Back to School Tips and Themes for Special Education Teachers

Back-to-School Tips & Themes for Special Education Teachers

Back to school time means preparing yourself and your room for a new group of students. Special education teachers often have different considerations when getting ready for the school year than general education teachers. Each student in a special education classroom has unique needs to think about when planning your classroom design, layout and theme. In addition to the physical room, you also want to consider the classroom environment and how you can make your students feel comfortable and ready to learn.

Whether this year is your first teaching special education or you’ve been in the field for years, you can still use some helpful tips and ideas. Check out these ways to make your classroom fun and interactive, as well as tips for keeping your cool throughout the year.

Tips for a Special Education Teacher

Start the year off right by reorienting your mind for the new school year with some handy tips for teaching students with functional needs, commonly referred to as special needs. You don’t want to leave anything out of the planning stages, so your room will be ready for your students on the first day. These tips will keep you on task with the most important things to do and remember when starting the new year.

1. Communicate and Keep People Informed

Communication is critical in any teaching position, but it becomes especially important for special education teachers. Maintain open communication channels with parents, school administration and coworkers who will also work with your students. These people all have essential roles in helping your students learn and thrive in your classroom. In fact, communication is so vital that it may be mandated by law by keeping up with individualized education programs (IEPs).

Communicate and Keep People Informed

2. Review and Prepare Tools for Your Students’ IEPs

Your students’ IEPs outline the accommodations you need to make for each student’s learning needs in the classroom, extracurricular doings and nonacademic activities. These documents are critical to your success with your students. Knowing how you need to modify your classroom and teaching will help when you create lesson plans for your students with special needs.

If possible, generate one-page summaries of each IEP. These summaries will help you learn about each student’s needs. The single-page references will make it easier to review information quickly from the IEPs in the future.

review students ieps

While reviewing each student’s IEP, add important dates for the student’s milestones, meetings and deadlines into your calendar. Doing this planning at the beginning of the year will ensure you don’t miss significant events in any of your students’ learning schedules.

Keep a list of supplies you will need for your classroom to fulfill the requirements in the IEPs. Because your students will have different needs, look for products that make learning more accessible to them, such as:

3. Establish Daily and Weekly Schedules

establish-daily-weekly-schedules

You will need to establish regular schedules for your students. Having a routine will help your students feel more secure, understand expectations, increase student engagement and minimize behavioral problems. The repetitive nature of an established schedule in your classroom gives your students the chance to learn what to anticipate.

Special education teacher organization becomes vital when you try to maintain a set routine with your students. But when you have an established schedule, planning your days happens faster because you can set out materials for several lessons or days in advance. Routines make organizing your classroom easier and help you better prepare for every learning opportunity.

When you organize your classroom and have lesson materials ready, your students won’t need to wait for you and possibly lose focus. Students who know what to expect, especially those who have conditions like autism that increase rigidity in thinking patterns, will be more prepared to learn during the given lessons.

Don’t be too rigid in your routine, though. Fire drills, canceled school days and other unexpected events can happen to delay your plans. Be flexible enough that such incidents don’t derail your lesson plans. Even after a disruption, you should return to the routine as soon as possible to help your students feel safer in the predictability of the schedule.

4. Remember Every Day Is a New Day

All teachers get frustrated during their work. You may benefit from compartmentalizing each day. Don’t carry stress from one day to the next. It can be easy to remember yesterday’s meltdowns, but it’s important to start each day fresh and not bring up past bad behavior.

Just because you treat each day as a new beginning, you still need to keep your students accountable for their actions. Don’t wait to discipline a student. If you do it the following day, neither of you remembers the incident well enough for the consequences to have an effect. Instead, correct student behaviors the moment they do them. Once corrected, move on from the event.

If you need professional help, don’t wait to talk to another teacher or seek out special needs teaching resources. Online sources from experts will help you with tips for classroom management and behavior issues you may experience.

To maintain your mental health, you can:

  • Keep a positive outlook.
  • Separate yourself from your stresses at the end of the day by finding something rewarding to engage in.
  • Find some means of building yourself up and resetting your stress levels at the end of the day or during the weekends, such as exercising, visiting friends or practicing a hobby or skill.

By taking care of your needs, you will be better prepared to take care of your students and their requirements.

Tips for Designing Spaces Intentionally in Special Education Classrooms

When setting up your classroom, you need to do so intentionally. Every piece you have and its placement must fulfill a role in your teaching. Even the special education classroom ideas you use need to relate to your instruction. Find out some handy tips for making your room beautiful and practical.

1. Keep It Age-Appropriate

Though you will likely have students of varying actual and development ages, you still need to keep your classroom age-appropriate. The students will probably have a specific age range, such as 5- to 12-year-old children or teenagers. Use these age groups to find appropriate room decorations.

Also, wait until after you review the IEPs before decorating your room. You need to know the needs of your students before choosing classroom materials and décor for them. Some students may need visuals, educational devices or seating that differs from their peers’ needs or those of a general classroom.

2. Space Is Critical

Perhaps more important than the furnishings and devices in your classroom layout for your students with special needs is the unused space. You will need space to move around as well as allowing your students free movement.

When setting up a classroom for students with special needs, allow for different spaces with specific uses, such as a calming area, teaching area, reading area, play area and individual learning area.

Calming Space in Special Needs Classroom

A calming area will give your students a place to relax when they feel overwhelmed. Include a comfortable place to sit, such as a swing, rug or bean bag chair. This area could also serve as a sensory space or center in an autism classroom.

Sensory Space or Sensory Room for Special Education Classroom

space is critical

In a sensory space or room, you want to have objects that appeal to different needs, such as:

In addition to having a place for students to explore sights, sounds and sensations, a sensory space also allows room for a group area. Here, you can conduct class lessons and have student presentations.

Teaching Area in Special Needs Classroom

The teaching area includes your desk and personal workspace. Teach students about respecting the boundaries around your desk by correcting them if they try to slip into your area.

Play Space for Special Education Classroom

Don’t forget that students need to play. Having a play area gives your students an outlet for their energy and a way to interact with adaptive or adapted toys. Also, consider adding activity centers to the play area. These toys have a variety of actions the students can do to stimulate multiple senses. Additionally, you can browse our products by your teaching goals in our menu — activate, communicate, develop, educate and play.

