Multi-sensory room helps students stay calm
Stimulations relax Carroll Manor students who struggle with standard means of communication
Carroll Manor Elementary School's multi-sensory room is an oasis of tranquility amid the constant din and laughter that fills up the rest of the school.
Equipped with liquid-filled tubes, multi-colored fiber optic cables and a vibrating mattress, the room is designed to soothe, calm and stimulate the senses.
The lights are dim. Except for a soothing tune playing quietly through a wall-mounted stereo, the sounds are muffled. Most of the light inside comes from a web of gently lit fiber-optic cables hanging from the ceiling and two lit-up bubble-tubes that purr and vibrate as the bubbles inside them travel up and down.
Since the room opened in September, Carroll Manor Elementary staff has been using it to help students who have autism and severe communication disorders to combat anxiety and escape from irritants and distractions in their regular classrooms.
Mary Gibbons, a special education instructional assistant, for example, brings one of her first-graders to play in the room for a few minutes every day before math class.
He enters the room cautiously, but soon is captivated by the dancing colorful bubbles. Smiling, he hugs the tube and pressing his cheek to the plastic to feel the vibration.
"We always come here for about 10 minutes before doing math. It really does help," Gibbons said on Friday. "It is a part of his routine."
Along with Rock Creek School, which has its own multi-sensory equipment, the $25,000 multi-sensory room at Carroll Manor is the second of its kind in Frederick County Public Schools.
It opened up in September after the school board last year allowed the school to take some of the money leftover from its addition to create a specially designed space for students who struggle with standard means or communication and verbal cues.
The room now has been in use for more than six months and is generating overwhelmingly positive responses among educators.
And this year, two other schools in the county Middletown Primary and Middletown Elementary have started setting their own multi-sensory rooms, said Daniel Martz, the school system director for special education and psychological services.
"We are actually moving forward with that," he said.
Just like Carroll Manor, both schools serve students who have autism and severe communication problems through the Challenges program. Because those students struggle with standard communication and verbal cues, multi-sensory rooms give educators an opportunity to reach out to them through sensory stimulation.
Multi-sensory rooms are not a new idea. Their precursor was a kind of therapeutic room known as "snoezelen" room, which was developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Named after the Dutch words "to explore" and "to snooze," the rooms were created to help reach out to patients with severe communication disabilities by sensory stimulation.
In Frederick County, some of the new multi-sensory rooms coexist with the controversial seclusion rooms, but they should not be confused with one another, educators said. Both Rock Creek School and Carroll Manor Elementary have a seclusion room and a multi-sensory room. A seclusion room is a bare room with no walls or windows, and is used to subdue violent or over-agitated students who are threatening to hurt themselves or others.
Seclusion rooms, (which exist in seven county schools) are only supposed to be used under strict regulations and as a last resort when all other attempts to restrain a student have failed.
Multi-sensory rooms, on the other hand, have a calming effect on students and can be used as part of their regular school day. And some special education advocates hope that multi-sensory rooms can help prevent special education students from escalating to the point when they have to be placed in seclusion.
The goal in a multi-sensory room is to provide students with pleasurable sensory experiences, whether students are agitated or not. Multi-sensory rooms can be filled with activities related to textures, lights, sounds and smells.
At Carroll Manor Elementary, for example, the multi-sensory room has a swing and a large rocking chair for students who enjoy rocking, spinning or swaying.
The multi-colored bubble tubes help with children's visual awareness, while an interactive sensory wall helps stimulate the sense of touch. There are even small yellow trampolines for students who enjoy movement and physical activity, said Carroll Manor Principal Kevin Cuppett.
Smells are a little trickier, Cuppett said.
Though the room has a wall-mounted contraption allowing for scent stimulation, many students can react negatively to certain smells, he said. That is why teachers avoid strong cookie or vanilla smells and stick to neutral scents like lavender or jasmine, he said.
It all depends on each individual student and when the room first opened, educators had to figure out what works for their children, Cuppett said. While some students gravitate to the swing, others prefer changing the colors in the bubble tubes or using the trampolines, he said.
Students at Carroll Manor typically only use the room for five to 10 minutes each day. But in most cases that is enough to put students at ease and help them focus in class.
For most students who use the room, it is built into their regular schedule, he said.
The multi-sensory room has been a hit among students and teachers at Carroll Manor Elementary. For some students, it serves as a safer environment for socializing, while for others it can be an outlet to relieve extra energy or anxiety.
Since the school opened the room, Cuppett has also seen a drop in the use of seclusion, but he could not say for sure if that is only because of the multi-sensory room.
Cuppett said his staff's use of seclusion has been going down anyway. According to Cuppett, Carroll Manor recorded 247 incidents of restraint and seclusion in the fall of 2009, and just 58 instances in the spring of 2010 (through April 30) the latest figures available.
And now with the help of the multi-sensory room, teachers continue to use a variety of positive behavior interventions and techniques to make sure that fewer students escalate to a point when they have to be placed in seclusion.
"This is just one tool that is available to us," said Cuppett about the new multi-sensory room. "We know that sometimes kids get upset because of sensory issues. And we know that do very well by coming here. ... We have found it to be a nice addition to our program."