HBW Sensory Room – Coming Together to Support Our Students

By Mrs. Gina Venezia, Supervisor of Special Education

The story of the sensory room at H.B. Whitehorne is a story about community. The school community. The design and implementation of this room is a result of the dedicated staff, talented students, and devoted community organizations who took the time to care about the purpose and mission of the project. The primary mission of the project, to create a space where students seeking opportunities to regain calm or focus, could engage their senses through a range of stimuli allowing them to return to their school day with success. Finding a space, selecting the best equipment, minimizing cost while maximizing dollar sense were all important factors in a project that has become a true reflection of a school and a community coming together to support the students.

The project idea was launched in the summer of 2017 and received the overwhelming support of the Verona Board of Education and administration. Initial funding from the Board of Education along with a generous donation from Verona C.H.I.L.D., the district’s SEPAC organization, provided the funding to get the project started. Leading the charge was Mrs. Kathy Thomas, a speech language pathologist at H.B. Whitehorne. Much like the implementation of the Laning Avenue sensory room, Mrs. Thomas needed to determine the design of the room and the equipment to be purchased for the space. In addition, selecting equipment that met the sensory needs of adolescent students had to be considered. Mrs. Thomas began this part of the process by reaching out to several staff members for guidance.

One of the first staff members to provide input on the project was Mrs. Vasi Givas, a district occupational therapist. Mrs. Givas explained that many students need movement in order to improve concentration and focus. She suggested spinning chairs, swings and rockers as equipment that would meet these needs. Mrs. Andria Rosenberg, another district occupational therapist, emphasized the importance of choosing materials and equipment that were age appropriate. She suggested tactile materials such as a tactile board and putty to help calm and soothe the student’s sensory needs. Amy Quinn, a district physical therapist, also provided suggestions for equipment that would provide movement and enhance alertness.

As the word spread about the project and its’ needs, community and staff members started to take an interest. Mrs. Donna Ciccolini, an H.B.W. parent, donated some of the tactile items to the project. Harriette Warshaw, an H.B.W. school counselor, donated a sound machine which some students could use to seek out for its variety of calming noises.

In deciding what items to purchase with her budget Mrs. Thomas said she wanted items that would provide “the immediate positive impact.” One of the teachers who was supportive and instrumental in that part of the sensory project was Ms. Raquel Grasso, a special education teacher at H.B.W. Ms. Grasso had experience with sensory rooms in previous districts and has even designed her own classroom to meet the sensory needs of her students. Ms. Grasso stated, “Most students seek out a swing which provides them with comfortable seating while incorporating movement.” In addition to the swing the other big ticket item Mrs. Thomas chose was a bubble tube. She stated that she learned from sensory product vendors and her colleagues that, “Bubble tubes can have a calming effect on some students while encouraging interaction amongst the students.” The bubble tube is constantly changing colors while bubbling. Ms. Grasso also likes the bubble tube because she says, “When the lights are turned on it provides visual and auditory stimulation.”

Also providing input on the sensory room was Mrs. Diane Conboy who engineered the Laning Avenue sensory room space. Mrs. Thomas noted that Mrs. Conboy was an invaluable resource in terms of purchasing materials, transporting equipment and ultimately helping to set up the room during the summer. Mrs. Conboy also provided support and feedback to determine which materials and equipment would be useful along with introducing Mrs. Thomas to Ms. Hannah Brandt, a Verona High school alumni and owner of Hannah Jo Designs. Ms. Brandt provided ideas regarding the layout and color of the room. She also listened to ideas for the room’s design and equipment arrangement and then used software to visually create the prototype for the space.

Another valuable contributor to the H.B.W. sensory room has been Ms. Julia Harth, the technology education teacher at H. B. W. It was a conversation between Mrs. Thomas and Ms. Harth about involving the students in making items for the sensory room that led to the most creative and exciting part of this project. Ms. Harth proposed the idea of involving her 6th grade technology education students in the sensory room through her yearly Shark Tank project. The basic premise would be the same as the television show. Small groups of students would create a company and come up with cost effective, sensory equipment that could be made and used in the sensory space. The students would then present their product to a team of “sharks”, made up of teachers and administrators, who would decide if the sensory product would get funded.

Ms. Harth presented the idea to the 6th grade students who were thrilled to be a part of the process. “Students always seem to enjoy this project, especially since it’s modeled after the show. This particular challenge really inspired several of the teams. They were also thrilled at the idea of actually having their products manufactured for use in the sensory room”, stated Harth. The end result, some amazing and creative ideas from the students that really hit the mark.

Student projects included The Firefly 1.0, a small, lighted drone that is placed in a jar and flown by a student for relaxation. Estimated cost is $40 to $60. Another student group created a product called Lap Feels, which is a portable lap desk with a variety of textures that are velcroed to the top of the desk. These textures can be used to soothe student stress or anxiety. Estimated cost is $20 to $25. One student “company” even included a tagline, “If you are stressed leave it to the best!” Their product was called the Texture Board, which is a wall-mounted board with multiple textures attached such as mermaid fabric, memory foam and marbles. In the end, there were 5 winning student groups selected by the sharks. Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Harth were both very impressed with the amount of work and research conducted by the students. They were also delighted when The Verona Foundation for Educational Excellence (VFEE) approved their $500 grant request to fund the students’ projects. The plan is to add the sensory equipment to the space once the projects are built by students.

Mrs. Thomas took me into the sensory room for a quick visit. Currently the swing, a large bean bag island, a bubble machine and some tactile items are providing effective sensory breaks or “brain breaks” for the students. There is also an image projector which casts soothing images onto the wall. Recently Verona C.H.I.L.D. provided funding for new wheels for the projector so students can enjoy a greater variety of relaxing images. This item has been popular amongst students because it can positively impact their mood as it encourages conversation.

The H.B.W. sensory room is used each school day for a variety of purposes. Some students earn the room as their reward for regulating their behaviors. Other students participate in a social language group in the room. Guidance counselors, the Student Assistance Counselor, special education teachers, Child Study Team members and paraprofessionals all have access to the room, so any student who needs a safe, calming space can go utilize the room. Mrs. Thomas noted, “When a student is experiencing anxiety, sensory overload or seeking opportunities to regain focus, the sensory room provides a safe zone in which students can regain focus and calm.”

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