New Sensory Room at Wingate Elementary helps students remain calm and focused

PHOTOS PROVIDED Wingate Elementary second-grade student, Garek Brown, and BEA occupational therapist, Megan Weisbrode, look for hidden objects in TheraPutty. This is a calming tactile activity that provides strong sensory input to the hands.

WINGATE — When curriculum shifts at Wingate Elementary caused a classroom to become unused, Megan Weisbrode saw an opportunity.

Weisbrode, Bald Eagle Area’s occupational therapist, knows that it is increasingly common for students to have sensory processing differences. This impacts their ability to focus and to be in control of their bodies and emotions.

For example, these students may find it hard to remain seated, become distressed with loud sounds, or have a low frustration level. They may avoid touching certain textures or need to touch everything, and everyone, in the classroom. Children with sensory differences may bump and crash into people or walls, and use excessive force when using classroom tools.

Classroom teachers do make needed accommodations for these children within the classroom, like implementing quiet-times or offering flexible seating options. But Weisbrode says that some students require more intensive sensory input throughout the school-day to maintain a well-regulated physical and emotional state.

Students need this sensory input before they can become engaged and learn. In an effort to help these students get their sensory needs met, Weisbrode turned the empty classroom into a “Sensory Room.”

Garek Brown takes a ride in the cuddle loop swing. The swing is made of a strong Lycra material and provides students with whole-body calming deep-pressure tactile input while they are swinging, which is super relaxing for most students.

“The empty classroom was a perfect choice because the floors are carpeted, which helps with sound absorption, and the room has lots of natural sunlight,” Weisbrode said.

The room is available for any student at Wingate Elementary who demonstrates the need. But the students must be accompanied by a staff member who has been trained on the purpose of the room, use of the equipment, and setting up a sensory routine.

Before being hired by BEA at the beginning of this school year, Weisbrode worked there for three years under a contract with Clear-Care Corporation. She also has a specialty certification in Sensory Integration and Praxis Testing. This prior education and experience helped her with selecting appropriate sensory equipment, designing the room’s set-up, and training the special education staff on use of the sensory room.

When students enter the room, it is designed to have both an immediate visual and auditory relaxing impact. Blue filters have been placed over the ceiling lights, calming images posted on the walls, and soothing music is played inside the room.

Students may choose to bounce on an exercise ball, jump on a trampoline, swing in a Lycra or net swing, propel themselves on a scooter-board, or run and jump into a crash pad to get their sensory needs met. Weighted activities release tension in the muscles, and throwing/catching the 4-6 pound balls is a preferred activity for many older elementary students.

For students who need several minutes of quiet creativity, the room offers the choices of a Lego wall, a whiteboard to draw/write, and a tent stocked with tactile fidgets.

Activities offering deep pressure tactile input include finding hidden objects in TheraPutty or a giant bin full of beans, stretching inside a spandex body sock, crawling through a stretchy tunnel, sitting underneath a weighted blanket, or curling up inside the cozy canoe.

Weisbrode says, “When students first enter the room, their reaction is typically ‘Ohhhh! I love this room!’ And, after using the room, many students will comment that they ‘love to take breaks in the sensory room because it is fun and makes my body feel calm’.”

Wingate Elementary second-grade student Garek Brown agrees. He says, “The sensory room makes me feel happy.”

According to Weisbrode, on a typical school day, approximately 30 students use the room throughout the day. She says that most of these students use the room one or two times a day, though several students take short breaks in the room at more regular intervals in order to be well-regulated in the classroom.

“We remind each student as they leave that they’ve had their break in the sensory room, and now it is their job to be in control of their body, make good choices, and to be ready to learn,” Weisbrode says.

If more grant monies become available to BEA, Weisbrode would like to purchase additional equipment for the room, like weighted ropes and a “ball shaker bag,” which is basically a small ball-pit in a sturdy, enclosed bag that provides students with calming deep pressure tactile input. Even a scooter-board ramp is a possibility.

Right now, staff members are evaluating what types of activities have the most positive impact on the students’ ability to return to the classroom, well-regulated for learning.

Weisbrode says, “I feel very strongly that meeting students’ sensory needs is one piece of the puzzle for helping students. When a student is calm, focused, and happy they will be much better able to learn and interact in the classroom setting.”

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