Sensory room at Williams Magnet School helps students engage, stay focused in the classroom
Pratt Tribune. India Yarborough. September 02, 2019.
Fifth-grader Saniyya Redmon often enters the Williams magnet school sensory room feeling “frustrated or angry.”

After taking stock of how she feels, Saniyya heads straight for the bean bag chairs — her favorite spot. The environment of the sensory room and having the opportunity there to talk with a social worker or counselor helps calm her. And over time, she has noticed a difference in her ability to cope in the classroom.

“Last year, I came in here very often because I got frustrated a lot and very easily, but I can control that now, so I think I’ve only come in here once this year,” Saniyya said.

Saniyya is one of many students who take advantage of a sensory room put in at the start of the 2018-19 school year at Williams Science & Fine Arts Magnet School. According to Susan Mills, a special education social worker who has spent 15 years working at Williams, there were 1,330 visits to the sensory room last year. The goal is for each student who visits to leave ready to learn.

“That’s ultimately our goal — that they re-engage in the classroom, hopefully within 20 minutes,” Mills said.

The room is designed to be calming to students. It has bean bag chairs, soft lighting, foam stepping stones in the middle, padded walls in one corner, a large mat students can flop onto and more. Mills said students gravitate toward whatever part of the room makes them feel most comfortable.

After a child has had time to reset, a social worker or counselor present in the room engages him or her in a one-on-one conversation. The strategy there is to encourage students to talk about their feelings — what has upset them and what they need to be successful and ready to tackle their schoolwork. Mills said it is a learning opportunity for both the children and the school.

“We discuss with the child things that could be different or better in the classroom, choices that they can make, how they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “We try to do some self-esteem building, as well. The child always ends with adult conversation, and we have a process sheet that kind of guides that.”

But students can’t just leave class whenever they want to take a break in the sensory room. Teachers have to recommend them. Mills said more than 80% of teachers at Williams have opted to send a student there at least once.

“We consider it a tier two-type intervention where students aren’t able to regulate in the classroom to the place where they’re continuing to learn, and the teachers have said, ‘Can we have something outside of the classroom that will help our kids re-engage?’ ” Mills said.

This type of intervention has been beneficial for Saniyya. She said she feels heard when she is in the room. It’s a place where she is able to form a bond with the social workers and counselors and where she knows a secret is safe. And she always leaves feeling more focused.

“I get more work done than I’m supposed to,” she said. “Like if we’re supposed to write one paragraph, I end up writing four. It’s like yesterday — we were supposed to write two and I wrote six.”

Mills said Williams collects data to keep track of the sensory room’s impact.

“We know how long a student has been here. We know how much time they’re out of the classroom. We know what their pulse was entering, what their pulse was exiting,” Mills said. “We take note of where the child was in the classroom, in this classroom space.”

Collecting that data also allows the three community partners that pulled the room together to see the difference they are making in children’s lives.

The sensory room was funded by Advisors Excel, which purchased items on the school’s sensory-room wish list. Interior designers with Schwerdt Design Group determined how to best organize the room. And MCP Group provided the labor necessary to execute the setup.

Lindsay Freeman, director of community engagement for Advisors Excel, said the initial request for help with the room came from an occupational therapist with the school district. The occupational therapist was able to explain why such a space is important for students to have.

“I knew that it was something we could fund and we could buy the materials that they need for the room, but in order to install a swing, in order to install padding on the walls — things that were appropriate for a sensory room — we needed to include others so that we could make sure it was a safe environment for the students,” Freeman said.

Melea Stone and Melina Stewart, interior designers with Schwerdt Design Group who helped with the effort, said it was cool to see the direct impact of their work.

“A lot of times you design an office and it just kind of goes on and everyone’s happy — but with this ... you can see it’s actually making an impact,” Stewart said. “Hopefully, it leads to more rooms and helping more kids. That’s probably what’s most important to us — just directly helping kids in our town and our area.”

Matt McPherson with MCP Group added that community engagement, and specifically helping the area’s students, is an important aspect of the work his company does.

“Our people really get behind it and love it, and it really helps create a culture internally for us that’s really been significant and kind of a game-changer,” McPherson said.

He added that members of his company were inspired by Advisors Excel’s commitment to giving back. He and Freeman hope other companies will see their efforts and want to pay it forward.

“We do hope that other companies and organizations will see this need, just like we did, and step up to help,” Freeman said. “You know, the students are really the future of our community, and anything that we can do to help them be successful in their classroom and in school is important.”


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