What is a Sensory Room?
When students enter our classroom we must always remember that we cannot follow a “one size fits all” teaching model. Understanding our students while educating and caring for them is always a key component to a student’s success. This especially holds to be true when we identify and understand diagnoses such as those students with sensory needs. It is an opportunity for educators to learn and appreciate a different mindset as well as be in tune to what we can offer in our schools to assist with sensory issues and make sure they have an inclusive learning environment.
While walking down a hallway, going through the lunch line, hearing the morning announcements, playing tag on the playground, singing in music class, or even working in a group may all be common things that a student goes through over the course of a school day, each one of these tasks could potentially cause sensory overload for any of our students with sensory issues. The noise, touching, the clusters of students, smells, the fluorescent lights, all could cause concern for students with sensory issues to be able to focus and make it through a typical school day.
Providing sensory rooms in a school setting can help students improve their visual, auditory, and tactile processing skills. A sensory room can additionally improve our students’ fine and gross motor skills. For visual and tactile experiences, a student could lie on the carpet and have fiber optic lighting above them. This soothing and relaxation time could be something that calms a student down.
Something also as basic as blowing bubbles could be used for calming down and improving eye tracking. A ball pit filled with balls could also be used for tactile, visual, and gross motor strengthening, as well as a textured wall could be used for tactile and visual experiences. A sensory room can be something very extravagant, or created on a minimum budget in a small, private space. Knowing your student and knowing what they would benefit from are truly ways to best meet their sensory needs.
What are the Benefits of a Sensory Room?
Sensory rooms are established in schools with the goal in mind to help students with autism or other health and behavioral challenges and to allow them to explore ways to regulate their bodies. Allowing students to have a structured sensory break and an area assigned for this to happen may be exactly what some of our students need.
By taking a sensory break, this can enhance their ability to learn as well as impact the way they interact with their teachers and peers. It can also shift their overall feeling about school. While students explore sensory rooms during their “break”, they learn to understand what their bodies are feeling and how to respond appropriately to the stimulation.
As students gain an understanding of their feelings, they begin to know how to self-regulate which ultimately will improve their focus and progress not only at school but in the community and at home as well. Self-regulating is extremely important and as the students gain an understanding of what they need, students can then advocate for themselves and express what they will benefit from in a sensory room or what they need during a sensory break.
How to Create a Sensory Room
Typically sensory rooms are set up in stations. Teachers, occupational and physical therapists, as well as any other trained adult working with students throughout the school day will want to be able to meet several sensory needs and may use this designated room for multiple students. By setting up stations, students can follow a “menu” as to what sensory breaks they need or will benefit from.
Creating a sensory room does not need to be an expensive task and it does not have to consist of a huge area within a school. There are many therapy tools that can be used to set up a sensory room. Something as basic as soft music and soft chairs can be placed in one station area in the sensory room. Another station may consist of a therapy swing, a small trampoline, or a tunnel for students to crawl though. Simple and cost effective options can be made available to our students to help self-regulate, provide necessary stimulation, and de-stress as well.
While sensory rooms are extremely beneficial, it is also just as important to not use a sensory room as a reward or as a way for students to avoid work-related tasks. The only true way an educator will know if the sensory room is being effective is to truly know our students’ needs. We also must educate our students about the proper uses of the sensory room, just as we would with any other special activity in the school. We can’t assume the students will know what to do, and more than likely this may be their first time ever being in the school sensory room.
How to Adapt a Sensory Room for Virtual Learning
Just as educators all hope to teach our students face to face this school year, we must not overlook the thought that not all of our students will be able to arrive to school every day with their teacher instructing them in their classrooms. Instead, our students may be learning from a virtual platform or possibly at some point this school year may have to pivot to an online format if they have not already had to do so. With this thought in mind, it is still possible for students to have their sensory needs met while they are at home and do not have the opportunity to benefit from the school sensory room.
Parents can easily assign a small area in their home to become an area of relaxation and calming down. Using soft comfortable seating or pillows as well as lights, toys, and tools that will engage any child and stimulate their senses are all ways to create a small sensory area in your home. As with anything else, much of building a sensory room will be trial and error. The room will need modifications throughout the process until you can determine what is effective and what is assisting the child’s self-regulation process and sensory needs. Over time the sensory area can evolve based off of what meets the sensory needs of your child.