You see her out on the playground, she’s not playing with anyone but seems happy enough on the sunny spring afternoon picking dandelions. When an adult approaches her with a smile and an outstretched hand. What does that adult have to offer her? They can’t communicate because they don’t speak the same language nor do they understand each other because of the barriers of autism. Both know it’s going to be a struggle when she returns to the classroom. But what if there was something that could bridge that gap, a sensory oasis, a few minutes of shared experience in the classroom where they could relax and connect before engaging in the rigors of school work and the largely auditory world. It is our hope that a sensory space in the classroom could serve this purpose.
Yet this student and others like her who undertake the challenges of autism are not the only students who would benefit from the sensory area we propose. Research suggest that any student struggling with the burdens trauma, or those who exhibit significant behaviors and/or lack self-regulation skills would benefit from access to such a space as well. This would be a large number of students including those not considered within the purview of special education. So many students, in fact, that it is unlikely these students could be accommodated in the classroom space intended for this purpose. For now, we would expect the area to be accessible to the students in the our special education classroom along with a small number of other special needs students who would particularly benefit from access to such an area. The benefit to the entire school, therefor, would be realized as these students emerge into the general education classroom, relaxed, happy and ready to learn.
At North Gresham Elementary School, our staff, students, and parents work together to provide a positive learning experience for all students. Our staff is dedicated to providing all students with an education that will prepare them for continuing success in school. We recognize that children come to us from varied backgrounds, environments and with differing abilities. We expect individual excellence from each child while understanding that students learn in different ways and at different speeds.
As part of our school improvement plan, we are committed to expand and sustain a multi-tiered systems of support for academics, attendance and behavior. We are interested in promoting a safe and positive learning experience for each child by supporting social emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching practices. This includes utilizing technology integration and the arts to support a variety of learning modalities as a component of daily instructional practices.
Ours is a large school with an enrollment of over 500 students. The demographics reflect a diverse population of students with a significant minority population including 31% Hispanic. A large number of our students are English language learners at 28% and over 18 languages. Located in a traditionally low income area, the majority of our students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Furthermore, at 15%, a significant number of our students are considered disabled. The vast majority of these disabled students are being served in the general education classrooms. Additionally, many of these students receive resource room assistance for academic and behavioral support.
Furthermore, North Gresham Elementary is home to one of five elementary “Life Essentials” (LE) classes that serve the District’s disabled student population with higher needs. Many of these students are impacted with autism and other developmental delays. In our class, these students also reflect the demographics of the school listed above with the result that at least three come from non-English speaking homes. Communication with these students can be a particular challenge. Despite this, it is the District’s goal that these students be integrated in the general education population.The District’s Student Support Services department’s mission is “to constantly strive for improvements in equity, access, and outcomes for all students.” Our interest in setting-up a sensory space in this classroom is aligned with this mission as well as the goal of placing as many of the District’s students in the general education classroom as possible.
The Sensory Experience
Sensory rooms date back at least 40 years in the United Kingdom. About 20 years ago they begin to appear in the US. In 2016, the Vernon School in Portland, Oregon, opened a sensory room in their school. The benefits were elegantly described as follows:
“A typical day in a traditional classroom involves twenty to thirty students at desks or on the carpet. Students have sensory needs that are currently not being met. Each classroom is full of unique students; and one size does not fit all! . . . This space will help students that need a break from the general classroom, as well as students that need help transition between classes. Students will learn how to identify their specific sensory needs and apply sensory tool to improve their regulation. We believe the sensory space will have a positive impact on the entire student population. Students, teachers, and parents will further their understanding of sensory systems and how and environment can shape learning and behavior. Our Sensory Room helps and empowers student to stay focused and productive. We believe students are more successful when the have a space and the tools that can met their individual sensory needs.” https:// www.pps.net/domain/2631
A sensory space can be defined as “a therapeutic space with a variety of equipment that provides students with special needs with personalized sensory input” helping these children to stay calm and focus themselves so that they can be better prepared for learning and interacting with others.” Betty Ray, Sensory Room 101, Edutopia, June 28th, 2017. https://www.edutopia.org/article/sensory-room-101-betty-ray
An administrator of a district utilizing such a space believed these spaces can “keep students in their community and provide them with a safe place in a least restrictive environment.” Furthermore, she believed the space improved student outcomes meaning the students were better able to follow directions, spend more time on task and exhibited decreases and negative behaviors. (Ray, 2017)
Furthermore, in this school, it was found that the sensory room design primarily for autistic children, over time was expanded to support all students including those with vision difficulties, language difficulties, learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, all kindergarteners and any student who needed a safe quiet room to calm their bodies.
Included in the sensory room was a bubble tube, a “glass tube that is lit from within and has bubbles that create shifting patterns of light” located in a quiet area and adding to the relaxing environment with calming visuals and sounds. Students were allowed to bring books or quiet activity into this area, lie in the bean bag chair, and just relax as they organize themselves and prepared to go back to class. (Ray, 2017)
Sensory rooms, once the domain of special needs students, particularly children diagnosed with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, are going mainstream. These spaces can reduce behaviors and help a child to focus on school. It was a crisis at the Southwest Elementary School in Indiana that got the ball rolling. According to one of its administrator, the school was experiencing some behavioral challenges with a high number of students. Despite a dedicated staff, they were not finding anything that was successful until a sensory room became available. It was discovered that “a 5-minute sensory room visit can help just about any student. Calmer students return to regular classroom, which can help improve standardized test scores.” Jamie Duffy, The Journal Gazette, February 13th 2016.
