Sensory room facilitates learning for students with severe disabilities

Three teachers collaborate to build calming, adaptable space

Three special-education specialists have converted a Terman Middle School office into a "sensory room," draped with jungle-themed decorations, string lights and interactive contraptions designed to stimulate and facilitate the learning of students with severe disabilities. Some are blind or deaf; others have motor or auditory impairments or seizure disorders.

The carpeted room is small without feeling cramped, and lit by soft, whimsical string lights instead of a harsh fluorescent overhead light. Green mesh masquerading as jungle canopy is strung horizontally below the high ceiling, giving a further sense of intimacy.

The room is inspired by the teaching philosophy of a recognized Danish psychologist who worked with children with severe disabilities and promoted the concept "active learning" in special education -- using basic toys and tools to create a stimulating environment in which the students become active participants in and owners of their learning.

The three Terman specialists are not alone. They said that other early-intervention therapists and special-education teachers trained in active learning are likely to have some version of a sensory room in their classrooms. The rooms have been cropping up across the country since the early 1990s. But at Terman, they put their own spin on the concept.

Every element of the sensory room was developed by the teachers as a team, and thus it incorporates each one's discipline. Laila Adle is a vision specialist, Angeline Sheridan an adapted physical-education specialist and Peggy Syvertson a speech therapist.

From one wall -- called a "sensory board" -- hangs a range of items students can play with: a rope that has bells attached to it, a feather duster and measuring spoons. Two very small raised steps lead them up to the items on the wall.

"A couple of the kids, their goals are to work on steps up and down," Sheridan said. "That's a very functional skill. So this is highly motivating for them to get up the steps."

Across the room is a mosquito-netting canopy strung with lights; inside the canopy sits a bean bag (students in wheelchairs can sit on bean bags, but not regular chairs) and another string of colored lights that can be turned on or off. (It will soon have a hand bike that when operated, controls the lights, and eventually software that logs each student's activity on the bike.)

The room serves both scheduled and more free-form uses. Last week, a physical therapist used it for a yoga class with students, some of whom have difficulty sitting on the floor but who can do so in the softly carpeted space. A few potted plants sitting on a table have been tied into a classroom lesson on the sun, energy and plants. Students might come in to work one-on-one with an instructional assistant (showing the assistants the value of active learning and how to incorporate it into their work) or can go in on their own to simply take a break during the day.

For students working on sitting down, one corner of the room has been dedicated to a small hutch full of multisensory elements -- a mirror, bead necklaces, bells on a string, a cup, another feather duster, lights and walls of different textures. In order to play with all of the items, they must find their way onto the floor and sit or lie down inside.

The hutch is based on Lilli Nielsen's "Little Room," a small partially enclosed space (like a box turned upside down, with one open side) from which various stimuli made from different materials hang; a child is supposed to be able to lie beneath and play with them, facilitating the development of skills like spatial awareness, ability to grasp or explore objects, awareness of sounds and materials and natural curiosity.

But the driving force behind each piece of the sensory room returns to the philosophy of active learning.

"The idea is you let the child do it," Adle said. "You don't do it. Because if you're doing it for the child, the only person who's really experiencing it is you. You want the child to have that happy accident, the 'aha' moment that we take for granted.

"Sometimes it's hard giving that to these kinds of kids because we want to do so much for them that we don't step back and let them make mistakes and find those happy mistakes."

At the official grand opening for the room last Wednesday, students did just that. One boy immediately gravitated toward the soft carpet and sat himself down to enjoy it. A deaf student played with the lights inside the mosquito-netting canopy, which the teachers call the "bioluminescent dome." Another student took to a Smartboard, on which two apps allow students to either play musical instruments or draw using their fingers.

This is actually Palo Alto Unified's sensory room 2.0. Adle created one at Juana Briones Elementary School for a student who is now a sixth grader at Terman. Once the student and Adle arrived at Terman, the three specialists decided to make a more comprehensive room together, rather than a therapy room for only one student or teacher.

The room also serves as a calm respite where students can go to decompress or take a quick break.

"If they're overstimulated in the other room and they just need quiet, they can come here," Adle said.

The sensory room is also a quieter place where students can come to learn something first, before applying it in the busier environment of the regular classroom.

Dipika Khanna, the mother of the student for whom Adle created the original sensory room at Juana Briones, called the "bigger and better" room at Terman a "blessing."

"He's a pretty involved kid, so for him to have a room like this ... just being incorporated into the school day is such a blessing. It really hits on a lot of his different needs," Khanna said. "It hits on all the senses, and it helps him perform his best."

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Like this comment
Posted by Jo Maitland
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Dec 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

Amazing job Angel, Laila & Peggy! Congratulations and keep up the great work.

Like this comment
Posted by Sally Mickel
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 12, 2014 at 10:20 am

Well done! Many thanks to Laila Adle and the team for providing this wonderful resource!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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