Every single one of us has a breaking point. Imagine if there was a movie that you had been excited about for months or years. You buy tickets for a midnight showing on opening night. You get there early, buy your popcorn, and expect to have a great time with your friends or family. And then, each of the following things happens: you find yourself sitting on something sticky; the movie previews are too loud and go on for too long; the top left corner of the movie is blurry; someone nearby is struggling with a cellophane wrapper; the people in front of you are playing on their phone and talking loudly; a child behind you is kicking your chair; someone two seats over is watching Baby Shark videos on an iPad set to full volume; a baby is crying; and then Jar Jar Binks appears on the screen.

How long would you be able to tolerate this scenario? In a situation like this, you would probably notice your anxiety level creeping up and up until your brain felt the need for your body to physically do something. At some point in this scenario, most people would probably either start crying, stand up and say something, or get up and physically leave the theater.

Most adults do have the ability to self-regulate their emotions and tolerate a few of the issues I described above. You may know an adult who would have a hard time tolerating any of the issues listed above. The fact is that every single one of us has a threshold for what we can tolerate and that once that threshold is met, things start to break down.

When people hit their breaking point (and lose their ability to regulate their emotions), they typically fall into a basic survival mode: fight, flight, or freeze. For some reason, it seems that more and more people are going through their daily activities really close to their breaking point threshold. This often manifests itself as anxiety and even depression. We have found this to be the case for some children at our school.

A committee of teachers at our school has been looking at how to help children better regulate their emotions. This committee has been working with our school occupational therapist to learn more about emotion regulation best practices. This year, our teachers have incorporated daily “brain breaks” like stretching and breathing exercises into their daily schedules.

We are also adopting some of the strategies suggested by the Alert Program® (www.AlertProgram.com) and TherapyWorks, Inc. The general idea is that people who are good at self-regulation find ways to reset their emotions before hitting their thresholds. The Alert Program identifies these 5 areas for reestablishing children’s levels of alertness: move, touch, look, listen, and put something in the mouth. You can read more about the Alert Program at this link: https://www.alertprogram.com/brief-overview-of-the-alert-program-for-parents. The Alert Program does not specifically mention smelling things but if we include scents, we can see that the self-regulation strategies basically utilize our 5 human senses. (I think scents should be included because improving mood through diffusers and fragrant oils is a common practice in a lot of homes.)

If you think about your own self-regulation strategies, you may start to recognize how many these concepts make sense. Consider some strategies we use as adults to alleviate stress:

Take a walk, do yoga, play sports, or lift weights (move)
Eat ice cream, go out to a restaurant, or drink a flavored soda (taste)
Watch a movie or a football game (look and listen)
Get a massage or sit in a hot tub (touch)
Turn on some loud music (listen)
Play video games (look and listen)

And think about some of the places we take our kids to unwind and how we use our senses at those places:

The beach (look, touch, move)
The Family Fun Center (move, taste, look, listen)
Ski resort (look, touch, move)
Disneyland (taste, move, touch, look, listen)

If you consider the issues in the movie theater example above, you should notice all of the annoying things were also sensory related: sticky seats (touch); having your seat kicked (move); ads that are too loud, people talking, noisy wrappers, crying babies, and annoying songs on iPads (listen); a bright phone screen in a dark theater, blurry picture quality, and seeing Jar Jar Binks again (look). As negative sensory inputs can move us toward our breaking down threshold, positive sensory experiences can move us away from the threshold. Some companies have figured this out as they have Xboxes in break rooms, standing desks, and “bring your dog to work” policies to incorporate sensory experiences into the work day.

With these ideas in mind, our school has created a space where students can go when they need to take a break from their daily routine and reset their emotions. Everything in this Sensory Room is meant to address at least one of a student’s sensory needs. We have been busy preparing the room this year and training our teachers on how to use the room and we feel like we are ready to start having students use it.

Here are some pictures of what our Sensory Room contains:

A calming space with bean bag chairs and weighted blankets. Students can use the bean bags while they practice breathing techniques. There are handheld “fidgets” as well as some gentle light sources to focus a child’s gaze. Students can also use noise canceling headphones and blindfolds to help relax.

A swing space with two different ways to provide movement sensations. Students can rock slowly back and forth for helping with calming down or spin around a few times to provide a lot of vestibular sensory input.

An active space with two different ways to provide deep pressure sensory input. Students can bounce on the rainbow donut or do bellyflops onto the crash pad.

The room will also have a supply of crackers and fruit snacks.

The Sensory Room will not be used as a punishment or a reward for student behavior. Instead, our teachers will be looking for students who are starting to appear anxious and then inviting them to spend some time doing sensory activities in the Sensory Room. We are also hoping students will see the value of this tool and will get to a point where they will recognize when they themselves are approaching the breakdown threshold and be able to ask the teacher for permission to go to the Sensory Room to take a break. We are imagining that this space will become a laboratory where students can practice strategies that they can use outside of the room to better regulate their emotions to the point that they would not need keep using the Sensory Room. If you would like to request that your child use the Sensory Room, please let your child’s teacher know.

When children go to the Sensory Room, they will first fill out a reflection card with their teachers. On the card, children will identify how they are currently feeling (worried, sad, angry, detached, etc.), and write a brief plan of what they will do once they return back to class. The person supervising the Sensory Room will take the card from the children and ask them to choose 2-3 activities they want to try during a 10-15 minute period of time. Once the time is up, the children will return back to class.

There are a couple of considerations we want you to be aware of regarding students’ use of the Sensory Room. First, students will only be allowed to use the Sensory Room under adult supervision. And second, we need a parent’s signed consent before a child will be able to use the room. If this is something that you believe might benefit your child, please sign and return this consent form. The room will be used on an as-needed basis and so not every child who brings back the consent form may use the room right away.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me at [email protected]. Thank you.

Jeremy Brunner
Foothill Elementary

Note: We would like to thank all of the parents and corporate sponsors who donated to the school’s 3K Fun Run last Spring. The funds we raised during the 3K made the Sensory Room possible. Thank you!