A Room for the Senses

By Mrs. Gina Venezia, Supervisor of Special Education

Have you ever sat in a compression kayak? Hugged a hug-a-boo? Touched a dynamic thermo touch wall or played with mermaid fabric? For most of us the answers to those questions would be a resounding no, but for many students at Laning Avenue School those events are a daily practice. That is because those items are part of their experience in the new Laning Avenue Sensory Room.

You may be thinking, what is a sensory room? According to the latest definition on Wikipedia, ”A sensory room is a special room designed to develop a person’s sense, usually through special lighting, music, and objects. It can be used as a therapy for children with limited communication skills”. Traditionally sensory rooms were intended for students with special needs, but over recent years that concept has dramatically shifted to include any student who needs to achieve a sense of calm or re-focus. That is exactly what Mrs. Diane Conboy, a speech language pathologist at Laning Avenue School, had in mind when she came up with the idea. She envisioned a sensory room that could serve the students two-fold. One, it could serve any student in a state of anxiety or agitation by providing a soothing place to de-escalate or calm down, or two, it could serve as a preventative space where students could unwind and take a “brain-break” before any potential anxiety or stress could begin. In either case the basic premise would be the same, the sensory room would provide a relaxing and calming space where users, in this case students, could become distracted or engaged with the various sensory stimuli in the room and thus achieve a sense of calm and focus.

To start this project Mrs. Conboy had to do her research, and of course there was no better place to start than with the Laning Avenue School staff. Mrs. Conboy met with special education teachers, paraprofessionals, occupational therapists and physical therapists and asked them all the same question, “Knowing our population what would satisfy the students’ sensory break needs and help them get back into the classroom to learn?” It was the answers to those questions that helped drive the selection of sensory equipment that would be purchased for the space. She also consulted with various companies in the industry to get additional ideas and suggestions.

When asked about the equipment in the sensory room, Mrs. Conboy explained that it is important to consider the 7 senses when designing and purchasing equipment for a sensory space. Those 7 senses include the 5 traditional senses along with proprioception, the concept of knowing where your body is in space, and vestibular, the sense of balance. Her goal was to buy one piece of equipment in 6 of the 7 senses which excluded purchasing items for taste. Mrs. Conboy also had to tackle the task of designing the physical layout of the room. For that she hired the expertise of Hannah Brandt, an artist and Verona High School alumni. Ms. Brandt has worked as an art therapist and could provide insight on color schemes as well as assist in designing the overall theme of the space. The final decision, a sensory room with a theme of bringing the outdoors inside. All of the colors and fabrics placed around the floor and walls have been intentionally designed to achieve that theme within the room.

Mrs. Conboy also noted it was important to make the space gender neutral and to fill it with saturated colors that would be inviting to the students. One of the most inviting elements of the room is the use of light filters that cover the harsh fluorescent lights on the ceiling. The tranquil blue and soft white filters are the perfect colors for creating the calm, soothing outdoor atmosphere which sets the tone of the sensory room environment.

The success and impact of the sensory room on the students has been extremely positive. The room is used multiple times each hour throughout the school day. Mrs. Lori Martorana, a special education teacher at Laning stated, “The students in my classroom love spending time in the sensory room. It’s a quiet place with many novel sensory items that they don’t have access to in the classroom, which makes it a very rewarding place for them. Some students enjoy laying in the canoe with the weighted blanket and relaxing, while others love the new sit and spin chair. Each trip to the sensory room is different for each student. It’s a place for them to relax. When a student is unable to maintain focus in the classroom, a quick break in the sensory room often gets them back on track and ready to learn”. Mrs. Conboy noted that she is most proud of the fact that students are choosing the sensory room as opposed to screen time when selecting a behavior reward throughout the day. Mrs. Tina Stokes added, “I have a student who would typically only request to work for the iPad and now he consistently works to go into the sensory room instead. I must say I love having it in the building, especially across the hall from my classroom”.

The Laning Avenue Sensory Room continues to be a work in progress. Initial funding was provided by the Verona Board of Education. Through word of mouth and a presentation at Back-to-School Night other local organizations and individuals have made donations. Mrs. Conboy has noted that adjustments continue to be made in the sensory room and many of those adjustments are based on student needs. The paraprofessionals who often assist the students while in the sensory room are critical to this aspect of the process as well. There is also an additional plan to paint a mural on one more wall.

Mrs. Conboy beams with pride when discussing the sensory room at Laning Avenue School. I think this article is best summed up by the quote that sits on the wall in Mrs. Conboy’s classroom, “Anything can happen if you let it.” – Mary Poppins.

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