• sensory

    Our Sensory Room

    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! Our dream school would have lots of options for different learning styles and sensory needs.

    Our Sensory Room has subsections to accommodate students' specific needs. For example, a student who is agitated will have mats, fidgets, pillows, dim light, and/or a movement area to help with calming and regulation. This space will help students that need a break from the general classroom, as well as students that need help transitioning between classes. Students will learn how to identify their specific sensory needs and apply sensory tools 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 an environment can shape learning and behavior. Our Sensory Room helps and empowers students to stay focused and productive. We believe students are more successful when they have a space and the tools that can meet their individual sensory needs.

    Why it matters, and the people that made it happen. A note from Pete Carpenter MOT, OTR/L: Vernon’s Occupational Therapist.

    I was approached  by the leadership at Vernon Elementary.  They were interested in learning about students with sensory differences and enthusiastic about the idea of creating a space that would meet their unique needs.  This was only the second time in  five years that I encountered school leadership that was genuinely interested in thinking outside the box regarding student sensory needs learning environments.  I jumped at the opportunity and asked how I could help.  

    A little background: Students with sensory differences frequently have a very hard time with “typical” learning environments, i.e. sitting in a desk for extended periods of time, listening to the teacher, writing with a pencil, or reading quietly. Most students have a strong desire for certain sensory inputs, for example, movement, deep pressure, spinning, and swinging.  Some students have a strong aversion to certain textures, tastes, sounds, or smells.  These students frequently have behaviors that are really challenging for teachers.  Occupational therapists work with teachers and students to help problem-solve, brainstorm solutions, and make recommendations for accommodations.  However, it is not every day that we meet a team of teachers and administrators that are open to rethinking what a learning space means.  

    I was invited to give a brief presentation at a staff meeting.  I explained some of the underlying barriers to educational access and provided data on what tools are currently being used in classrooms.  We discussed environmental adaptations, sensory spaces, evidence based research and best practice.  I shared some pictures of inspiring spaces that were created by other schools.  This information appeared to resonate with staff and a sensory team sub-committee was created shortly thereafter.  

    Before our first meeting, I collected sensory data that was unique to the students at Vernon Elementary.  I visited classrooms, gave an overview of sensory systems, and asked for student input and preferences.  Some students were learning about design and architecture and they submitted layout design proposals.  I was amazed by their creativity and ingenuity.  After compiling the data I and shared it with the sensory sub-committee.

    We realized it would be difficult to accommodate the needs of students seeking a calm / quiet space, with the students seeking movement, swinging, etc.  I picture a student on a rotary swing next to a student reading a book with noise-cancelling ear muffs.  So, we decided to focus on creating a calm space for students with sensory sensitivities.  Environmental accommodations for students seeking running, spinning, and swinging may be incorporated into future playground re-designs in the near future.

    I met with sensory room sub-committee for about a half hour after school. This was one of the most productive and collaborative half hours of my professional career.  The team worked on a shared document that enabled us to envision and budget for a sensory space that would best meet the needs of our most sensitive students. By splitting up the tasks, we had a grant (Donors Choose) and budget drafted within 30 minutes!  Thanks to social media and word of mouth our first grant (approximately $1,100) was funded within a week!

    It has been an absolute pleasure to work with the teachers and staff at Vernon Elementary.  Through our collaboration and teamwork we hope to create learning environments that will accommodate student’s specific sensory needs.

    Pete Carpenter MOT, OTR/L

    For more info on Sensory Processing: http://spdnow.org/