As educators stress the importance of SEL, more are adopting sensory spaces to help support self-regulation for all students.

Sensory spaces may help support all students


As educators stress the importance of social and emotional learning, more are adopting sensory spaces to help support self-regulation for all students

Key points:

Since COVID, many schools across the country have been investing ESSER funds into sensory spaces. The availability of this funding, along with the complex trauma issues brought on by the pandemic–including social isolation, depression and generalized anxiety–have prompted educators to increase their focus on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) to address all students’ needs. As 2023 winds down, it is important to note this trend and its origins from use primarily in special education to the current, continuing shift towards universal design and inclusion.

What is a sensory space?

A sensory space is a designated area or room that is designed to help students practice and integrate the concepts of self-regulation or self- management using sensory and other tools.  From a small corner to a full room, sensory spaces are increasingly being implemented in schools, homes, business, and public places such as stadiums and airports.

In schools, sensory spaces have traditionally been used by students with special needs, such as those on the autism spectrum or those with severe/profound cognitive, intellectual, and/or motor disabilities. Often referred to as Multi-Sensory Environments, these spaces were designed to support the development of cognitive, motor, social and self-regulation skills with options to individualize and customize activities specifically for each student.

Some elements of the room can even be aligned to instruction. If the whole class is working on an astronomy lesson, for example, the multisensory environment could include a projector that the user could turn on to view images of stars, planets, or a panorama of a galaxy overhead.

How are sensory spaces changing?

During the pandemic, and now beyond, sensory spaces have morphed from being used with just those with special needs to more inclusive environments that support all students as part of universal design for learning. As an occupational therapist with training in sensory integration, I, along with my colleagues, know that we have many students, not just those with special needs, who may be overly sensitive to touch, movement, sights, and sounds, or have other sensory processing challenges.

This may be applicable to students with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that now can include the complex trauma and side effects from the pandemic. A trauma response, whether from neglect, abuse, food scarcity, loss of a parent/caregiver, divorce, etc., may sometimes mimic a sensory processing challenge. With this cycle, the fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in if students become overwhelmed by daily stressors and thus the meltdowns, aggression, withdrawal, or other behavior dysregulation issues may ensue. Creating a sensory calming space may help support self-regulation and self-management to prevent this escalation. When used as part of a daily routine, and not as reward or punishment, these sensory breaks may make a profound difference in helping students make it through the school day while teaching them to intrinsically learn and advocate for their sensory needs.

Since COVID, I have also seen an uptick in schools that are creating quiet sensory spaces for their educational staff. A revamped teacher’s lounge might now include a bubble wall for calming visual and auditory input, a massage chair and/or a weighted blanket for deep touch pressure input, and some fidgets or other sensory tools. Just like our students, teachers need to be mindful and practice taking regular sensory breaks.

Some students may need movement to help with self-regulation. Research has shown that physical activity helps support focus, attention, and emotional regulation. Yet many students today do not get enough movement because of decreased recess time, reduction in required physical education minutes, and removal of playground equipment. Sensory spaces that incorporate movement input (what we term “wiggle rooms”) may help students who need this additional input and can include sensory tools such as a mini trampoline, a swing, or a scooter board obstacle course.

Building your own sensory space

As an OT, I always ask the question, “What does a sensory space look like for you?”  Defining the needs and goals of the space helps determine equipment and next steps. A quiet space will look different than a wiggle space, for example, and will require different elements to incorporate. Look at sensory preferences such as:

  • Visual input such as bubble tubes, light cubes, twinkle lights, fiber optic lighting, visual projectors, or still images;
  • Auditory input such as music or vibroacoustic pieces (speakers are built into the furniture for sound and vibration), a white noise machine, or noise-canceling headphones;
  • Deep touch pressure or heavy work input tools such as a bean bag chair (or other furniture that conforms around the child for spatial boundary definition), a crash mat, a weighted lap pad, or stuffed animal;
  •  Movement input such as a rocking chair, linear swing, or fidget tools for the hands; and
  • Olfactory or smell input such as the use of essential oils/aromatherapy. (Note:  Avoiding chemical and/or synthetics such as commercial air fresheners, perfume, and lotions is also just as important!).

If budgets are an issue, creativity and resourcefulness are better long-term allies in creating a sensory space than buying what is the least expensive. Many children, especially those who are considered sensory seekers, can be extremely hard on furniture and supplies because of modulation issues with poor registration of the senses. These students may want to swing or spin excessively, climb on furniture, crash into other objects/people, or squeeze the glue bottle too hard! Providing more durable movement, deep touch pressure, and fidget tools will be well worth the extra expense.

For justification and/or to build awareness, social media is a wonderful place to browse. There are so many private and public spaces posting about supporting neurodiverse learners and creating more sensory friendly environments.

My hope as an OT is that the COVID pandemic may have helped bring about more awareness and accelerate the shift in understanding the importance of SEL. All students need to learn to self-regulate to feel calm and safe, which is a perquisite for learning. Creating a supportive sensory space is one more tool in ensuring student success.

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