All students can benefit from improved sensory integration skills. Polly Godwin Emmons and Liz McKendry Anderson, co-authors of the book Understanding Sensory Dysfunction suggest that the sensory integration experience is a continuum:
“No one is really prefect at sensory processing, and most people have some ability to integrate through at least some of their senses. An example of someone who might be considered to possess good sensory processing might be an Olympic gymnast. An example of someone who might be considered to possess poor sensory processing might be an individual with severe autism. So, in essence, we are looking on a sensory integration ”spectrum” - sensory processing along a continuum.” https://childrensdisabilities.info/sensory_integration/sensoryprocessingdisorder.html
Furthermore, student from all backgrounds may exhibit significant behaviors. It is said that they lack self-regulation skills. Research indicates children raised in poverty are especially likely to exhibit acting out behaviors, impatience, impulsivity, and inappropriate emotional responses. (Goodwin 2013) “Children with poor self-regulation disrupt an entire classroom”(Perry). Self regulation is an important skill for students of all ages. Improved sensory integration skill will improve self-regulation and behavior.
One study compared the use of a type of sensory room known as a “Snoezelen” room with other types of interventions in an institutionalized setting. Researchers found “individuals with mental retardation and mental illness exhibited fewer aggressive acts and self-injurious behavior in the Snoezelen condition. More importantly, is was found that “the effects of the Snoezelen condition carried over to the following sessions, regardless of which training condition followed, but that this was statistically significant only with self-injury. In other words, “being in the Snoezelen room had a proactive carryover effect . . . an important finding as it supports the hypothesis that the Snoezelen condition can have a longer-term effect on reducing an individual's tendency to engage in self-injurious behavior.
While not statistically significant, there was also evidence of a carryover effect on levels of aggression following Snoezelen providing some support for the idea that the condition might also benefit other maladaptive behaviors in the longer-term.” The researchers hypothesized that the “reason that some individuals engage in maladaptive behavior may be to obtain sensory stimulation. As a wide variety of sensory stimulation is provided in a Snoezelen room without requiring maladaptive behaviors to produce them, the behaviors are less likely to occur. This suggests that a student could be trained to request a visit to the sensory room as effective replacement behavior to acting out. N.N. Singh, et al, “Effects of Snoezelen room, Activities of Daily Living skill training, and Vocational skills training on aggression and self-injury by adults with mental retardation and mental illness” Research in Developmental Disabilities, 25 (2004), 285 - 293, www.sciencedirect.com
In an extensive collection of research in regarding the benefits of sensory spaces in mental health facilities the following conclusion were made:
”Sensory modulation practices help people to regulate physiological and emotional arousal in ways that are self-directed and empowering; they support recovery oriented practice as well as trauma-informed care and may assist in the reduction of seclusion and restraint (Scalan & Novack, 2012) According to Sutton and Nicholson (2011) sensory based treatment has been identified as an effective treatment approach for clients who are distressed, anxious, agitated, or potentially aggressive and as an alternative for more coercive action; they also determined that sensory modulation approaches are particularly helpful for people with trauma histories, PTSD and self - harming behaviors.” Moore, Karen, OTR/L, Following the Evidence: Sensory Approaches in Mental Health (2016) http://www.sensoryconnectionprogram.com/sensory treatment.php
According to Moore, the research indicates these approaches often included the use of sensory rooms which “vary greatly but provide a safe place to go to learn to reduce strong emotions such as anger, fear, or feelings of being overwhelmed. (Smith & Jones, 2014)” (Moore, p2)
Research suggests that sensory approaches “creates a more positive relationship between the consumer and staff. (Moore, p3)” Furthermore, it suggests that the use of sensory tools reduced the use of seclusion and restraint (Moore 5 - 6). These approaches were found “to be non-invasive, self-directing and empowering interventions that may support recovery-oriented and trauma-informed care.” In fact these approaches are thought to be “particularly helpful for people with trauma histories, PTSD and self-harming behaviors.” (Moore p8)
It’s interesting to note that not all the sensory tools referred to in Moore’s work were sensory rooms per se’. The tools used were sometime put on a cart or in a suitcase and provided to the subjects that way which would tend to support the contention that to obtain the benefit of the research it would be sufficient to have an area of the classroom designated as a sensory area rather than an entire room.
Our modest proposal to have a sensory space created in our classroom for the use of students with significant developmental, language, and behavioral challenges would, at least, benefit our students by giving them a safe place to self-regulate. Our autistic students would find a place to connect and feel good about their environment emerging ready to take on the more challenging environment of their general education classrooms. Our behavioral students would have a calm and inviting environment to self-regulate as well, therefore, limiting the number of outbursts in our classroom, the common areas of the school and the general education classrooms they attend. Parents frequently coming to our class for Open House and IEP meetings, hearing of the success of their children, would see the area. They may choose to incorporate some of the techniques in their own homes. Finally, as the success our students becomes apparent, the advantages of having sensory space in the individual classrooms would become apparent to the all staff in the school prompting individual teachers to provide sensory areas to their own classrooms.
The items we’re requesting are, according to the reviewed research, most often found in a sensory room, a bubble light w/ a platform, mats on the floor and bean bag chairs. Because we intend to place this area in a classroom that is often very active and, at times noisy, we need good dividers as well. We currently have break areas in the class for student’s to use that are helpful but boring. These areas are separated by such flimsy dividers they are constantly falling down or being moved by student greatly limiting the usefulness of these areas. We are excited to be moving to a new school next year and look forward to fulfilling our dream of a new sensory area in our new room.