Older students who engage in reading and writing will need an area for these activities. Have a bookshelf for books, and nearby, keep a supply area of paper, pencils and other writing supplies.

Individual Learning Area for Special Education

Student desks give your classroom members space of their own. This space provides them with a working area as well as an escape if they need individual time. Instruct students to return to their desks as a transition during your routine when you need to set up a new area.

3. Match the Room to Your Teaching Style

How do you teach? Do you use one board or two? Do your students sit individually or in groups? Arrange your classroom to complement and enhance your teaching methods.

If you have students regularly work in groups, do they work on the floor in a circle or collaborate at tables? Should you have students do individual work more often, allow plenty of comfortable space for them around their desks.

4. Make It a Fun Environment so Students Feel Comfortable

You want any special education teacher themes you use to be fun and applicable to your students. Using bright colors makes matching up decorations easier. Green, yellow, red and blue are good colors to choose.

If you want a basic color scheme rather than using specific special education classroom decorating ideas, use a different color for each area of your room. Classroom kits in each area of your room can assist with teaching.

These and other fun activities for special education teachers will make your class more enjoyable and accessible to all your students.

Designing a Special Education Classroom for Elementary School Students

Designing a Special Education Classroom for Elementary School Students

Special education classrooms for elementary students should support learning and adapt to students’ unique needs and abilities.

Use a center or hub system to move students around the classroom and engage them in different lessons. Set up a special activity for each area, such as independent work, art, science and math. Rotate students through the small group areas throughout the day, so they can learn all the concepts.

Help students keep their assignments and materials organized with labeled bins. Homework, worksheets and school supplies will have their own place. Classroom-wide schedules can be color-coded by student, so each student can keep track of their activities.

Students who need an outlet for fidgeting should also have a sensory toy at their desk to play with. The Gel Lap Pad weighs 5 pounds for self-soothing and has squishable, sparkling gel that students can play with to improve focus.

Your classroom can also have a sensory space with calming or energizing toys for all students to play with. The Sensory Exploration Tent is a fun way for students to increase their sensory awareness by playing with a wood fidget puzzle, Tranquil Turtle and other toys.

Designing a Special Education Classroom for Middle and High School Students

Middle and high school students in a special education classroom — similar to those in an elementary school — need the right support to learn and be independent. Special education classrooms for high school and middle school students should be responsive, as every student has unique needs.

In many special education classrooms, group work for the entire class period can be challenging. Create a center or station setup where students can focus on a different activity in each area. Station ideas include individual IEP and curriculum work, group activities and life skill tasks. You can also set up a waiting area if one student needs to wait on another student to move on to the next station.

Keep learning materials organized in color-coded and labeled bins. This organization helps students find their own materials, which is important for building independence and assessing their ability to understand and follow directions.

Encourage group work and social skill development by clustering student desks together. Each desk cluster can have a unique activity, like working on a lesson or playing a tabletop game like Bingo and Hi Ho Cherry-O to help students recognize numbers and interact with each other.

Special Education Décor Ideas

Special Education Décor Ideas

Classroom décor can be functional to reinforce your lessons and make the space a fun place to learn. For décor in special education classrooms, less is often more, as too many decorations may overstimulate some students.

For small group workspaces, use a Fluorescent Black Light Carpet that displays neon colors to help calm students. You can also turn the visuals and work materials from lessons into your classroom décor. Print images or concepts on colored paper and attach them to your board. Set up a Go! Board in a central location to keep students on task.

Special education teachers can create themed bulletin boards that add value to the classroom. Themed boards organize learning materials and reinforce concepts. For example, you can have a schedule board with the day’s activities, a word wall with new vocabulary terms, or a goal board with your class’s goals for the day, week or year.

For your printed paper décor, laminate the paper and adhere it with magnets or mounting putty. The lamination preserves the paper to prevent fading and tearing. You can use these visuals every year, saving time and money with your special education classroom decoration.

Special Education Classroom Themes: A Room for Everyone

Are you interested in using room themes for your classroom? If so, think through if you would like to make regular changes to your classroom’s appearance. Will you have the time to make seasonal changes to your room? Or do you want to change it based on current lesson themes?

Choosing age-appropriate themes becomes critical for creating a space that will benefit your students instead of distracting them. Your room layout should still have separate working areas. These spaces will guide your placement of themed decorations. Need some inspiration or tips? Check out these ideas for special needs classrooms.

1. Camping Theme

Back to school themes for special education may include aspects of summer or look forward to the new school year. Even students who have never slept in a tent can appreciate a summer tie-in with a camping theme. You can also use this theme at the end of the year as a kick-off to vacation.

Set up your teacher’s desk as the “Park Headquarters” or “Ranger’s Station” with a sign on the front and a ranger’s hat on the desktop or hung on the wall behind.

Call the reading area or the group work area the campfire. You can use colored light to replicate a campfire. If you already have a tent in your sensory area, you may use that in the campfire area.

Bring in potted plants to make the whole classroom feel like it’s outside. Even if you don’t have a forest around you, the greenery will bring a bit of nature into your room. Your theme could have an extra benefit.

camping theme

Greenery in your room may have an added benefit of encouraging student engagement. Adding plants through classroom design may improve student performance.

2. Seasons Theme

seasons theme

If you feel ambitious, consider a seasons theme that will need changing four times a year. Because the room changes a few times a year, students get the interest of looking at new décor without the stress of changes that occur too frequently.

You don’t have to add decorations for holidays like the Fourth of July or Valentine’s Day. To make this theme easier for yourself, keep each season generic. The fewer specifics you have for the season, the less often you will have to take down and put up new decorations.

For summer, try a beach theme. Beach balls in the sensory or play area, sunglasses on your desk and beach towels for the students to sit on are a few ways to customize your room.

Fall décor can include fall landscapes. Continue the theme by using orange, brown and red color schemes in your classroom’s learning areas.

Winter themes may but don’t have to include holidays. Focus on a snow theme to stretch out this theme long after winter break.

Just as you don’t have to have Christmas decorations during the winter, you also don’t need Easter decorations for your spring theme. But you can still have bunnies, flowers and pastel colors.

