Why Your Students Need Sensory Rooms in Schools

Administrators, teachers, and parents often wonder:

  • Female school-based occupational therapist kneels on mat next to boy on stomach on platform swing in school sensory room.What exactly is a “sensory break?”
  • How does one identify why and when students need one?
  • How can special education programs provide sensory rooms in schools to meet the need?

These are great questions for team discussions about programming for the whole child.

For years, Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) has been a thought leader in this area. We continuously create new resources for helping students learn and implement new self-regulation strategies.

Here’s some of what we know about how breaks in sensory rooms not only help kids manage their feelings and behavior, but also foster self-care, resilience, and recovery.

Sensory Breaks: Making Sure Our Nervous Systems Get the Stimuli We Need

We receive and perceive sensory input through sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, movement and balance, body position, and muscle control. The ability to adaptively and purposefully respond to this input to our nervous system is called “sensory integration” or “sensory processing.”

Sensory breaks (or brain breaks) are activities that help restore focus and improve self-regulation. They switch-up the amount and type of sensory input our nervous systems take in and process. If our systems are overstimulated, we need calming sensory breaks—if understimulated, more alerting ones. 

Anyone can benefit from taking sensory breaks. They can especially help people with sensory processing disorder.

SPD causes difficulty effectively taking in, correctly interpreting, and appropriately responding to sensory input. It can have devastating consequences for daily functioning, interacting with others, behaving appropriately, regulating emotions, and learning.

Various sensory integration therapies can treat SPD. Occupational Therapists (OTs) use different methods and tools to stimulate and challenge all the senses so the individual can acquire and develop more effective self-regulation strategies.

Much of that work takes place in school sensory rooms

The Sensory Room: A Safe Space for Practicing Self-Regulation Strategies

“Sensory room” is an umbrella term for a broad variety of therapeutic spaces set apart for promoting self-organization and positive change. They contain specific sensory equipment for self-regulation activities designed to alleviate sensory processing difficulties. Both children and adults with SPD can find breaks in sensory rooms extremely beneficial.

Therapists typically tailor sensory strategies to address an individual’s specific needs. But, certain equipment and activities can have a therapeutic effect for almost anyone, depending on how, when, and why they’re used. And, students with access to items in a sensory room throughout their school day, can help meet their own emotional, behavioral, and sensory needs.  

Multidisciplinary teams should collaborate to implement student goals according to properly executed sensory room protocol. When used appropriately, sensory rooms in schools can:

  • Help create a safe space.
  • Provide opportunities for calming or alerting the nervous system.
  • Increase skill acquisition for social-emotional development.
  • Facilitate prevention and de-escalation strategies.
  • Improve communication.
  • Promote self-care/self-nurturance, resilience, and recovery.
  • Nurture students’ increased independence and educational success.

What, exactly, do students use the sensory room for? Consider these sensory room ideas for students with autism (remembering, again, sensory breaks can benefit all students):

  • Bouncing while seated on a large therapy ball.
  • Hitting a punching bag.
  • Climbing into a body sock.
  • Swinging slowly on a platform swing.
  • Throwing a slam ball against the floor.
  • Jumping onto a crash pad.

Safe and fun experiences like these in the sensory room, help students successfully integrate back into the least restrictive environment, their general education classroom. 

You can click here to download a free copy of our checklist, “What to Consider When Choosing a Space for Your Sensory Room,” for specific pointers about setting up a sensory room. 

Help Students Become Their “Super Selves” in Your Sensory Room

At PTS, we’ve developed resources therapists like you can use to help students become their “super self.” This kid-friendly phrase describes what students are like when successfully using self-regulation strategies to maintain an optimal level of focus for learning.

Here are five key things we’ve discovered must happen to make the most of a sensory room in the school:

Young boy smiles and wraps his hands around the illuminated bubble column in front of a mirrored wall in the sensory room in school.1. Identify the Students Who Stand to Benefit Most

Having teachers and staff fill out a simple questionnaire about how students present in the classroom takes the guesswork out of identifying kids with the most pressing sensory needs.

2. Follow a Focused Super-Self Plan

Creating and implementing with fidelity a specific outline of self-regulation activities in the sensory room, helps all staff working with the child better understand how the child best learns.

3. Analyze Data to Determine Effectiveness

Documenting and reviewing what does and doesn’t work for the student, along with self-reflection and staff data-fidelity checks, allows for continuous improvement and refinement of the child’s plan.

4. Empower all the Stakeholders

Giving not only students, but also teachers and staff the power of their super self promotes confidence and facilitates collaboration of a child’s whole academic experience. 

5. Foster Students’ Independence in the Classroom

Because they’re able to meet their personal sensory needs in the sensory room, students pave their own way for more effective learning, more positive behavior, and a greater sense of well-being in the classroom.

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