Sensory Rooms in Schools

Today’s post on sensory rooms in schools is part of a series focusing on sensory rooms. We are going to explore the benefits of sensory rooms, including why having a sensory space in schools supports student needs. We’re also covering things to consider, cleaning materials, supervision, and recommended use by teachers and aides. The thing is that sensory needs are much-needed in schools and classrooms, so we wanted to offer a resource on creating this support.

Other posts in the sensory room series highlight sensory room rules, building a sensory room on a budget, and things to include when designing a sensory room.

sensory rooms in schools with therapy equipment like trampoline, climbing toys, balance toys and more.

What is a Sensory Room?

Sensory rooms are a space in the school that offers a sensory break for those who enter. Sensory rooms might be an empty classroom that has been transformed into a space with sensory tools and is used as a movement break for students.

Sensory rooms typically offer therapy tools or sensory materials that offer sensory input, including proprioceptive input, vestibular input, auditory input, visual input, and tactile input

Some schools have a whole room dedicated to this calming and regulating space. Others have just a nook in a hallway with a few sensory materials. Still others have a closet or cupboard with a few sensory items.

As a school based OT, I’ve seen sensory rooms used for:

  • self regulation
  • sensory diets
  • movement breaks
  • brain breaks
  • organizing dysregulated sensory systems

School sensory rooms have specific equipment designed to support various needs. We’re covering an extensive sensory room equipment list in another blog post.

We actually created a virtual sensory room for online therapy sessions, which is a huge help for therapy providers working in teletherapy.

Why have sensory rooms in schools?

There are several factors that contribute to the need for sensory rooms in schools:

  • We as occupational therapy providers tend to be involve in creating and implementing sensory diets. The sensory room is a great place to incorporate sensory strategies within the space, while meeting the goals of a sensory diet.
  • Sensory needs during the school day- The incidence of Autism is now 1 in 34. That is just Autism alone. Along with sensory processing disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other attention needs. There are many other special needs in students in the classroom and many of these students may struggle with self-regulation.
  • Districts are allowing larger class sizes to balance their budget. This means more bodies per classroom. Sensory rooms can support body awareness.
  • Movement opportunities may be less than they were in years past. Recess time is often reduced and outside of school, kids may not be playing outside.
  • Because of least restrictive environment regulations, more children with special needs are mainstreamed into typical classrooms.
  • Teachers without specific training in sensory processing and working with students with special needs, are finding it increasingly difficult to effectively teach their lesson plans.
  • COVID – there was two years when young children did not get much sensory stimulation. We have now thrown them back into mainstream education, and it is proving to be too much for many students to handle.
  • Other contributing factors leading to poor sensory regulation might include: too much technology and screen time, lack of exercise, poor diet, and increased sensitivity to environmental stimulants.
  • Students need a safe space to work on self-regulation and get back into their “just right zone” so they can perform in their classroom (Read about the Alert program for more information non this.)

What are the benefits of a sensory space?

There are many benefits to students and staff of having sensory rooms in schools. This is more than just a free for all play space.

  • Sensory Integration Therapy: Teachers and therapists can use this space to provide sensory integration therapy, a form of treatment designed to help children with sensory processing issues. This therapy involves specific activities that challenge the child’s ability to respond appropriately to sensory input
  • Sensory Diet implementation: I love to use a sensory room in the schools for a specific sensory diet location. You can set up a schedule for students to follow each day or as part of their schedule.
  • Emotional regulation needs: You can use sensory rooms for emotional therapy, especially for children with autism. The calming and engaging environment can help manage emotional outbursts, sensory dysregulation, and reduce anxiety
  • Visual Stimulation: One of the nice things about a sensory room is that you can alter the visual input with wall decorations, lighting, and reduced glare from overhead lights.
  • Motor Skills Development: OTs, PTs, and ST staff in the schools can use a sensory room in therapy interventions to support their student’s goal areas. It might be used for movement goals for their gross and fine motor skills, or the space can be a general treatment area for therapy.
  • Relaxation and Calming: If you walk into a sensory room, you might notice the calming and regulating environment. The calming environment of a sensory room can provide a safe space for overstimulated students to relax and regain control so students using the space can return to learning.
  • Social Skills Development: I love using group self regulation activities with a small group of OT students. Group activities in a sensory room can encourage interaction and cooperation.
  • Individualized Learning: You can adapt the space to meet the specific needs and preferences of individual students, while exploring what works for each student.

Considerations for creating a sensory room

There are things to consider when creating a sensory room in schools…

You’ll need a space, a budget for purchasing the sensory room equipment and therapy items, and then a few other considerations.

The available space, budget, clientele, and purpose are just a other things to consider when building and using a sensory room in schools.

Many times, OT is consulted when a sensory room is being set up. If an occupational therapy provider is setting up a sensory room, or being used as a resource in creating a sensory space in the school building, then these are things that should be considered.

By the way, we always recommend reaching out to OT staff for appropriate suggestions for the sensory space.