If you have a bulletin board, consider putting up a paper tree and changing the leaves with the seasons.

3. World Theme

A world theme is an ideal tie-in to your geography lesson plans. You can set up each section of your classroom as a separate “country” with items to show the geography and culture of the area. This theme teaches your students the names of some countries while giving them a fun cultural activity.

Give students passports to check in at each station in your room. They can collect a sticker from each “country” they visit until they fill their passport.

4. Crayon Theme

Bright colors around your classroom make a visually appealing learning environment while teaching your students about art. Use a dominant color for each section of your class and shades of that color for accessories. Doing so teaches students about the variety of colors in the spectrum.

You can expand this theme from just crayons to art by incorporating art supplies or kits into the different areas of your classroom. Encourage creativity by incorporating art projects into your lessons. Painting, drawing, coloring, clay molding and similar projects encourage tactile and visual stimulation. Of course, you want to adapt the plans to your students’ learning needs.

5. City Theme

city theme

Label each of the areas of your classroom with different buildings in a city. Refer to these places when giving students directions to add to the fun.

For example, name your desk “city hall.” As the head of the classroom, you have a job similar to a town mayor.

The play area can be the “park” or “public pool.” Just as residents of a town play at a park, your students will use the play area for recreation.

Student desks can be “downtown” because students work there just as people work in a downtown region. The correlations between these two locations can increase with the addition of tape on the floor around the desks to resemble city streets.

For classrooms with a reading and writing area, label it the “library” if your students use it more for reading. For writing, call it the “town newspaper.”

When you call your students to the group work area for lessons, refer to it as the “community center.” Residents of a town usually meet in such a place to collaborate on ideas, just as your students do when they come to the group work area of your room.

Browse the Lineup From Enabling Devices to Get Inspired

Start the year by equipping your classroom with the products your students need for an accessible learning experience. You’ll find everything you need at Enabling Devices. We offer classroom decorations, toys, educational objects and much more to help you give your students the best education possible.

If you need more ideas for your room themes, browse through our products at Enabling Devices. We have a wide range of products, toys, electronics and accessories to accommodate students of all abilities, including:

You’ll even find special education classroom resources and ideas and informative special education blog posts on our website.

Browse our products and resources for special education teachers to prepare for back to school. Contact Enabling Devices for more information or assistance finding the right products for your special education classroom.

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Five Facts About Weighted Blankets

Weighted Blanket on Girl

This year weighted blankets are all the rage! We guess that puts us ahead of the curve, since Enabling Devices has been selling weighted blankets (as well as weighted vests, handwriting gloves, wraps, toys and our weighted kit) for years! Why are these items suddenly so popular? Here is the lowdown on this year’s coziest weighted products!

The history of weighted blankets:
According to various sources including The Atlantic, Tina Champagne, an occupational therapist who practiced sensory integration therapy, was the first to advocate the use of weighted blankets with victims of trauma in 1999. Since then, weighted blankets, vests and other products have been widely used by adults and children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and sensory processing disorders. It’s only recently that weighted blankets have gained popularity with the general public, many of whom use it to improve sleep and decrease their stress and anxiety.

How weighted blankets are made:
Weighted products are covered with fabric and filled with plastic beads or pellets, which are sewn into small fabric boxes to keep weight evenly distributed. The blankets come in different sizes, and should be selected based on the size and preferences of the individual who uses them. Enabling Devices’ weighted blankets are filled with non-toxic pellets and can be hand-washed.

How weighted blankets work:
Weighted products work by giving deep pressure sensory information to joints and muscles. According to Understood.com, deep pressure “can increase the release of serotonin in the brain. This neurotransmitter is sometimes called the “happy” chemical because it creates a sense of calm and well-being.” Weighted blankets create a cocoon-like feeling that helps many people relax and fall asleep.

Selecting your blanket:
Blanket size and weight should be chosen based on the weight and preferences of the individual who will use it. As a guideline however, this 2019 article in Forbes magazine, advises readers to choose a blanket “that’s roughly 10 percent of your body weight. For example, for someone who weighs 150 lbs., a 15 lbs. blanket would be best. If you fall in between the standard weights of blankets, it’s better to choose the heavier option.” Enabling Devices sells weighted blankets in two sizes. Our Large Blanket (Item #3990) measures 56″L x 42″W and weighs 7 lbs.; and our Medium Blanket (Item #3941) measures 28″L x 20″W and weighs 5 lbs. It’s also important to choose a blanket covered in a fabric that feels good next to the skin. Please keep in mind that weighted blankets are not safe for infants.

Other weighted products:
As mentioned above, Enabling Devices also sells weighted products other than blankets. Our popular Weighted Vests (Item #3953M) resemble typical fleece vests but contain inside pockets designed to hold weights of different sizes. Weighted Puppy (Item #3937) can be worn around the shoulders to help stabilize the regulatory system and improve attention and concentration. The Gel Lap Pad (Item #3142) made with sparkly gel inside, helps with regulation while it also provides visual and tactile stimulation. These items are often used by educators and therapists in their work with students and clients. Enabling Devices also sells a Weighted Kit (Item #7024) that includes a variety of weighted items and is perfect for the classroom.

Buy Weighted Blanks From Enabling Devices

Air Travel That Makes Sense

Airport Sensory Room

If you’ve read any of Enabling Devices’ travel posts, you know that we’re always on the lookout for great vacation destinations for people with disabilities. But getting to these accessible resorts and tourist sites typically involves air travel which can be stressful for many of us. Big crowds, long lines, security checkpoints, loud announcements, fluorescent lights and the smells of every type of fast food, are just some of the things that make airports especially stressful for people with sensory processing disorders and other disabilities.

Fortunately, a new trend is making air travel more comfortable for people with disabilities and their families. In the last several years, sensory rooms have started to crop up at airports in the United States and abroad.

One of the first airports to create a sensory room was Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which opened its sensory room in 2016. Geared toward travelers on the autism spectrum, sensory rooms can benefit anyone who finds airports overwhelming.

