by Denise Inman

sensory room crop
Sensory room at Hazelwood West High School

A sensory room is a therapeutic space with a variety of equipment that provides students with special needs a personalized sensory input. It is used to facilitate self-organization, self-regulation, relaxation, and sensory awareness. This area helps students self-regulate in a calming environment and focus themselves so they can be better prepared for learning and interacting with others and allow them to access their curriculum and social environment more readily.

We saw so many potential benefits of incorporating a sensory room at Hazelwood West, which included the following:

  • Sensory stimulation: When students engage and explore their surroundings, they are beginning to learn how to react and interact with the much larger world around them. This will help to improve communication and positive interactions.
  • Increased learning and play: Sensory stimulation engages different areas of the brain and helps children better absorb and retain information. It can also enhance attention span and alertness in students
  • Improved balance, movement, and spatial orientation: Sensory rooms can help develop students’ visual processing abilities as well as their fine and gross motor skills, facilitating day-to-day living.
  • Helps tackle behavioral problems: Multi-sensory environments can be highly absorbing, providing a moment of comfort and calm for overactive and distressed individuals, and helping inactive individuals to feel better engaged. This improves focus and prevents users from getting the urge to act up and allows for more emotional regulation. 
  • Increased self-control and self-organization 
  • Awareness of self-soothing 
  • Increased feelings of centeredness and grounding 

Special Education Foundation awarded Hazelwood West a Dana Brown Teacher Mini-grant to create a sensory oasis. With a colleague, I applied for the grant to help get much needed equipment, which included lights, colors, sounds, and sensory soft play objects that will allow the student using it to explore and interact in a quiet and non-threatening space, where they can explore at their own leisure. Hazelwood West students who have learning difficulties, developmental disabilities or sensory impairments will be able to use the equipment to help them learn to interact with the world around them, but in a safe environment that builds up their confidence and their ability

Hazelwood West did not have a variety of sensory equipment such as calming and stimulating materials that provided students with sensory differences who needed a better foundation for self-regulation and help with on-task behavior. This grant allowed the teachers to access materials, tools and resources to provide sensory breaks and activities for our students who need that support throughout their school day. It assisted Hazelwood West Special Education staff to proactively consider individual sensory differences while in the instructional setting to assist students with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, anxiety issues and a wide variety of special needs reach their fullest potential and have greater access to learning. 

We were able to order kinetic sand, bean bag chairs, different sensory fidgets, soothing light covers and flexible seating.

We have close to 350 students receiving special education services at Hazelwood West. This room was initially thought to be designed primarily for autistic students, but we saw the potential to support all SSD students, including those with vision difficulties, language difficulties, learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and any student who needs a safe, quiet room to calm and self-regulate. Students who received services from an occupational therapist or a physical therapist were able to work with various activities from bouncing a ball to strengthening body movements and even yoga. 

This was a yearlong process that started with securing the use of a room across the hall from our essential skills classroom. We came up with a list of students’ needs and looked for equipment and supplies in order to address those needs. The teachers discussed the implementation of the use of the sensory oasis and developed a program and protocol for how staff should use and maintain the room. We wanted to be sure that our staff understood the purpose of the room, and be trained on the use of equipment and understand what each piece in there is for, and how to put it away after use. We also felt it was important to track data to show who was using the room, why they were needing to be there (whether it was to cool down, what equipment and supplies they used).

Students had to learn what the sensory room was used for, why it is used and rules and expected behavior. They also had to be taught what the supplies and equipment in the sensory room are and how they are to be used as well as how to care for those items. 

Putting this room together has been a labor of love and the students are actively using it and giving us ideas on how we can make it even better. It has become a haven of calm for many of our students. We have been able to use this sensory oasis for many of our students and have taught them self-regulation, relaxation, and sensory awareness skills that they so desperately needed.

The Dana Brown Teacher Mini-grant has helped to make this truly a sensory oasis for our students.

Denise Inman is the Special School District essential skills teacher and job skills coordinator at Hazelwood West High School