When creating a sensory room, you should ask these questions:

What is your clientele/students/population that will be using the school sensory room?

You need to get the most bang for your buck; therefore, it is important to select sensory room equipment that meets the needs of most of your learners.  While you may love the idea of a specialized piece of equipment for one student, it is not cost effective when you have a limited budget

What do you want to accomplish with your sensory room?

First decide the goal of your school sensory room. Is it a quiet relaxing space, a place for students to do some heavy work, a spot for independent play, or teacher led activity? It can be a hybrid, if you have the space to divide your areas.

What type of equipment will be used in the sensory space?

We know that school students are rough on materials. Because of that you’ll want to choose durable equipment. I cringe every time teachers bring in preschoolers for some sensory time. Without one-on-one direct input, equipment can be damaged very easily. When you are on a tight budget, it is painful to see something broken.

Check the rules to see if you can have home made equipment. This is easier on the budget, but against the rules in many places due to safety regulations.  This is a tough rule to follow, as much of the home-made equipment is made better than the mass-produced sensory room equipment.

How will the sensory room in the school environment be used?

You’ll definitely want to think about how are you going to use this space. Is the room going to be exclusively used by therapists and their students, or accessible by teachers (who may not have the skilled training, or supervision) to bring their class. School administration often has jurisdiction to determine how their space is used. If this is the case, make sure you plan your sensory room equipment accordingly.

Who has priority over the sensory space? 

Finally, it’s important to consider who will be “in charge” of the school sensory room. Is it an equal space for anyone, or does a treating therapist working with a student have the right to refuse more students coming in. Is this space going to be used by other members of the IEP/504 team like school counselors, mental health professionals, teacher assistants and aides, speech therapy, etc.

Staff Training for School Sensory Rooms

Staff Training is a Must when it comes to a sensory room in the school environment.

Unfortunately, chaotic and unpredictable environments are sometimes created when a room is poorly designed, or personnel are not trained how to properly use the room. It is essential that the support personnel understand how to use the room itself, not just the equipment inside it. 

It is more important how you use the space not what you have in it. One of the most common mistakes is to go into a sensory room and turn on every piece of equipment. This can be very over stimulating for some. If used incorrectly students can exhibit self-injurious or aggressive behavior. Remember the equipment is only as good as the person using it. 

One thing we see all the time is that a student is taken into the sensory space AFTER they’ve had a meltdown or tantrum or are dysregulated. The additional sensory input might get them more “wound up” or out of sorts. A school based OT can help with teacher aides and personnel using the space more appropriately and when a student might need the tools.

Another thing we see all the time is the student that is allowed to spin or swing and this ends up getting them to a worse state or regulation. These are aspects of sensory input that can be dangerous for some students!

Visual schedules should be used and this is an area that will need staff training. A student shouldn’t be set free in the sensory space to run about and move from one item to the next. A planned out set of strategies should be used with intention.

People who do not understand sensory processing difficulties, may see the sensory room as a playground or free-for-all space.  While your sensory room is designed for some freedom of  movement, use it with some direction and instruction.

Children who are dysregulated are more likely to be less coordinated, have impulsive movements and behaviors, and act aggressively toward others. For this reason alone, it is wise to scope out the room before bringing your class in there.  If a child is out of control, or having a sensory meltdown, it is best to wait before bringing your ten students into the sensory room.   

Our teachers often call down to the sensory room (also inhabited by therapists) to see who is in there, and if the time is appropriate.

Staff need to understand the rules and protocols of this space. Check out our accompanying post for more information. 

Cleaning sensory rooms in schools

Cleaning is a touchy subject that has resulted in some “courageous conversations” this year. Consider the sensory room like any other room in your house. Respect the space and leave it the way you found it (or better).

  • If your kid makes a mess, clean it up
  • Have wipes and other sanitizing equipment handy for cleaning items that have gone into student’s mouths
  • During cold and flu season it is best practice to wipe down equipment after using it. Alternativley, use a sanitizing spray.
  • When you must leave a mess behind, due to time constraints, or some other circumstance, leave a note and your plans to return. Example: this sensory swing is soiled, please do not use it. I will take it home and wash it.

School sensory room supervision

As a final reminder, supervision is a must in sensory rooms. It is very difficult to make a room that is 100% safe for all students who enter. Some sensory rooms have many different types of equipment, not all that is appropriate for each student.

Watch for flying swings.  Keep fingers out of drawers, cabinets, closets, desks, or other “off limits” spaces. Restrict access to the sensory bin if your student is likely to throw birdseed all over the room.

Ideally, a school would have several different sensory rooms.  One that is quite safe with padded walls, floors, and soft everything, and another with more equipment for active regulation and heavy work.  Until then, make sure you are supervising your students in this space, and training those you work with to do the same.

What type of sensory spaces have you seen used in schools?

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

Our alerting and calming sensory strategy cards can be used in a sensory room in schools as a tool for adding intentional movement.

Sensory rooms in schools

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