Other airports that are now “on board” with the sensory room trend include: Gatwick Airport in London, Shannon Airport in Ireland, Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama and Miami International Airport. Recently, Pittsburgh International Airport opened one of the most comprehensive sensory rooms so far. According to The Washington Post, the sensory room called “Presley’s Place,” is a “1,500-square-foot space [that] includes a transitional entrance, individual and family rooms, an area for adults and an ‘airplane experience’ complete with a cabin, seats, overhead bins and a jetway.”

The facility was inspired by then 2-year-old Presley Rudge, the son of an airport employee named Jason Rudge. Rudge saw how much his autistic son’s sensory room at preschool helped him to relax and thought the airport could benefit from the addition of one. So, he wrote to the airport’s CEO Christina Cassotis, and suggested the airport create a sensory room.  Cassotis took the request to heart. She asked a team of executives to put together a committee including airport employees, representatives from autism advocacy groups, parents and individuals with ASD to study the idea. As Cassotis told The Post: “We wanted to be industry-leading, we wanted to set a standard, we wanted to show folks what’s possible,” she said. “Based on the size and scope of the space, along with the simulated airplane experience, the airport believes it has achieved that goal, calling Presley’s Place the ‘first of its kind.’

We hope it will not be the last.

Has your family member with autism, cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities or sensory processing issues experienced the significant benefits of a sensory room? Enabling Devices provides free consultations to individuals, schools and hospitals interested in creating sensory rooms. For more information, contact Enabling Devices.

 

How Virtual Reality Technology Relieves Pain and Speeds Recovery

Woman in Wheelchair using a Virtual Reality Headset

photo courtesy of: The Radio Scout

 

Several years ago, retired science teacher, volunteer fire fighter and chimney sweep Robert Jester suffered a devastating accident when he fell from a roof while cleaning a chimney. Jester, a Long Island, N.Y. resident, broke 19 bones, and woke up in the hospital to find himself paralyzed from the waist down. After multiple surgeries and five-day-a-week rehabilitation sessions, Jester continued to experience excruciating pain. Concerned about the effects of habitual opioid use, Jester turned to virtual reality technology to manage his pain.

Until recently, many of us have only associated virtual reality with 3-D movies and video games. Yet, virtual reality can be used in countless other ways. Not sure, what virtual reality means?

The Virtual Reality Society defines it as follows: “Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.”

Those who have used the technology says it feels incredibly real.

In 2015, a company called appliedVR created a platform that could be used to “impact chronic pain as well as acute pain and anxiety experiences before, after, and during surgery, child labor, oncology infusions, emergency room procedures, and rehabilitation sessions.” According to appliedVR’s website, since its founding, “appliedVR has delivered scientifically designed and validated digital health solutions to over 30,000 patients in more than 250 hospitals and in 8 countries globally.”

For Jester, appliedVR has made a huge difference. When Jester is overwhelmed by pain, he skips the pain medicine and instead, straps on his VR goggles. He finds that the 3-D technology can “refocus my attention to flying on the Wright’s airplane or looking at animals out on the plains, or looking at farm animals. It takes my attention away from the pain.” In time, Jester taught himself to use his mind (without the technology) to escape his pain for hours at a time.

In fact, Jester claims that virtual reality has done even more than reduce his pain and need for pain medicines. It has also done wonders for his recovery process he says. Jester is now able to move his leg — something doctors told him he would never be able to do. And research backs up Jester’s belief in how VR can hasten recovery. “Research has shown that VR-mediated rehabilitation can speed the pace at which these patients regain physical abilities,” writes Sarah DiGiulio for NBC News. “One study of stroke patients showed that VR rehab led to more improvements in arm and hand movement compared to conventional rehab after four weeks of therapy. The VR-assisted patients had better mobility when the doctors checked in two months later. Other research has shown similarly successful outcomes for patients with cerebral palsy undergoing rehab for balance problems.”

When it comes to its medical uses, many doctors and patients believe that the sky’s the limit. As for Jester, he insists that despite doctors’ prognoses, he will walk again.

Sensory Rooms: The Complete Guide

Sensory Rooms: The Complete Guide

Updated 3/8/2023

The human brain is designed to regulate how we react to sensory inputs — everything we hear, see, smell, taste and touch. This link between the brain and our behavior is called “sensory integration.” For most people, this is an unconscious part of the daily experience. But for an individual with a developmental disorder, such as autism or a sensory processing disorder, the way the brain processes these experiences can be a source of distress and discomfort.

In some cases, the brain may overreact to sensory stimuli. Other times, it may not react enough. A person’s sensory experiences go beyond the basic five senses and can negatively affect deeper sensory responses, known as the tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems.

“Tactile” refers to the experience of touch, including textures, detecting hot and cold temperatures, moisture and pain. “Vestibular” is the sensory system that controls balance and movement, including auditory processing and visual development — sight and sound. The third system — “proprioceptive” — includes all muscles and joints, which means it influences a variety of bodily functions, including needing to use the bathroom and feelings of being hungry.

The inability to regulate certain sensory stimuli from any or all of these systems is called “sensory processing disorder.” In many cases, it can cause a variety of behaviors, such as fighting, meltdowns, spinning, rocking or hand-flapping, as well as problems with information processing and cognitive and physical development.

So what is a parent or caregiver to do?

One increasingly popular method of treating and overcoming sensory problems is the use of a sensory room. These “safe” spaces are designed to provide room for individuals with a sensory processing disorder to decompress and confront a variety of sensory issues in a way that will help them to cope with sensory experiences.

Sensory rooms are pivotal components in helping children and people with disabilities experience the pleasure of play, find comfort and improve their sensory processing skills.

What Is a Sensory Room?

A sensory room is a space of any size, designed to help an individual with sensory processing disorder develop coping skills and regulate their brain’s response to stimuli. In some cases, a sensory space can be a whole room, or it can simply be a space set aside in a corner of a larger room. The contents and design of a sensory room or space can and should  be tailored to the needs of the individuals using it, because each person with a sensory processing disorder will have different sensory needs.

Also known as a “multi-sensory room,” these safe spaces have been in use since the 1970s, but now that one in 44 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which typically affects sensory integration, the need for them is greater than ever. The concepts behind sensory rooms have been recognized by occupational therapists (OTs) for years, but nowadays more and more parents, therapists and educators are installing them in their homes, clinics, hospitals and schools.

