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The Case Against Sensory Rooms in Schools | Your School OT
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Two girls swinging on a swing set with the title of the article above them I hesitated writing this post at first because I hate being incendiary. There are two general camps of thought on sensory rooms in schools. One is that we need them for a “sensory friendly” school. Another group avoids them altogether. I’m part of the latter group but I work with amazing therapists that embrace them. 

As we transition back to in-person schooling, protocols for sanitation and social distancing will make managing a sensory room challenging. When I say sensory room, I am referring to a separate space full of shared equipment used by different students.

My question is “should sensory rooms come back post COVID-19”? Should we make room for a bolder, more inclusive vision of a healthy, supported school community? 

The School Environment is a Form of Communication 

School districts across the country are scrambling to prepare for the “new normal”. Therefore, we’re recognizing that our students are going to come back traumatized from what has happened and they’re going to need extra support to feel safe at school. My thought is that having a “sensory room” outside of the learning environment (i.e. classroom) sends the message that sensory needs can’t be met where students learn. 

Looking at Sensory Processing Disorder Through a Trauma Informed Lense: The Case Against Sensory Rooms  

Let’s put aside everything we usually talk about when we say sensory processing disorder (SPD). I want you to consider that a sensory disorder can be traumatic. Now add on the possibility of serious adverse childhood experiences that impact both disabled and non-disabled students alike. Then add on the trauma brought on by recent disruptions to daily life related to COVID-19. 

Don’t Sensory Rooms Make a School Safer for Students with SPD?

Consider a child with adverse childhood experiences not related to SPD. This student engages in aggressive and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Recognizing that this child has experienced trauma, the school guidance counselor works to build a relationship and make him feel safe at school. She responds to the classroom when behaviors occur and takes the student to her office where there are lots of toys and comfort items.

After a while, she and this student have a great relationship and she is able to work through some things with the child. The problem is that the child continues engaging in problem behaviors in the classroom hoping to go to the guidance counselor. 

While the child was able to establish a positive relationship and feel safe with the counselor, nothing was ever done in the classroom to make that environment feel safer. The more time he spent in guidance the less time he was able to spend with his teacher. Eventually, they created a plan where an administrator would take over the class when problem behaviors occurred. This allowed the teacher to go with the student to the guidance office.

After the teacher was able to build a relationship with the child, they came up with some strategies that he could use in the classroom. They even identified a couple of calming items that could be kept in class. With a plan in place, the student was able to spend more time in the classroom without engaging in negative behaviors. 

Are Sensory Rooms Actually Making the Learning Environment More Inviting?

In that scenario safety was being established outside of the classroom while nothing was done in the classroom. Wouldn’t we expect a child looking to escape the “unsafe” place? 

If we establish that there is a “sensory room” where needs get met and ignore the classroom environment, then we’ve communicated that the learning environment is not safe. Shouldn’t we spend our energy making the learning environment the safe place to be? 

AOTA Guidelines and Being Deliberate in Our Practice

AOTA recently participated in the Choosing Wisely campaign and published “Five Things Patients and Providers Should Question”. #2 on the lists says “Don’t provide sensory-based interventions to individual children or youth without documented assessment results of difficulties processing or integrating sensory information” (AOTA, June 2018).

They OTs against providing sensory interventions for students who don’t have a documented impairment in sensory processing and states that such interventions can be ineffective or even have a negative impact on students without such impairments. They gave examples such as weighted vests, listening programs, and sensory diets. 

Are Sensory Rooms Really A Sensory Intervention?

So how does this play out in schools? I think it depends on the restrictiveness of the intervention. If a teacher provides fidgets to her class, are students at risk for harm due to the presence of this “sensory intervention”?

My thought is probably not. Nobody is removed from the learning environment assuming that the teacher is actively monitoring whether students with fidgets are participating actively. I think the same goes for flexible seating. I’ve seen teachers do beautiful things with flexible seating in their classroom. Is this a “sensory intervention” or just inclusive classroom design? 

But what happens when a student leaves the classroom to go to a sensory room? At that point, the student has been removed from the learning environment. Who decides what instruction they can miss to do this? Are only students with documented sensory processing disorders allowed to do this? What is being done in the sensory room that cannot take place in the classroom or other parts of the school environment? 

Is This The Least Restrictive Environment?

We are bound by law to keep students in their least restrictive environments. I worry that, even with the best of intentions, students spend too much time away from peers. But keep in mind that I’m not referring to students in special placements like private day schools. Students that have documented needs that keep them out of their home schools require special considerations.

Should we change the classroom or school environment to meet their needs?  Maybe this point in time, when everything is new and changing, is the best time to make real school environment changes so that sensory rooms (if and when they are reintroduced) aren’t the only sensory friendly room in the building. 

Sensory Friendly Schools: Inclusion and Universal Design 

I have a feeling many schools are going to forego sensory rooms for the time being. Depending on how schools choose to cluster students and maintain social distancing protocols, we may see scenarios where students can’t leave the classroom for therapy. What an opportunity to push in! (Still doing virtual? Check out this post on 4 Ways to Push In To Virtual Learning)

Teachers and administrators are going to be looking for ways to make school feel safe and inviting. I think this is a perfect time for therapists to be in the classroom helping staff to restructure environments, routines, and tasks so that our students can feel safe and learn. Here are some classroom sensory strategies!

COVID 19 Classroom Sensory Strategies 

  • -Create student specific sensory boxes or disposable fidgets and sensory toys like these 
  • -Use shaving cream or soap for messy play (bonus points for cleaning the table!)
  • -Establish protocols for storing and disinfecting items used by a student (ex. Fidgets, yoga ball, headphones, weighted vest, etc)
  • -Establish heavy work routines for each student in the classroom (ex. Stacking your chair before and after class, moving heavy box of toys or materials, chair push ups) 
  • -Recommend yoga practice at regularly scheduled times (using the yoga mats to maintain distancing, may need visuals for students to place their mats in the correct place) 
  • -Using low background music or white noise to reduce auditory sensitivity 
  • -Provide support for developing disposable or easy to clean alternative seat cushions (ex. use a cheap inflatable pool ring)
  • -Advocate for easy to clean, sensory friendly furniture like a rocking chair or therapy ball chair 
  • -Create lap pads using ziploc bags of rice, and duct tape ( wipeable and cheap enough to use for specific students)

Playground (Get Those Kids Out in the Fresh Air!)

  • -Use visuals to maintain distancing during outdoor play (ex. Waiting to go down a slide)
  • -Create sensory pathways using chalk or tape (Here’s a quick one I love!) 
  • -Use natural landscape for sensory input (ex. Climbing uphill and log rolling down) 

What have I missed? Are you going back to in-person school? What ideas do you have for meeting students’ sensory needs? Leave me questions and comments!


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