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K12 sensory rooms offer safe space for special needs

  • SOLUTION TO SENSORY OVERLOAD—A tent and exercise balls, left, are among the equipment in the Multi-Sensory De-escalation Rooms at Simi Valley USD. Matts and a castle with blankets comfort Woodbury City schools’ children, right.
  • SOLUTION TO SENSORY OVERLOAD—A tent and exercise balls, left, are among the equipment in the Multi-Sensory De-escalation Rooms at Simi Valley USD. Matts and a castle with blankets comfort Woodbury City schools’ children, right.

Sensory rooms not only help students with special needs feel more comfortable and empowered in the classroom, they may also keep them in their neighborhood schools, according to K12 administrators.

The carefully designed rooms may include dim lights to help students who are sensitive to light, weighted blankets to give them comfort or a swing they can gently rock on to become calm or spin in a circle for stimulation.

The Council for Exceptional Children says sensory rooms are getting popular in districts to help calm overstimulated or anxious students.

The National Center for Education Statistics found that students with special needs who spend 80 percent of the school day in a regular classroom jumped from 33 percent 25 years ago to more than 60 percent in 2014-15.

Advocates like Sean Goldman, executive director of student support services at Simi Valley USD in California, which has sensory rooms, says numbers should improve as more schools adopt such services.

Federal law requires districts to offer equitable services for students with disabilities, and schools may face litigation if they can’t. Parents could send their children to private clinics or schools and take the district to court to pay the costs, which could reach $45,000 a year per student, Goldman says.

Sensory diets needed

For the rooms to work, teachers and therapists overseeing them must be trained, says David Bateman, professor of special education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, who has provided district PD.

Educators should create plans—known as a “sensory diets”— to determine each student’s’ needs. Diets could include anything from 10 minutes per day on a swing for a child who needs a break from normal class activity to 45 minutes of intensive therapy five days per week.

“Sensory rooms can be beneficial if specific activities are outlined,” Bateman says. “This is not a play room.”

Equitable equipment

The Simi Valley district has 11 sensory rooms among its 28 schools, each designed to meet the needs of students within that building, Goldman says. Therapists and nurses also provide occupational and physical therapy.

The district has added more equipment as the number of students with autism and parent demand rises.

At two elementary schools in New Jersey’s Woodbury City Public School District, sensory rooms and sensory diets are carefully designed and monitored, says occupational therapist Jennifer Stell.

A dark castle filled with blankets helps students regain a sense of their body in relation to nearby objects— darkness helps if they have been overstimulated by light or contact.

Students can also climb through a “crash pit” of plastic balls, which creates body awareness and requires using large muscles, which helps calm students.

After having sensory rooms the past three years, school leaders note a significant drop in disruption in classrooms, says Jeff Adams, director of special services at the Woodbury district.

Districts can expect to spend up to $10,000 per room, Goldman says. Equipment costs vary from $20 for exercise bands to up to $8,000 for heavy-duty swings that youngsters can lie on—belly down—or spin, he adds.


Patti Zarling is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.