Creating a multi-sensory environment in a home, clinic, hospital or school can be an ideal way to continue the benefits of occupational therapy outside of the OT’s office. It also allows children and adults with sensory integration needs to have consistent access to the same sensory activities that benefit them during their therapy sessions.

While many people are familiar with the use of sensory rooms for those on the autism spectrum, they can also be utilized for individuals with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome as well as people facing challenges with communication, movement, balance and social skills.

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The History of Sensory Rooms

The History of Sensory Rooms

While sensory rooms might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, the importance of play and activity in childhood has been recognized for ages.

In 1837, the German educator Friedrich Froebel opened what might be considered the first known sensory classroom — the Play and Activity Institute in Bad Blankenburg, Germany. The school became known as “Kindergarten” shortly thereafter.

Froebel passionately advocated the importance of play for children, regardless of their physical, emotional and cognitive differences. He once said, “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

Years later, in the 1970s, Dutch therapists Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul opened an experimental sensory room during their time at the de Hartenberg Institute. They aimed to provide people with disabilities with a sensory learning and play environment incorporating visual, tactile and auditory experiences.

From there, the popularity and prevalence of sensory rooms took off. Sensory rooms now exist in residential and commercial settings, in homes, schools, in health care settings and workplaces.

Why Create a Sensory Room or Space?

Individuals with sensory processing disorders often struggle to cope with the world around them. Loud noises, bright lights, rough patterns or foods with unwelcome textures are just some of the things that can cause distress. Because their conditions can magnify even minor sensory encounters, these children and adults may be prone to meltdowns, tantrums or sometimes harmful attempts at self-soothing.

How Does a Sensory Room Help People With Disabilities?

Sensory rooms are a place where individuals can go when they feel overstimulated — not simply a place for a time-out. A sensory room provides a calming environment where an overstimulated person can regain control of their emotions while enjoying sensory tools and toys.

While sensory rooms may not eliminate the brain’s sensitivity to certain stimuli, they can help individuals with sensory processing disorders to learn coping skills they can use in the outside world.

Why Is Sensory Play Beneficial?

To understand what the benefits of a sensory room are, it helps to know more about sensory play.

Sensory Play Benefits Each Person Differently

Because each person has different sensory sensitivities and ways of reacting to them, the benefit each receives from a sensory room will also be individual. Overall, though, sensory rooms provide a variety of benefits for both children and adults of all ages, such as:

1. Calming Effects

Negative reactions to sensory experiences are distressing for both children and adults. When they get agitated, spending time in a dim, calming room where they can be alone and take charge of their emotions is beneficial. Sensory room elements for people with autism or other sensory processing difficulties who need a calming environment include a white noise machine, an aromatherapy diffuser or a variety of other soothing items designed to help them regain control of their emotions.

2. Stimulation

In some cases, children and adults may need additional sensory stimulation to heighten feelings of awareness and well-being. For these individuals, a sensory space may contain specially designed toys or items that encourage engagement and appeal to sensory seekers. These toys help them become more aware of their senses and explore sensory experiences in a safe environment.

3. Socialization

While some individuals may benefit from using a sensory room alone, sensory rooms can also provide places for them to practice interacting with others. This may be especially true of a sensory room used within the school setting. In these cases, the idea is to provide a safe, stress-free space that allows children to move and explore together, especially in rooms where they can practice becoming more aware of how their bodies move and controlling those movements when they are around others.

4. Improved Focus

Individuals on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disorders are often distracted, and they struggle to pay attention to what’s going on around them. A sensory room can help them increase awareness of their surroundings and learn to cope with real-life situations where concentration is required, such as in the classroom or the workplace.

5. Sensory-Motor Skills Development

Because muscle movement and balance can be a challenge for those with with sensory processing disorders, providing a safe space to hone fine motor skills and practice movement can be beneficial. Equipment that encourages bouncing, jumping or even core stabilizing activities can help promote this.

6. Cognitive Development

While sensory rooms won’t rewire the brain, they can be instrumental in teaching your family member how to process experiences and cope in situations where their reactions might otherwise become extreme. For those on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing disorders, it’s also a great way to help them explore cause and effect as they learn about how their actions influence the world around them.

7. Sensory Development

By creating a sensory space in your home, your family member can explore their senses — and their brain’s reaction to those experiences — in a safe, stress-free environment. By exposing them to the brain’s complex reactions to things they touch or hear, sensory-motor skills and balance as well as their muscle functions, they can learn how to process and control those experiences when they are away from home.

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Creating Sensory Spaces in Homes

Creating a sensory space in your home can help your family member hone their coping skills and interact with sensory input somewhere that’s safe and comfortable for them. At home, they are likely to feel relaxed and can make better progress confronting and working through sensory issues.

The great thing about a sensory space is that it doesn’t have to take up an entire room in your home. Any corner in a playroom, bedroom or family room in your home can be made into a sensory space.

How to Design a Sensory Room

Designing sensory spaces in a home can be challenging, especially if you aren’t sure where to start. To make the process easier, stop and ask yourself a few questions:

What Does My Family Member Need?

Everyone is different and will require different toys, tools, lighting and ambiance. In some cases, your family member may need stimulation. In other cases, they may require calming sensory input. Some individuals may need to work on balance and an aversion to loud noises, while others are struggling to hone fine motor skills or cope with a sensitivity to textures.

How you use the space will depend on a variety of factors, including the age of your family member, their specific struggles and the space you have available. Some caregivers set aside a sensory space as a time-out area and a place where their loved one can calm down when they are over-stimulated or worked up.

Others prefer to use the space to develop their family member’s sensory skills and coping mechanisms to avoid meltdowns. While both of these are good goals, it’s important to identify your own goals for constructing the space. That will help you decide how to design the area and what items you need to include.

Where Will I Set Up the Sensory Space?

A sensory space doesn’t have to be an entire room. It should be in an out-of-the-way area of your home that’s not prone to a lot of noise or interruptions, though. Your family member should be able to spend time in this area without contending with sounds from the television, toilets flushing or fragments of conversations from other family members.

Sensory spaces also work better if they are not near windows so that the lighting can be controlled, particularly if you plan on using special lighting as part of the sensory experience. Because you’ll likely be using artificial lighting in some capacity, you’ll also need to select a spot that has easy access to at least one electrical outlet.

