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Why Every School Should Have a Sensory Space

Katy Goettl

For many students, school can be an emotionally charged and overwhelming place. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, children had to cope with issues related to interpersonal relationships and academic pressures, just to name a few. Add a long hiatus of in-class learning into the mix as schools have tried to integrate non-traditional instruction (NTI), and you begin to see how the pandemic turned up the heat on all of these emotional triggers.

Now that school districts all over the country have returned mainly to in-person learning, many students may be feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Imagine a dedicated space within each school specifically designed to allow students to either release or pull in emotional energy.

Known as sensory spaces (also known as a sensory room or multi-sensory room) these dedicated areas were traditionally designed to meet the needs of children with sensory processing disorders (SPD) who fell along any number of spectrums, including ADHD and autism. Today, the benefits of sensory spaces are being explored as it relates to the needs of all students.

What Makes a Sensory Space?

According to the National Council for Special Education, a sensory space is a designated area within a school that can support a student’s sensory preferences and needs. It is a space that aims to provide students with the individualized sensor input they need to self-regulate, to be better prepared for learning and interacting with others.

A sensory space addresses the primary senses, including sight, hearing, smell, and touch. While traditionally created to help reduce feelings of overstimulation, sensory spaces can also help to activate emotional energy in children. Unlike a traditional classroom environment where students are expected to sit still, be quiet and actively listen, sensory spaces allow children to explore at their own pace and be as engaged or isolated as needed.

Who Benefits from the Use of Sensory Spaces?

The short answer is everyone. From students and their peers to teachers, school administrators, and even their parents and guardians, everyone in the student’s life can be positively affected by what sensory spaces offer.

At a high level, sensory spaces help alleviate some students’ pressures when interacting with certain aspects of a traditional classroom. Whether it’s the light intensity, noise level, or other triggers, these can cause a child to need to find a separate space to process these sensory inputs.

By creating such a dedicated space, children will feel less pressure to “deal” with these heightened sensitivities in the moment. In addition to acting as a buffer, sensory spaces also create environments where children can adequately process and learn how to better handle these situations in the future.

In addition to helping the child immediately affected, there are also downstream benefits to the other students in the class as well as to the teachers. For example, should a student feel triggered by an element in their classroom, rather than exhibiting disruptive behavior causing stress in their fellow students and teachers, they can now remove themselves to a safe space to process those emotions. Sensory spaces then also act as a focal point for any counseling support that may be needed.

Lastly, parents and guardians will also potentially see the benefits of their child’s use of sensory spaces. Instead of a child coming home with bottled-up emotions or having been in trouble for being disruptive in the classroom, they will have had a chance to process those feelings in a safe and healthy way.

Are Sensory Spaces Only for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder?

While those children with SPD may stand to gain the most from attending a school that has a dedicated sensory space, any student—on any given day—may feel over or under-stimulated resulting in the need to engage with the resources found in a sensory space.

Designed to be a space that reduces stress and anxiety, which helps to increase one’s focus, or that can help to elevate their energy level to meet the day, sensory spaces are a great addition to any school.

What Type of Space is Needed to Create a Sensory Space?

In an ideal situation, a sensory space would be large enough to accommodate several students at one time with a range of sensory needs. One area is dedicated to tactile needs, another dedicated to quiet reflection, and one devoted to movement and activity, just to name a few.

But don’t feel like you have to set aside a large amount of square footage. Starting small with a “quiet corner” in a dedicated room can be the start of a sensory space, and later that can expand to include an entire wall, half of a room or a full room. Areas that have variations in light and dark, textured materials, bean bag chairs, etc., can be beneficial regardless of their overall footprint.

No matter how intricate the space may be, as long as it promotes a calming atmosphere that fosters improved focus and a safe outlet for emotional energy, it will go a long way toward helping students thrive both inside and outside of the classroom.

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