For some children, the demands of a modern classroom can be overwhelming. So overwhelming that they can’t focus on the language arts, math and science that they are there to learn. To help them, Verona’s special services professionals have teamed up to create sensory rooms–small, therapeutic spaces at Laning Avenue School and H.B. Whitehorne where children can re-establish their focus on learning.
“In some students, their sensory system is disrupted because of permanent or temporary situations in their life,” says Diane Conboy, M.S., CCC-SLD. “They can become dis-regulated. Taking a walk down to the water fountain with all the sound reverberating off the walls won’t necessarily calm them down. The sensory rooms are a way for getting children to be self-regulated so that they can return to the classroom and be available for learning.”
The schools were chosen to house the rooms because of the services they provide to Verona students. Laning is home to the district’s LSS (learning, sensory and social) program, while HBW delivers all special ed programs. The rooms, however, are not open only to special ed students; any student can request to go to them but must be accompanied by a teacher or paraprofessional.
“Some students specifically work to earn a break in the sensory room by completing a task or a lesson,” Conboy says. “Or they can be scheduled for a break as part of their ‘sensory diet’.” The indoor room at Laning complements an outdoor sensory garden that Conboy established eight years ago.
Conboy planned the rooms together with Verona’s other speech/language specialist, Kathleen Wrobel-Thomas, CCC-SLP; occupational therapists Vasi Givas and Andria Rosenberg, and Hannah Brandt, a 2005 graduate of Verona High School who runs the design company Hannah Jo Designs. “She helped us to figure out how to put everything in one room without it being overwhelming,” says Conboy. Not an easy task given that the two very small rooms were once a storage closet and an office. The district provided some funding for the work, but other support came from Verona’s learning disabilities support organization Children Having Learning Differences (C.H.I.L.D.), David M. Azzati and Mark V. Buneo.
The room at Laning blends saturated paint colors with a variety of different tactile surfaces, from flat rubber mats to a bit of artificial grass on the walls and “mermaid” pillows that change color and feeling depending which way the sequins on them are brushed. There are soft things to hug and weighted blankets to drape around students and hug them back. There are pillows to sit on–and sit inside of. A fan generates white noise to blunt the hallway signs, but the room is also equipped to play music. The materials can both calm students down or energize them, Conboy says, depending on what their sensory system needs. The rooms are not age or gender specific.
“The rooms are a great opportunity,” says Frank Mauriello, director of special services for Verona Public Schools. “We have great therapists in town who come up with great ideas about how they can reach students on many levels.”
Even when they are not in the sensory rooms, he might have added. Conboy bought extra mermaid pillow fabric so she can put a bit of it up in the hallway outside the room as well. “Students are usually told to not touch things in the hallway,” she says, “but this can be a way to have an artful sensory experience there too.”