What Products Will Best Meet My Loved One’s Needs?

Here’s where you decide what is in your sensory room. No two home sensory spaces are the same because each one is constructed with your family member’s specific needs in mind. Once you’ve identified what you’re trying to address, then it’s time to begin shopping for the best sensory products.

Selecting products to meet your family member’s requirements can be challenging if you haven’t designed a sensory space before. That’s why working with an experienced company like Enabling Devices can help you through the process. Before you begin purchasing products, fill out our design questionnaire. It’s meant to match your needs with our products. Based on your input, we can guide you through the process of designing a sensory space.

Depending on your family member’s needs, you can choose from a wide variety of items. Examples of some items that might end up in your sensory space include an Enabling Devices Bean Bag Chair or an Enabling Devices Beanless Bag Chair, Sensory LED Bubble Tubes, a Fiber Optic Curtain and activity mats.

How Do You Make a Sensory Room?

Once you have a location for your sensory space and items to fill it, it’s time to start decorating. Remember that a sensory space is not intended to be a gym or a space to do homework. Rather, it’s a place for your family member to explore and engage with the items in the room.

While the space should be fairly open and uncluttered, make sure to provide a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Make sure that all of the items in the room are within easy reach. This is especially important if you’re including mirrors in your sensory space since your family member needs to be able to see themselves as they explore.

Also make sure that you understand how all the equipment in the sensory room works and how it can help your family member. Being engaged and informed about their sensory space can help you supervise and make sure the space is safe and serving its purpose.

That being said, also remember that a sensory space is a place for your family member to explore and experience things without a lot of instruction or interruption. As long as the environment is safe, stand back and let the fun and learning begin!

Factors to Consider When Creating a Sensory Room

Factors to Consider When Creating a Sensory Room

Ideally, the sensory room should be an oasis separate from other busier areas of the house or building, away from noisy hallways. But you can make an area of an existing room work, as well.

Below are some other key factors to consider when planning your new sensory room.

Ventilation, Cooling and Heating

Before selecting a location for your sensory room, double-check the room’s air circulation and temperature regulation options. Electronic equipment increases the temperature of the room, especially if there are multiple people in the sensory room at one time. It’s best to have a dedicated thermostat within the room to easily monitor and change the temperature when necessary.

Environment

Consider the size, shape and general environment of the room. Larger, angular rooms are best if you intend to hang objects on walls. Regardless of the room’s size, select a space without windows to avoid bright lights and create a dark, soothing environment. If you can’t use a room without windows, consider using blackout curtains or blinds.

You’ll also want to consider insulating the room. If you can hear outside noises inside, soundproof the room by installing soundproof drywall, thick, shaggy carpets and acoustic foam panels. That being said, always ensure any carpeting you choose is wheelchair-friendly if needed.

Design

Your sensory room’s design includes the auditory, tactile and visual components that set the mood for the learning and play that will soon take place. The noises, colors, materials and lights should combine to create a soothing, accessible environment excellent for decompression. Consider the following when designing a sensory room:

  • Walls: The wall colors you choose should depend on the visual elements you intend to use. For example, if you plan to use a projector to display colorful shapes and patterns, a white or off-white wall is best. However, if you intend to use ultraviolet lights, a darker wall is best.
  • Ceilings: Ceilings offer a unique opportunity to create an immersive sensory experience. Fun paint colors, sensory ceiling panels, glow-in-the-dark decals and billowing canopies are fun ceiling additions.
  • Floors: There are many styles of flooring to choose from for sensory rooms, including low-pile carpets, foam tiles, rubber tiles and folding mats. Consider a combination of flooring styles and choose a firm material for primary pathways.

Electricity

Next, you’ll want to ensure the room has ample electrical outlets. It’s also best to have a separate capability switch — or on/off wall switch — for every electrical product. If possible, locate all wall switches in a designated and conveniently located spot in the room.

Each product should also have a suitable capability switch for the end user. The switch type you choose for your sensory products should not fatigue or pain the end user, but instead, give them the best control over the tool or device possible.

Equipment

Once you’ve selected a room and considered its layout and design, it’s time to select your equipment. People create sensory rooms for all kinds of reasons — from reducing stress and improving social interactions to increasing focus and motivating learning — so the equipment you choose should suit the room’s ultimate purpose.

What Are the Benefits of Sensory Rooms in Schools?

Sensory spaces in schools have been shown to decrease negative behaviors and improve student engagement. The benefits of sensory rooms in schools have led some educators to begin using sensory rooms for groups of students beyond those with a diagnosed sensory processing disorder or developmental disability.

Any student who struggles with balance and a sense of where their body is in the area around them can benefit from time in a sensory space. By learning about their bodies and how to control them, these students can develop their muscle control and awareness of what’s around them.

Having sensory rooms within a school can also reduce the need to send students out of the school for additional services. For students who need to work with occupational or physical therapists, these professionals can be brought into the school, rather than students being taken out of class and the school to have these appointments. This maintains consistency in a student’s day and reduces the amount of time they have to be away from school.

In some cases, sensory rooms can also be used for students who have experienced trauma. School counselors and psychologists can and should be consulted on the best way to use these rooms for students in these situations.

Whether your school’s sensory room will accommodate a large student population or a small number, it doesn’t have to be fancy to become an effective part of your instructional programming. Painting the room a relaxing color, putting soft rugs or carpet on the floor and then including a equipment to address a variety of needs is all that’s required for this space to be established.

How to Choose Products for Your Sensory Space

When you’re working on how to create a sensory space, it can be helpful to narrow down your choices of equipment to include in your room. By determining your needs — and how much space you have to work with — you can choose from a wide range of products and designs that will be helpful to you and your loved one.

Sensory Products for Calming

If you’re planning to use your sensory room for calming, it’s important to design a space that encourages relaxation and quiet. Some ways to incorporate calm into your space include:

  • Sensory lighting: If your room already has windows, then find curtains or shades that can soften the natural light and create a more calming space. If you have a dark space that needs a certain amount of light, select lights that enable you to see but still maintain a soft, calm feeling in the room.
  • Weighted Clothing or Blankets: The deep pressure these products provide to muscles and joints can help your loved one calm down and relax when they need it the most.
  • Chewables: Whether your loved one craves oral stimulation or struggles with oral motor skills, providing sensory input to the mouth, jaw and lips can provide a relaxing experience and help with breath control, muscle tone and lip closure, too.

