balance beam enjoyable tasks.  The use of weighted balls are helpful at this stage. 

The students that enter the room in a more hyperactive state (and travel to the left), begin with these bouncy, big muscle activities and then move to more focused and static activities, such as carefully walking along a balance beam while carrying a lunch tray or learning a new skill, such as modified juggling. Finally, these former “busy” students would finish with a more focused fine motor and visual‑motor task, such as a small desktop metal puzzle/fidget or a writing or typing task.

Students that are already somewhat shutdown, travel to the right of the doorway as they enter. The first station should begin with quiet, solo and focused visual‑motor and fine motor tasks, such as puzzles, three‑dimensional design making, and connective blocks.  They would move to the next station for more interaction with other individuals, whether peers or older students or adults.  A social activity involving a dollhouse or a mutual building activity, such as connective blocks or a large floor puzzle can be helpful at this stage. 

The students that are more “shutdown” in their response will move from a quiet activity to a more social and physically active activity, finally finishing with a slightly rambunctious task. 

Eventually, each of these (formerly busy and formerly shut-down) students will move to the final activity. Once the students from the left and right side both meet at this section, the final station would be a combined one where the students involve balancing activities with focused visual‑motor tasks.  Catching a ball, beanbag, or stuffed animal while balancing on an uneven surface could be an example of this task. Doing so while spelling random words, unites even more sensory processing and can be an ideal transition task before returning to class.

We are looking for students to learn how to move their mood from black to white as well as grey.

Potential For Research

Finally, you’ll want to know that the sensory room is having the impact that you had hoped.  For the purposes of your scientific study, have students rate themselves at the beginning and at the end of the session.  The next time they come in, try to have them recall what they had rated themselves after the last time they had been in the sensory room.  Often you find that students will rate themselves even more “learning ready” in their memory of the experience in the room.  When you begin to notice this pattern, you can be assured that the students are enjoying and benefiting from the experience. 

Importantly, if the numbers are not demonstrating a positive growth, then include the students in better problem‑solving age appropriate activities for each station. 

Rest assured that it does not matter the rating scale you identify for your students.  Just make it clear for them to understand.  One school, for example, utilizes a rainbow and the students write down why they entered in one color and are leaving the room, to go back to their classroom, on a different color.  Even this seemingly personal data can begin to indicate trends and provide real feedback in real time.

Thank you to the teachers that have taught me so much over the past few years. I have redesigned these sensory rooms because of you. Please help our students to make good decisions about themselves today and tomorrow.

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