THE IMPORTANCE OF SENSORY ROOMS IN SCHOOLS
Schools can be noisy, busy places. For some, the sheer volume of stimuli can all get too much, making the school environment a stressful and disturbing place at times. The creation of sensory rooms in schools is a practical and effective way to provide calming and safe spaces for pupils with autism and other special educational needs.
What is a sensory room
A sensory room is a quiet space dedicated to stimulating, developing and relaxing the senses. Unlike a school classroom, where children are usually expected to watch and listen to the teacher, a sensory room allows pupils the freedom and autonomy to explore the environment for themselves, in their own time, using all of their senses. The décor of a sensory room might include low lighting and adjustable lighting projections, fibre optics, mirrors and bubble tubes. It will typically contain a choice of comfortable places to sit, a variety of interesting objects to examine, and it might also feature sounds and soft music.
Sensory rooms in schools are still far from the norm, especially in mainstream schools, but they have an important role to play for many children.
Which pupils can benefit from a sensory room
Schools need to weigh up the benefits of providing extra resources such as sensory rooms. To many, they might seem like an optional extra – the cherry on the cake, rather than an essential teaching aid. But while there may be many worthy candidates for consideration when dividing up the (limited) budget and allocating space, the case for sensory rooms in schools is in fact a strong one, especially if the school has a significant number of pupils with special educational needs.
Children on the autism spectrum
There are an estimated 1 in 100 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – so a school with 500 pupils is likely to have 5 or more pupils with autism at any one time. While autism affects every individual differently, difficulty processing sensory information is a common characteristic of the condition. Sensory issues can either involve hypersensitivity – where too much stimulus is difficult to cope with – or hyposensitivity, where pupils don’t experience the same level of intensity as others. Sensory rooms in schools can help autistic children to deal with all kinds of sensory sensitivities in a relaxing and calming yet stimulating environment.
Students with learning difficulties
Learning doesn’t just have to happen in the classroom. In fact, for many pupils with learning difficulties, that’s an environment highly unsuited to absorbing and digesting information. A sensory room, on the other hand, can enable pupils to develop at their own pace. Furnished with equipment such as mirrors, bean bags, cushions, mats, lights and tactile toys, a sensory room can provide a unique and stimulating learning environment that allows many children to thrive.
All of us have different learning styles: some might understand new information better if they can absorb it visually, while others might require a more hands-on approach (tactile learning). Because of its multi-sensory approach, a sensory room can cater for all of these individual learning styles, providing education that is tailored to students’ needs.
Children with developmental delays or sensory impairments
With 11.6% of the school population on SEN support every school has a responsibility to support this diverse group of students, providing the facilities they need to get the most out of their education. Special education needs come in many forms, but sensory rooms can adapt and cater for a wide range of learning needs and physical requirements.
A sensory room provides physical and mental stimulus for children with physical disabilities, developmental delays and sensory impairments. For children with physical disabilities, interaction with sensory stimuli can help them to develop their sight, sound, touch and hearing, as well as encouraging independence.
The use of sensory equipment can help children to develop and practise a range of skills including:
Pupils with behavioural issues
Dealing with behavioural issues can be a challenge, but sensory rooms in schools are an effective and chilled-out way to work with children on regulating their behaviour. The calming environment allows pupils to work through any difficult emotions in a safe and supportive space, together with a member of staff. Handling behavioural issues in this way improves focus in the classroom, which has a knock-on effect on the rest of the school population. In this way, sensory rooms in schools are beneficial for everyone.
Schools don’t have to wait until behaviour is a problem before resorting to the sensory room, of course. The sensory room can be a place with positive associations that is available for use by all pupils, whether they’re developing their skills or simply seeking a place to chill. A sensory environment is also the ideal place to provide emotional support to the whole school population and help young people to develop their emotional intelligence, perhaps in timetabled ELSA sessions.
