Special school’s sensory room offers solace for the senses

A common question from parents of students in Joi Weir’s junior high class is whether their child is making friends. The answer is usually no.

Cally Burt, 13, explores the sensory room at Emily Follensbee School. Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald.

By Annalise Klingbeil, Calgary Herald February 18, 2016, updated March 20, 2016

The special-education teacher knows that’s not what parents want to hear, but in a school designed to meet the needs of society’s most medically fragile children, it is far more common for students to form bonds with nurses, educational assistants, therapists and teachers, rather than their peers.

Which makes what Weir has witnessed this school year between a few teenage girls even more special. The teens like to leave their classroom with help from an aide and relax across the hall in a dark playroom equipped with special lights, sounds and a cushioned floor and walls. Inside the quiet room, the girls will lie near each other, crawl across one another, roll around and just share each other’s company.

“They like to hang out like junior high girls do,” Weir said. “It’s so great that they’re forming friendships. It might not be friendships that we traditionally think of, but they’re forming bonds there.”

Weir is a teacher at Emily Follensbee School, where traditional assumptions about school are off the table. Many students can’t walk or talk. Instead of gangs of girls gossiping in corridors between classes, the hallways are lined with elaborate wheelchairs. Aides push students on specially designed trikes and bikes through the school’s sunny atrium to a swimming pool inside the building.

Junior high classrooms contain changing tables and bright charts depicting the weather and days of the week.

Class sizes average eight students and instead of math, science or social studies, students learn “maintenance of physical status” and daily living skills. The Calgary Board of Education school serves 88 students — ranging in age from toddlers to teens — with multiple, complex learning needs, including cognitive and physical disabilities.

At the southwest school overlooking the Elbow River, classes regularly venture into the surrounding sprawling parkland to absorb nature.

But inside, a favourite hideaway for students and staff is the small, dark, windowless sensory room. The space includes an area with specialized light and sound equipment, and an adjoining soft playroom where Weir has delighted in watching friendships form.

The room inspires students to interact with their environment and helps their personalities emerge. First developed in the 1970s in the Netherlands, a sensory room offers both stimulation and relaxation to children — and adults — with disabilities by using lighting effects, tactile surfaces and sounds to excite the senses.

Teachers and aides learn quickly what part of the room each student likes best by observing facial expressions and body language. Some kids are drawn to the fibre-optic lights, others want to touch the bubble tube. Some students just want to hang out and snuggle, while others love the carpet that plays music.

Nick van Roijen, an 11-year-old who is blind and unable to walk or speak, is hoisted from a sling by two staff members and placed on a platform that gently shakes. As his body rocks back and forth, a smile spreads across the boy’s face.

Cally explores the sensory room with Kaitlin Schellenberg, an educational assistant. The room includes strands of fibre optic lights that children can explore to help them communicate and understand their surroundings. Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald.

Cally explores the sensory room with Kaitlin Schellenberg, an educational assistant. The room includes strands of fibre optic lights that children can explore to help them communicate and understand their surroundings. Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald.

Nearby, 13-year-old Cally Burt makes a beeline for a mirror on the wall, where she lingers, admiring her reflection. Eventually, she turns her interest to a tall bubble tube that changes colours when she slaps buttons on a large portable box. When an educational assistant wraps a handful of colourful fibre-optic lights around the girl’s arms, her contagious giggles break the room’s silence.

It’s a typical afternoon in the sensory room.

Marion McDonald, an educational assistant at the school, has seen countless transformations of students in the magical space over more than a decade at the school.

“The kids that are tense and don’t relax anywhere else, relax (in the sensory room). Or, you can have kids that you don’t really get a reaction from them until you put them in the sensory room, and all of a sudden they’re looking around and aware, and you get a reaction,” she says.

That reaction — be it a giggle, a smile, eye contact or vocalization — is a treasured reward for the tireless work of McDonald and her colleagues.

Coping with the daily physical demands and mental stresses is part of the job description for the teachers, nurses and educational assistants at the school.

“It’s not for everybody. Either you love it here or you don’t. Either you can cope with it or you can’t,” McDonald says.

Children are sent home with letters regarding the death of a schoolmate several times a year — one mother counted 37 funeral notices in the nine years her daughter attended the school.

“It’s really hard, but it’s part of working here,” Weir says.

McDonald remembers one boy who left school on a Friday with a note to his mom detailing what an amazing day he had. He didn’t wake up the next day.

“That one really bothered me. One day they’re here, and the next day they’re gone,” she says.

Both Weir and McDonald maintain that despite those harsh realities facing the students, parents and staff who make up the Emily Follensbee family, working with these kids and the sense of community at the school brings immeasurable rewards and joy.

Staff relish the time spent building relationships with students, something many longed for in previous teaching jobs in more traditional environments. And they marvel at the lessons students teach them.

Helping kids master a new skill — something as simple as keeping a spoon in a bowl instead of throwing it — even if it takes days or months, teaches staff to never give up. Being surrounded by students who’ve endured countless surgeries and hospital stays reminds staff not to complain about the little things. And observing girls admire their reflection in a mirror or find pleasure in just hanging out together shows staff that teenagers are teenagers, no matter what.

“I hate it when people say, It must be hard,”  Weir says.

“These kids are not unhappy. They’re happy and this is a happy place, and all you have to do is walk in the door and you can see that.”

Source The Calgary Herald

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