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EACS, Southwick Elementary's 'Sensory Room' meant to help students relax, focus

Friday, September 20, 2013 - 7:27 am

Dimmed lights, soothing music and pleasant aromas.

It might sound like a bit of pampering that adults might receive on a weekend, but at East Allen County Schools’ Southwick Elementary, the stimulation of senses for young students is proving beneficial in other ways, by helping to calm those who have some level of behavioral needs, resulting in fewer outbursts and episodes where discipline referrals take place.

The district hosted an open house for its Sensory Room on Thursday at Southwick, where district staff members were available to explain just how the concept works.

Superintendent Kenneth Folks and EACS board member Terry Jo Lightfoot were also present.

So, how does it work?

In essence, the Sensory Room contains stations, like a swing, or a "sandbox table," or a small slide. Students who have been identified as having some level of behavioral needs are brought to the Sensory Room for 15-minute intervals, over the course of the day, in no more than groups of three. Two staff members are present at all time.

Once inside, the children remove their shoes, check in based on how they are feeling, then proceed to any of the multiple stations, as directed by the staff members. The students receive positive feedback and individualized attention as they rotate through a few of the stations, then head back to their classrooms.

That sounds simple enough, but when EACS introduced the Sensory Room in February, discipline referrals dropped immediately and significantly – EACS said the referrals decreased 74 percent, from more than 30 to fewer than 10.

What was apparent during Thursday’s open house, in which a few students went through the Sensory Room experience: These aren’t middle school or high school students, who are more advanced in their ability to behave and interact with others, and then focus on their studies. The Southwick students are still little kids who are learning these processes. By receiving a bit of attention in a calm atmosphere, the children – who, again, are in elementary school with one teacher for the day – are then able to find their own focus and return to class, ready to learn.

"This is just amazing to me," Lightfoot said. "What we’re talking about, what we’re looking at doing, is trying to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of each child."

"It’s not as simple as expecting every child to be at the same place in their development, so they respond in the same way to the same things. Children are all different, and some of them have different needs," Lightfoot added. "It’s important to recognize that. Children have to be able to develop the ability to interact properly with others, how to be around others. Everyone has to do that, at some point in their lives. What we’re trying to do here is help some children who aren’t as advanced with this as others."

The equipment in the Sensory Room at Southwick – which is the pilot program for the district – cost around $15,000, but Jenny Snyder, the district’s manager of special services, said that the cost could vary and decrease, based on things like room size and need. Lightfoot said that she supported the expansion of the program throughout the district, and Connie Brown, the director of special services for EACS, said that Heritage Elementary could be next in the district to receive one.

Local company SensoryCritters.com, 4118 N. Clinton St., provides equipment, training and other supporting information for the rooms.