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Sensory Products for Auditory Needs

While there are times that your loved one will need peace and quiet, there are other times when sound can provide a calming or focusing effect that can enhance the sensory room experience. Some ways to incorporate items for auditory needs include:

  • Compact Activity Center: A compact activity center is a multi-function toy. Among its many features is a music box designed to stimulate sensory and cognitive development.
  • Sound Toys: Whether your loved one is soothed by music or white noise, toys that make soothing sounds like our Jellyfish Soother or a music player of some kind may be helpful in your sensory space.

Sensory Products for Vestibular and Sensory-Motor Skills

Products that encourage balance, muscle strength and improved sensory-motor skills are essential components of a sensory room. These may include:

  • Donut Balls: These are designed to improve coordination, balance and flexibility. They are similar to exercise balls and improve core strength. They’re also just plain fun!
  • Ball Chairs: These chairs can assist a loved one who struggles with sitting still and paying attention. With regular use, they can also improve balance and posture.
  • Hanging Chair: A zero-gravity chair is designed to improve gross motor and vestibular functioning.

Sensory Products for Tactile Needs

In many cases, you will want to incorporate a variety of tactile experiences into a sensory space, including:

  • Therapeutic Textured Balls: This kit includes balls of all different textures that increase stimulation while also providing exercise.
  • Gel Mats: Gel mats such as this one, combine tactile experiences with improving finger strength and eye-hand coordination.
  • Tactile Manipulatives: These items are designed to decrease stress and increase focus and concentration. They can also help your loved one improve their tactile awareness and fine motor skills. Manipulatives can include plush toys as well as activity centers.

Rarely does an individual on the autism spectrum or another developmental disorder only struggle in one area. In most cases, your sensory room will include a few items from each of these categories.

The Cost of a Sensory Room

The Cost of a Sensory Room

Sensory rooms don’t need to take up a lot of space or feature a lot of equipment to be effective. According to Karen Gallichio, a Product Development Specialist at Enabling Devices, you can create a sensory room using a small 4-foot by 4-foot space. Closets, corners and other small spaces are perfectly suitable for making a sensory room on a budget.

That being said, you might be curious about how much it costs to create a sensory room. You can furnish your sensory room for as little as a few hundred dollars. The key to furnishing your sensory room affordably is to understand the end user’s sensory or learning needs or goals.

It’s also helpful to partner with a sensory room designer. At Enabling Devices, we offer free sensory room design services to those who need help transforming a space into a sensory room cost-effectively.

Design Ideas for Sensory Rooms

No two sensory rooms are the same. These versatile environments can help kids or adults engage with their senses in many different ways. If you’re looking to outfit a sensory room, the sky’s the limit. Whether you’re building a compact sensory space or a large one, try these sensory room design tips.

1. Offer Different Types of Sensory Engagement

Give kids an opportunity to use as many of their senses as possible. Start with a tactile toy like Fish Play Mats or Fidget Boards that can suit different needs, from tactile-seeking behavior to tactile hypersensitivity. Let them explore spatial awareness through Crash Pads or proprioceptive skills with Gel Lap Pads.

Provide lots of options, so kids can choose the activities that will help them at any given time. One day, they may need visual stimulation. The next, they may be overstimulated and would benefit more from calming activities.

2. Consider Your Lighting

Lighting is a vital part of any sensory space. Getting away from harsh fluorescent lights might be a primary reason to escape into a sensory room for many. Provide soft, cozy lighting.

While you want to avoid overstimulation, you can also use lights to provide just the right amount of intrigue. Mesmerizing Fiber Optic Sprays or a Fluorescent Black Light Carpet can offer visual stimulation without overdoing it.

3. Think About the User’s Unique Needs

Consider what your users prefer. This task could be difficult if multiple kids will use the room, but you can still keep their abilities and preferences in mind. For instance, kids who struggle with fine motor skills would likely benefit more from a large, easy-to-handle toy instead of something small and intricate.

Leaning into their preferences can also be a great way to entice kids. If they love sea creatures, Misty the Whale is a calming toy that would be a great addition.

4. Have Fun With Your Décor

As you design a sensory room, keep fun front and center. After all, you want to make a space that kids look forward to using. You may need to balance whimsical, fun decorations with gentle, soothing ones, but products designed for sensory needs can help immensely. If something isn’t quite right, you can always change it later.

Get Expert Assistance in Designing a Sensory Space Today

Get Expert Assistance in Designing a Sensory Space Today

Many people often wonder if creating a sensory room is a good investment. We would respond with a wholehearted “yes.” Providing your loved one with a safe space to develop and overcome their sensory challenges is an act of love and caring that has been shown to have significant benefits for children and adults.

At Enabling Devices, we are committed to providing products that encourage people of all ages and abilities to live fulfilling, joy-filled lives. Over the past four decades, we have proudly created products that enable individuals with disabilities to function in the world around them. This includes a wide variety of products that work well in sensory spaces.

Rather than mass-producing products, our trained technicians custom-make one-of-a-kind products in our workshop, giving us complete control over the quality of our products. We work directly with parents, caregivers, schools, hospitals, therapists and children with disabilities to develop and test tools and products that meet various needs and improve quality of life.

Besides selling products for use in sensory spaces, we also provide free sensory room design services to help you create a useful area for your loved one. With our complimentary sensory room design services, we help you pinpoint your design needs and select suitable equipment to create an affordable, functional sensory room that meets the user’s needs. Fill out our Sensory Room Design Questionnaire to get started and receive your free quote!

If you’re ready to incorporate a sensory room into your home or school, we’re ready to help. Browse our wide array of sensory products or contact us today to begin designing your new sensory space!

Sensory-Inclusive Sporting Events

Boy in Sensory RoomWearing Noise Cancelling Headphones

For many American families, attending live sports events is a great opportunity for fun, recreation and bonding. Yet, for sports fans with autism, a trip to the stadium can be far from enjoyable. Live sporting events typically feature bright lights, loud noises, huge crowds, and all sorts of smells —sensory experiences that may overwhelm and overstimulate and frighten individuals with autism.