8 Things to Consider When Designing Your Own Sensory Room:
Location! Location! Location! When you first begin designing your own sensory room, the very first thing to keep in mind is where you’d like the sensory room to be located. It is highly advised that the room needs to be “located away from busy thoroughfares where external noise could be an issue.”
Further, it is advised that you select a room without windows if possible. Windows are not necessary and end up being covered with blinds or film adding to costs. “If daylight and natural ventilation is required, consider an appropriate size window and suitable position.”
2. Size and Shape
Okay, so this one may seem like a minor detail, but it can make all the difference. When you’re planning out your sensory room, ask yourself, “What all am I wanting to put in the room?” Sensory environments can be as small as a walk-in closet if you only want a space with mesmerizing lights, for example. However, if you’d like the individual to interact with multiple sensory objects, consider a much larger space.
The shape is another factor to consider. For example, if you plan on mounting anything to the walls, you want to avoid circular rooms.
3. Ventilation, heating, and cooling
Due to the heat from electrical lighting products, it is highly advisable you include an air conditioning unit. Further, “It will be necessary to have a thermostat specifically for this room, as it will require a different setting than surrounding rooms. In the absence of air conditioning, a venting system that allows for an adequate flow of fresh air is highly recommended.”
Additionally, adequate heat should also be available in your room. “A properly heated, cooled, and ventilated room helps the user and caregiver focus on the experience and task at hand, and not on the environmental concerns.”
Speaking of electrical lighting, try to avoid any fluorescent lights. Oftentimes, fluorescent lights create an undesirable noise which may often increase stress of the users in the room.
In lieu of fluorescent lights, try to use softer spotlights that are dimmable via a switch or a remote.
5. Sound insulation
Providing sound insulation in the room helps keep unwanted distractions (noise) from entering or leaving the room. Sound insulation can be achieved in multiple ways:
6. Color of walls, ceiling, and floor
Wall color is a personal preference and may vary depending on the room’s overall design. Generally speaking, many sensory rooms include projectors with various colors. If this will be your case, then consider painting a wall off-white or ivory so the projected light is its true color.
“For dark studios where ultraviolet lighting effects are to be used, we recommend dark colors such as midnight blue or dark green. These dark colors are better for creating a more focused area in which to use fluorescent effects. We prefer these colors to simply black, as they provide the same effect, but can be less intimidating to those individuals who are new to a dark-room environment.”
If you aren’t designing a dark room, consider painting different walls different colors depending on that wall’s theme! The resource also suggests using curtains to “create a room within a room.”
7. Floor coverings
There are several types of floor coverings available. Experia states that your floor coverings should depend on what the room is being used for, who is using the room, and the overall effect you wish to use. If individuals in wheelchairs will be using the room, consider including a durable floor covering that doesn’t stop the wheelchair from moving about.
Further, “a combination of carpets and vinyl floor coverings offer different visual and tactile effects while adding warmth and comfort to a room.”
If necessary, you can use the existing electrical outlets in the room. However, it is highly advised that you run a separate switched circuit for each product, with the outlets located near each piece of equipment, and the switches located together in an optimal place in the room.
It is advised to do the latter so that you have complete control of the equipment. Doing so also decreases the likelihood of injury due to inquisitive hands.
Sensory room encourages wellbeing by design and allows pupils to access equipment independently. In a specialist learning environment, it’s vital that we are using the very best technology to help pupils and their sensory needs. The products in sensory room are an essential part of pupils’ development, providing a calm space for them to learn and grow independently.”
“The room gives pupils a sensory diet, promoting language, aiding fine and gross motor skills and hand and eye co-ordination. “Importantly, it also gives them a safe space to learn in, promoting pupils’ self-help skills as well as spiritual, moral and cultural development.”
Autism Society. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.autism-society.org
Autism spectrum disorders. (2011).About.com. Retrieved from http://autism.about.com /causes of autism
MacFarlane, J. R., & Kanaya, T. (2009). What does it mean to be autistic? Inter-state variation in special education criteria for autism services. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18(6), 662-669.