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Photo Essay

Make room for a sensory break

Multisensory rooms have a calming effect on students, particularly in special ed
  • Occupational therapist Jennifer Stell works on one student’s balance and strength using a therapy ball.
  • A student uses a hammock swing as a soothing tool. He can feel pressure—and move around.
  • Students improve fine motor skills while using tongs to find hidden objects in sensory dough.
  • A student snuggles with a weighted blanket in a play pit, which is filled with balls and foam noodles.
  • Elementary students from Woodbury City Public Schools in New Jersey participate, below, in various sensory-motor activities—on a platform swing and trampoline—with the district occupational therapist and a classroom assistant.

A ball pit, trampoline, squeeze machine, swing, balance beam and tactile boxes offer a sensory break from overstimulation—bright lights, loud noises and constant motion of a classroom—to elementary students at Woodbury City Public Schools in New Jersey.

Woodbury, along with other districts, is starting to offer dedicated multisensory rooms, which have a calming effect on students.

They help reduce distractions for special needs students and increase their motivation and confidence, both on the equipment and in a regular classroom, according to the Council for Exceptional Children’s division on autism and developmental disability.

Because of shrinking budgets and growing class sizes, Jennifer Stell, an occupational therapist at West End Memorial School, had been using a stage, hallways and other available building space to serve students with diverse needs.

But when the school started a 1-to-1 laptop program a few years ago, Principal Vincent Myers let Stell turn the old computer lab into a sensory room. For students with occupational therapy components in their IEPs or 504 plans, the room can be used as a therapy tool.

All of the equipment is meant to provide a variation of visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory stimulation. Two special needs classes use the room two to three times daily, for 15 to 25 minutes each time.

And general education students can take advantage of it. They can take a sensory break to get the “wiggles and giggles out,” Myers says. Teachers will offer such breaks before they get too antsy and act out.

Over the last year, Myers and Stell have seen fewer outbursts among students who use the room. “Our teachers are also more aware, and instead of waiting it out until the behavior becomes a real problem, they offer those students a purposeful time out to focus and take a sensory break,” says Myers.

To help students focus, the breaks combine curriculum and relaxing activities, Stell says—such as counting or reading while on the swing.