When Deb Bearman knows her son, Kyle, is going to have a bad day, she calls ahead to his teacher at Heritage Elementary.
Once at Heritage, the 10-year-old fourth-grader, diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 9 months, may get a hug and a quick visit to the sensory room.
"He uses it a lot in the morning when he first gets there," Bearman said. His favorite calming tool is the bubble light, a floor to ceiling tube that changes colors.
Sensory rooms, once the domain of special-needs students, particularly children diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, are going mainstream. Through the use of objects like lights, rocking chairs, pressure mats, thick elastic bands and wet sand, sensory rooms can calm a child to focus on school.
Working with special-needs staffers and sensory visits, Kyle has progressed educationally and emotionally. Last year, he took the ISTEP+ and IREAD-3 state standardized tests and is on the honor roll, his mother said.
Educators have found a 5-minute sensory room visit can help just about any student. Calmer students return to the regular classroom, which can help improve standardized test scores.
"We all know that if you’re not in the classroom, you’re not learning and that’s not a good thing," said Jennifer Snyder, manager of special services at East Allen County Schools, which has four sensory rooms and plans for more.
Sensory room equipment addresses visual, hearing, tactile, emotional and physical issues with movement, pressure, and the senses, like touch.
If your child is in elementary school, chances are he or she will visit a sensory room. Your child will gaze at a bubble light, finger the lighted plastic fiber optic strands, play with a small toy called a fidget or swing in a swing.
It’s a new era for the class clown, the day dreamer, the agitated and the lethargic, who in the old days would get sent to the hall or worse. These days, they visit the sensory room designed to calm a student or stimulate, depending on the need.
Sensory rooms date back at least 40 years in the United Kingdom, according to Lisa Compton, a consultant to local schools and parents and the owner and founder of SensoryCritters, a local business.
About 20 years ago, sensory rooms started appearing in the U.S., said Lindsey Biel, author and an expert on sensory processing disorders. The 2014 publication of her book, "Sensory Processing Challenges," and another book by Carol Kranowitz, "The Out-of-Sync Child," increased interest, Biel said.
In Allen County, the trend started about six years ago when Jeanine Kleber, principal at Haverhill Elementary School at Southwest Allen County Schools, created her own sensory room.
"We are getting better at individualized instruction," said Kleber, a licensed special education teacher. Different tools address different issues. The regular swing helps kids let off steam, whereas the cocoon swing, which looks like a vertical hammock, is comforting.
"Because we are in elementary school, it has to be fun," she said pulling out weighted layers of soft plastic sewn to resemble cheese, meat, lettuce and a taco shell. Once the "ingredients" are piled on, the large taco-shaped blanket is wrapped around the child.
"Some kids need a lot of pressure," Kleber said.
At Haverhill’s sensory room, lights are filtered with translucent pastel cloth because some children find bright lights disorienting. SACS has another sensory room at Lafayette Meadows Elementary and a preschool sensory program at Whispering Meadows Elementary.
With financial help from the AWS Foundation, East Allen County Schools leads the county in the number of sensory rooms. St. Joseph Community Health Foundation was another financial supporter for the sensory room at Heritage Elementary, Snyder said.
It was a crisis at Southwick Elementary School that got the ball rolling.
"Southwick was experiencing some behavior challenges with quite a high number of students. We had a really strong staff and just weren’t finding anything that was successful," Snyder said.
The school has a high rate of low-income students and is considered an urban area, one where children often don’t get the chance to play outside as much as children in a suburban or rural district, Snyder said. Teachers also faced challenges with their students’ home life and mental health diagnoses, such as PTSD, anxiety and general restlessness, she added.
The teachers and a special education team convened in fall 2012 and met with Compton, who advised them on how to set up the room. By January 2013, the room was established.
The room is open to all children, those with and without emotional, physical or sensory diagnoses. The occupational therapist, as in all the school districts, is key to a child’s use of the room.
"Sensory visits are limited to 10 to 15 minutes total. We set the timer and the student will rotate to various types of equipment," Snyder said.
Sensory rooms have been so successful that EACS has been asked by Ball State University to partner with the university, using data that EACS has compiled on sensory room use, Snyder said. A discussion in Indiana now is whether to be proactive or reactive in giving children access to a sensory room.
Compton and Connie Brown, EACS’ director of special services, both insist that children must calm down before they enter a sensory room. Occupational therapists create a therapy sheet that best fits the child for scheduled visits in a proactive manner. At other schools outside the area, sensory rooms are used as the child acts up.
At East Allen, children are often scheduled for sensory room visits at specific times of the day. For instance, Snyder knows some children need the sensory room before the 90-minute reading block, a long time for a child to sit.
At Haverhill and at East Allen, students use elastic bands on their feet and legs during long study times, an alternative to the new under-desk bicycle-style pedals that are becoming popular but are expensive, Kleber and Snyder said.
Patti Hays, CEO at AWS Foundation, estimated the typical cost of a sensory room at $20,000, a figure that "can give you a lot of customization," she said.
Recently, AWS granted a request for $2,500 from Fort Wayne Community Schools for sensory equipment in two elementary schools.
Krista Stockman, FWCS spokeswoman, wrote in an email response that at Forest Park Elementary staff will use sensory items to calm children and help them increase coping skills.
Price Elementary School will have a room soon.
"Sensory rooms are wonderful," Hays said. "This is transformational for schools. It’s wonderful they (educators) found it on their own. They go to conferences and come back with these great ideas."
Besides the bubble light, Kyle Bearman has a penchant for a vibrating chair where he sits to watch the changing colors on the tube, his mother said. "It’s amazing how calm he gets," Deb Bearman said. "Within a minute, he’s usually calm."