Fortunately, in recent years, greater awareness about the needs of people on the autism spectrum have resulted in special programs such as autism-friendly sporting events and other innovations that make attendance at sporting events more comfortable for people with autism and their families.

One of the most significant changes taking hold at stadiums around the country has been the addition of sensory rooms in some stadiums. According to CNN, “The NBA is partnering with nonprofit KultureCity to make 19 arenas “sensory-inclusive” by the start of the 2018-19 season this fall.”

The NFL and NHL are also getting in on the action. Sensory spaces will be added to United Stadium, home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks, the Staples Center where the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers play, and the American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat. Sensory rooms already exist at the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden I Center, home of the Sacramento Kings, Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and most recently, at Salt Lake City’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz.

In 2017 The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland became the first stadium to create a sensory room for fans with autism and other disabilities. The decision to create a sensory space at the arena came about after the stadium held an “autism night” that (in the experience of one local family) was not truly autism-friendly. According to CNN, “[Thirteen-year-old Carson Belle, who has autism and is non-verbal] was going through security when his speech device set off a metal detector. A security guard told the Belles that their son would have to take it off to continue. As Jeff [Carson’s father] began to take off the device, Carson started head-butting him. The security guard yelled something along the lines of ‘you get a hold of that kid,’ the parents said, deeply upsetting them.”

The Belles shared their story on social media and senior vice president of facility operations, Antony Bonavita got wind of the matter. Bonavita, who also has a son with autism, empathized with the Belles. The event set in motion a partnership between the arena and Kulture City, a nonprofit that, among other things, designs sensory spaces. A year later, the Quicken Loans Arena’s sensory room was open for business.

In addition to providing access to a sensory room where fans can go if they need a break from the action, the arena also provides sensory bags that “include items like fidget toys, a weighted lap pad, and noise-canceling headphones,” reports CBS News. Stadium staff were also trained in how to be sensitive to fans with disabilities.

“The arena staff, which now features 500 trained, full-time assistants, is always on hand to assist in the aisles. Inside the bag, there’s a lanyard. Wearing it immediately lets staff know you may be non-verbal or have sensory disabilities. You’re given a feelings thermometer: If you can’t verbalize your feelings, you can check off boxes on the card and hand it to a staff member,” writes Kristian Winfield of SB Nation.

As the National Autism Society’s President Wendy Fournier told CNN: “It is a really big deal to provide them with the tools that they can use if needed to participate in things that all typical families are able to participate in. It is about inclusion.”

Interested in learning how to create a sensory space for your home or organization? Enabling Devices offers free sensory design services. Just complete our Sensory Room Design Questionnaire and we’ll contact you within 48 hours with expert advice. Planning a fundraising campaign to finance your sensory room? Check out Enabling Devices’ Fundraising Ideas for a slew of great suggestions.

Rainy-Day Summer Fun

Photo of child next to a rainy window

When rain keeps you trapped indoors, keeping the kids occupied can be a challenge. No worries, though. Sensory play will engage kids for hours!

1. Why sensory play?

According to child development experts at PBS Parents, sensory play “helps children develop cognitively, linguistically, socially, emotionally, physically and creatively.”

While all children learn about the world through their senses, sensory play can be especially valuable for children with special needs who may have greater difficulty tolerating and integrating sensory stimuli.  For example, children on the autism spectrum are often uncomfortable with loud noise, bright lights, unfamiliar tastes or smells that they find offensive. Others have strong preferences when it comes to the clothes they wear, because certain textures bother them. Some children on the spectrum are overly- sensitive and react negatively to being touched while other children go out of their way to bump into walls and furniture in order to feel deeper sensations.

Sensory play is also important for children who don’t have full use of all of their senses. According to Wonderbaby.org, a project of Perkins School for the Blind, “It’s important for children who are blind to participate in sensory play because it will help build their other senses and allow for sensations that may be directed by one sense (like sight) to be directed by another (like touch).”

2. What does sensory play look like?

Photo of child playing with sandThere are so many hands-on activities that can offer enjoyable and educational sensory experiences. Playing in a ball pit, jumping on a trampoline, finger-painting, ceramics, listening to music or baking a cake are all past-times that stimulate the senses. Certain toys are especially conducive to sensory play. For tactile sensory stimulation, Enabling Devices’ textured marble fidget board increases tactile awareness, creates a feeling of calmness and helps with focus and self-regulation. Our sensory-motor busy box stimulates several senses at once! Products such as our cuddly Thera Bear, which can be heated in the microwave, will soothe your child with its calming chamomile aroma.

3. How can I facilitate sensory play at home?

One easy and inexpensive way to encourage sensory play is by creating a sensory box. Use one or more plastic bins and fill them with toys, tactile manipulatives, therapeutic balls, household items and even non-perishable foods with interesting shapes, textures, colors, smells and sounds. Typically the sensory box is lined with a layer of rice, popcorn, pasta, beans, dirt, cereal or sand. The other items in the box can be hidden beneath that layer to create an element of surprise. Add interest by creating themed sensory boxes. For example, boxes with holiday-inspired items, objects with names that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet or that are all the same shape.

4. Create a sensory space

Sensory Room Example

Can’t get enough sensory fun? Consider making your whole basement into a sensory space with folding mats, crash pads, a tunnel climber and our Neptune Sensory Table for sand and water play. Who says you can’t have a day at the beach when it’s raining outside?

Not enough room for the whole shebang? No problem. You can create a great sensory space in a closet or corner of your home. Include products such as the laserjet kaleidoscope or led light illuminators to stimulate vision, interactive musical bubble tubes or somatosensory bamboo chimes to engage children with color, sound and light, and try out laptop fish mat or bead chain curtain for a sensational tactile experience. Want help with designing your sensory space? Call us for a free consultation.

5. Make a mess!

Don’t underestimate the value of making a mess. Children can really benefit from playing with squishy, slimy, foamy and muddy stuff. Try filling a tray with shaving cream, homemade play dough, or Jell-O. With some careful planning, you can create an indoor environment where kids can get messy without trashing your home. Don’t forget to have a blast!